Masks have a long history in streetwear. Originally designed and adopted for protection and disguise, over the years masks have gone more and more versatile to become statement-making accessories in fashion. For example, a couple of years back Beijing-based artist Zhijun Wang had briefly overtaken the fashion world with his sneaker-altered face pieces, while white satin overall masks have always been the hallmark of premium fashion label Maison Martin Margiela. Even though masks might not be a wardrobe essential, the accessory still plays a momentous role in current fashion.
Lately Nike has brought about a revival of masks in sportswear but it’s not without controversies. Rather than a piece that covers a fraction of the face, the brand had released a picture of a black model wearing a swoosh-logo-inscribed Nike x Alyx balaclava that covered the majority of the face and head. Straps and pockets are attached as a part of the balaclava.
Not long later the picture went viral online, where netizens began condemning the product as distasteful and that Nike was endorsing gang culture as well as profiting from it. Although the brand has then quickly pronounced that it has absolutely no intention to target gang and knife culture, it has failed to stop the debate from spreading like wildfire. The picture and the listing of the balaclava have both been removed from the brand’s website now.
Whether or not the US sportswear veteran is promoting crime culture is a very subjective opinion, and hence it predominantly depends on the sensitivity of individuals and how they perceive the brand and interpret this particular product. It is neither right nor wrong to associate mask fashion with crime, but there is only room for further discussion.
Nonetheless it is not to be denied that the concerns of netizens are backed by crime figures. In 2017, the Office for National Statistics recorded the highest annual knife crime level in seven years with almost 40,000 cases, a 22% rise from the year before. Gun crime, murder and robbery involving the use of violence were both on the up. These staggering figures have crystalised the fear of people and hence it is not impossible to see why there’s little Nike could do to allay the public’s concerns.
On the other hand, could Nike’s orientation and influence in the youth market be the crux to the harsh accusation? Italian Techwear giant Stone Island has previously dropped the Riot Mask Jacket, in a nutshell it is a hooded jacket with a riot mask. The garment covers the entirety of the skull, face and body, except the eyes. Nike’s balaclava and the Riot Mask Jacket have their similarities but the feedback they received from the public differed drastically, at the very least Stone Island was not entangled in a controversy regarding the glorification of crime culture.
Nike has always been at the core of sportswear and even more so in streetwear over the past decade. It is a brand that has captured the hearts of thousands and millions of youth around the world and its diverse products are increasingly becoming like daily uniforms of young urbanites in the city streets. Perhaps it is because the brand has such a critical impact on young people’s culture and hence the backlash. It’s fearfully alarming that the listing of the Nike x Alyx balaclava that so strongly resembles military headgear would normalise or even stimulate reckless gang behaviour among youth, especially in a time when crime rates are manifestly on the rise. But again there could always be an counter-argument that a mask is a mask, it is a fashionable accessory, the rest is up to the person’s interpretation. There will never be a definite answer.
Another key element of the debate that should not be neglected is Nike has chosen to use a black model to endorse the Nike x Alyx balaclava has dragged the brand into a swirl of racial profiling accusation. Does this ring a bell? Because on some levels this does echo with the H&M ‘monkey hoodie’ scandal earlier this year. This got us thinking, would it make a difference if the balaclava, or the money hoodie, was sported by a Caucasian or Asian model? Are we overthinking and getting unduly sensitive when it comes to racial stereotyping in fashion? This will probably prompt another whole wave of debates.