P.T. Barnum, the 19th century circus showman who would’ve given the Kardashians a run for their money had he lived in this social media age, famously said: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” But I wonder if that long-held truism still applies to the cynical, paranoid, anxious society we’ve become, where mass murders are commonplace and children learn school shooting survival skills along with phonics.
Let me explain.
Bstroy, a New York clothing brand, unveiled its spring 2020 menswear collection on Instagram the other day, and the ruckus that followed was a sign of our fraught times. The company’s new hoodies are pocked with bullet holes and display the names of schools where almost 100 kids, teachers and staff were gunned down.
Remember them? Or, should I ask instead, how can we ever forget? Columbine. Sandy Hook. Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Virginia Tech.
Except for the now-infamous bullet holes, you probably wouldn’t look twice at these sweatshirts. Their colors are safely muted — light green, powder blue, soft red, worn gray — and the lettering itself a simple block-style. In other words, nothing to write home about.
But when the hoodie photos debuted, Bstroy’s designers got exactly what they wanted: attention, airtime, hashtags, lots and lots of news stories. The rawest reactions sprouted online and came from those most affected by gun violence.
“Under what scenario could somebody think this was a good idea?” Fred Guttenberg, who lost his daughter in the Parkland shooting, wrote on Twitter. “This has me so upset. If any of my followers know anybody involved with this clothing line, please ask them to stop it immediately.”
And another: “As a victim of Columbine, I am appalled. This is disgusting. You can draw awareness another way but don’t you dare make money off of our tragedy.”
And yet another: “As a Sandy Hook family, what you are doing here is absolutely disgusting, hurtful, wrong and disrespectful. You’ll never know what our family went through after Vicki died protecting her students. Our pain is not to be used for your fashion.”
As of this writing, there was no sign the company planned to pull the hoodies. And while the public’s outrage was overwhelming, a handful did offer support, believing that the design called much-needed attention to the issues of mass shootings.
“This SHOULD enrage people,” one Instagram user opined. “This SHOULD spark conversation. This is what art and fashion are all about. The problem here isn’t the hoodies, it’s the fact that we have enough school shootings to make an entire fashion collection of them. Seeing these hoodies & reactions shows how much pain there still is and how, as a country, we still have done NOTHING to stop these senseless (and all too frequent) shootings.”
The designers also issued a touchy-feely statement: “Sometimes life can be painfully ironic. Like the irony of dying violently in a place you consider to be a safe, controlled environment, like school. We are reminded all the time of life’s fragility, shortness, and unpredictability yet we are also reminded of its infinite potential. It is this push and pull that creates the circular motion that is the cycle of life. Nirvana is the goal we hope to reach through meditation and healthy practices that counter our destructive habits. Samsara is the cycle we must transcend to reach Nirvana.”
I’d be willing to accept — maybe reluctantly, maybe halfway — all that stuff about Nirvana and infinite potential and life’s fragility but only under some conditions. If the hoodies had statements beyond a school’s name. If the designers were advocating in front of the people who can actually do something about gun violence. If the company planned to donate a portion of the proceeds to a nonprofit lobbying for gun control.
But Bstroy is using controversy for controversy’s sake. In pretending to be cutting-edge, in piggybacking on fashion’s history of needling and provoking, the company comes across as blatantly commercial. Sadly the hoodies are more than a missed opportunity. They’re a bald-face attempt to make big bucks from horrific heartache.
Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website anavecianasuarez.com. Follow @AnaVeciana.