Earlier this week, Cult Gaia’s distinctive handbags and accessories began to disappear from the shelves of luxury stores across the Middle East.
Retailers including Harvey Nichols Kuwait, Galeries Lafayette Doha, Bloomingdale’s Middle East and luxury online platform Ounass said they were pulling the brand in social media posts, reported by local media. Instagram users in Kuwait confirmed it was no longer available in Harvey Nichols. A Google link to shop Cult Gaia on Ounass no longer works.
Galeries Lafayette and Harvey Nichols declined to comment. The Harvey Nichols store in Kuwait is operated by a franchise partner that did not respond to a request for comment. Bloomingdales Middle East and Ounass did not respond to requests for comment.
Cult Gaia’s abrupt removal is an apparent response to an Instagram post by founder Jasmin Hekmat that addressed the latest outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza.
The post, shared via Instagram stories, showed an image of the Israeli flag with the words “I support Israel’s right to defend itself” on it. “I am seeing so much misinformation on social … One-sided and spreading hate. Please educate yourself on the full story before reposting. I’m praying for everyone on both sides who are a victim of this violence,” Hekmat — who is based in Los Angeles and identifies as Iranian-Jewish — commented on the post, which was reprinted by local media outlets.
On Monday, President Joe Biden expressed his “firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks,” and called for a ceasefire. But the post prompted outrage among netizens in the Arab world, who accused Hekmat of unfairly equating the experiences of Israelis and Palestinians, pointing to the power imbalance and disproportionate casualties experienced in Gaza.
That view is increasingly taking hold among young and vocal consumers in countries like the US as well. According to the Gaza health ministry, more than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza since escalating tensions erupted into intense conflict ten days ago. Israel has reported at least 12 people have been killed in Hamas attacks.
“I condemn extremism in all its forms and I support Palestinians’ right to safety, freedom, land, opportunity, education, and fundamental human rights,” Hekmat said in an emailed statement. After briefly making her Instagram account private, she reactivated it Wednesday, posting a similar note to her stories and apologising if her previous statement suggested she felt otherwise. She added that she is making a donation to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund.
Seeing Arab consumers use their money for change, that is new.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been deeply divisive, but its spillover into the fashion world following its latest escalation is a newer phenomenon. The immediate reaction from young Arab social media users to Hekmat’s post and their quick coordination to appeal to local retailers to remove Cult Gaia products from sale shows the extent to which the world has changed since the last time violence flared in Gaza.
“Money talks, that isn’t anything new — but seeing Arab consumers use their money for change, that is new,” said Marriam Mossalli, the founder of Saudi Arabia-based luxury communications agency Niche Arabia.
The shift reflects a potent mix of political, social and economic upheavals that are reshaping the cultural narrative within which fashion exists.
Over the last decade, the industry has become more international as consumer markets in China and the Middle East boomed, exposing brands to customers with widely varying points of view. At the same time, consumers have become more politically engaged and expectations that brands will align with their values have grown. Mounting anger over racism in the US has raised the profile of the Black Lives Matter movement, shifting the conversation around social justice globally. Social media has handed more power to consumers to make their views heard.
“I don’t think brands have the luxury of keeping quiet anymore thanks to Black Lives Matter,” Mossalli said. “In the world of social media, being quiet is to choose sides.”
However, so far most Western brands that may have been vocal on topics like anti-Black racism and Asian hate have steered clear of commenting on the conflict. The sharp consumer reaction to the violence in Israel and Gaza isn’t limited to the Middle East. In the US, there has been a palpable shift to a more critical stance towards Israel among young, progressive consumers. Some powerful and prominent voices in the fashion and beauty industries have spoken in support of Palestinians in the wake of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.
Dubai-based beauty influencer-turned-mogul Huda Kattan has been vocal in expressing her view on the injustice facing Palestinians on both her own and her brand’s Instagram account. “I know I have a beauty brand and I am not supposed to talk about politics or whatever, but it is unjust, and I want to stand for what’s right whether or not it makes me unpopular,” Kattan said in a video posted on her Instagram this week.
Social media has handed more power to consumers to make their views heard.
Some comments critical of Israel have sparked controversy, too. Model Bella Hadid, whose father is Palestinian, came under fire for a (now deleted) post which included a graphic stating Israel was not a country, but a land settled by colonisers that some commenters said was antisemitic, according to media reports. “Hate from either side is not okay — I do not condone it,” Hadid said in a later post still visible on her Instagram.
Weighing in on divisive political issues has shown itself to be fraught for fashion brands. Earlier this year, Chinese consumers called for boycotts of labels including H&M, Burberry, Nike, Adidas and Uniqlo because of their stance on sourcing cotton from China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, where international organisations have alleged ethnic Uighur people have been detained and forced to work in cotton fields and factories.
H&M remains unavailable on Alibaba’s Tmall, while online sales of Adidas and Nike products on the platform fell by 78 percent and 59 percent respectively year-over-year in April, according to a note from Morningstar analyst Ivan Su. Nike and Adidas did not respond to requests for comment, H&M declined to comment for this story. The companies have not yet published financial details covering any substantial period since the controversy flared in China.
Brands may have more to gain when speaking about an issue that directly concerns them, said Paul A. Argenti, professor of corporate communication at The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. For instance, brands are speaking out against the use of cotton from Xinjiang in part because it’s so deeply tied into fashion’s supply chain. Where the business connection isn’t immediately apparent, companies need to be clear about why they are adopting a stance at all.
”I don’t think that Gen-Z is going to suddenly stop caring about these issues, and leave you alone,” Argenti said. “You have to have a plan, an approach that explains why you are speaking out on this [issue], but not that one.”
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