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Colonialism is the new black according to Italian brand Big Uncle

05 Mar 2018

Big Uncle is a contemporary Italian male fashion brand that have recently come under fire for what some have seen as the continuation of the “intergenerational trauma of people of colour.

Big Uncle released “Colonial Deal” for their SS18 collection as an attempt to “understand the colonialism style”. Understandably, there has been substantial outrage and Mireille Harper’s petition, published merely seven days before the publication of this article, has already garnered over 400 signatures across the globe.

Of course, it is not out of the ordinary for people of colour to call out fashion brands particularly with regard to cultural appropriation. This includes condemning Marc Jacobs’ appropriative use of dreadlocks and DSquared2’s offensive depiction of Native American culture, to the recent outrage over the Gucci SS18 collection featuring turbans as a mere accessory despite its significance within the Sikh religion. Big Uncle’s foray into the land of disregard for people of colour has far exceeded the realm of cultural appropriation and instead ventured into a historical colonial nostalgia.

“The collection is described as ‘dusty like the dirt roads’ with linen ‘rough like the faces consumed by the sun’”

Founders Sabino Iebba and Riccardo Moroni claim this collection will take you on a “short and intense journey on the West (sic) former colonies”. Which former colonies? Nigeria? India? Hong Kong? Because, to be honest, looking at the collection all one can see are bland browns, neutral colours and basic styles which could easily be found in the nearest Primark. They hardly bring to mind the vibrancy of New Delhi or the hustle and bustle of Lagos.

In fact, the statement piece is a pale white jumper with a red “colonialism” slogan emblazoned on it, which could be found in any high-street shop – albeit without the celebration of oppressive rule. They’re certainly not the type of clothing that a member of our royal family would wear to a Colonials and Natives party.

Like an attempt at Joseph Conrad’s problematic Heart of Darkness fan fiction, the collection is described as “dusty like the dirt roads” with linen “rough like the faces consumed by the sun”. I’ll leave it up to you to discern which people they think have “rough” faces. This Colonial Deal will supposedly “remind us of our emotion”, but after reading through the description of this SS18 collection the only emotion I feel is disgust.

“Big Uncle’s celebration of colonialism through fashion is particularly staggering once one realises the extent of the horrors of Italy’s own colonial regime”

As a person of colour existing in this world it is not a new phenomenon to hear colonial revisionism; to hear about how we should simultaneously be thankful for railroads and forget about the brutal violence and murder colonialism brought with it.

Big Uncle’s celebration of colonialism through fashion is particularly staggering once one realises the extent of the horrors of Italy’s own colonial regime. Their colonial concentration camp in Cyrenaica, a part of modern day Libya, resulted in the deaths of at least 80,000 Libyans. In an attempt to conquer modern day Ethiopia, the Italians utilised poisonous mustard gas to slaughter Ethiopians fighting for the country to remain independent.

If Iebba and Moroni want to bring in all of the “West (sic) former colonies” then one can’t forget about other colonial atrocities. From Belgium’s violence in Congo, where they chopped off the hands and feet of their subjects to the Rawalpindi experiments in which the British sent hundreds of Indian soldiers into gas chambers. And lest we forget colonial Kenya, where the British led 1,090 Kenyans to be hanged.  

This is not an issue of free speech. For Big Uncle to use the deaths and the horrors inflicted of these people to sell a few clothes is disgusting. The petition founder Mireille Harper believes it is “continuing the legacy of racism, oppression and poverty which colonialism created”.

“There is a strong possibility that Big Uncle’s collection is an attempt by them to bring their relatively obscure brand into the mainstream”

Whilst the free speech argument enables Big Uncle to call their collection whatever they want, people are also allowed to criticise and question it in return. But when confronted with criticism, Mireille Harper noted that Big Uncle dismissed the negative ramifications of their project. Indeed, many of the comments on Big Uncle’s Instagram page condemning this collection have not been replied to, and the brand have issued a statement claiming that their “postmodern” intention has been misunderstood.

Harper has posited that this may even be a “publicity tool”, which would not be too surprising given H&M and Wycon Cosmetics’ recent use of racism. As Paula Akpan recently wrote, outrage can be a useful marketing tool and there is a strong possibility that Big Uncle’s collection is an attempt by them to bring their relatively obscure brand, created only in 2014, into the mainstream.

Whatever the case may be, it is sad that the lives of people of colour are so dispensable that they can be dismissed in order to generate revenue for a fashion brand.

Sign Mireille Harper’s petition requesting Big Uncle to remove the collection here