donna karan’s haiti-inspired ads: #fail

One of the controversial ads from Donna Karan's Spring 2012 campaign (image via

Yogi-fashionista Donna Karan is well-known for being a vocal supporter of post-earthquake Haiti, and her foundation, Urban Zen, has dedicated much of its energy to raising funds to rebuild the country. However, the ad campaign for her Spring 2012 collection has been criticized as being “insensitive.” According to New York Magazine:

…some folks have taken issue with the campaign, and the aforementioned image in particular [above], since it portrays Haitian people hidden in the background while [Brazilian model, Adriana] Lima reclines seductively in her expensive clothes. A Huffington Post commenter complains, “Using the downtrodden as props for high-fashion shoots smacks of completely insensitive imperialistic attitudes.” Others have simply pointed out that the contrast between Haiti’s extreme poverty and Karan’s expensive, high-fashion clothing is inappropriate.

What this illustrates is that Donna Karan’s words and actions are out of alignment. While the Urban Zen Foundation has done good work raising both awareness and money for rebuilding Haiti, when it comes to creating print ads for fashion magazines, it’s the same old narrative, the same old power structures. These ads represent a missed opportunity to inform people of the work she’s doing, instead only encouraging people to “discover the beauty and inspiration.”

In her introduction to the Hope, Help & Rebuild Haiti initiative on the Urban Zen website, Donna Karan invites us to join her “in the task of rebuilding Haiti. Let’s participate in a way that honors her rich past and her indigenous culture, and builds a bridge to a connected and sustainable future for Haiti. Whether it’s donating money, or shoes, whether it’s purchasing a tent today, or helping Haitians rebuild their homes tomorrow, there’s something we each can do. Here at Urban Zen, we’re bringing together a group of partners with the expertise and commitment to create a conscious community of support for Haiti.” Not sure if this is accomplished by exoticizing the country and depicting a problematic power dynamic.

A Donna Karan spokesperson issued an official statement today, which obtusely addressed the controversy and half-assedly justified the intention behind the ads:

It is well known that Donna has been deeply involved in supporting and bringing awareness to Haiti since the earthquake. Through her personal experiences there, Haiti was a natural inspiration for the Spring 2012 collection. The intent of the ad campaign is to celebrate the culture and creativity of the people of Haiti. [via]

What do you think? Does this ad “celebrate the culture and creativity”? As an advocate for Haiti, does Donna Karan have a responsibility to create a more sensitive ad campaign?

  1. Another example of fashion’s superficiality. Sad. At least there could have been some interaction between people and models, playing with kids at the beach, laughing with the locals…instead of squashing them into the corner, looking gloomy and pitiful. If this is about empowering the people of Haiti, then the only thing this ad achieves is making them look even more poor and powerless.