PARIS, France — At the height of Paris Couture Week, Russian designer Ulyana Sergeenko and street style star-turned-entrepreneur Miroslava Duma are scrambling to manage a growing PR crisis following revelations of behavior that has drawn public accusations of racism, homophobia and transphobia from around the world and has threatened their professional livelihoods.
On Tuesday afternoon, Sergeenko came under fire for sending a bouquet of flowers to Duma with the handwritten note, “To my n*ggas in Paris,” a reference to the Kanye West and Jay-Z song “N*ggas in Paris.” Duma shared the note on Instagram Stories, adding a heart emoji to show affection for the designer, whom she tagged in her post. But the casual use of the word “n*ggas,” derived from a racial slur, triggered rapid social media outrage.
Then, later that evening, a disturbing video of Duma surfaced from 2012 making homophobic and transphobic comments about the blogger Bryanboy and transgender model Andreja Pejić. Industry insiders in Paris awoke to further social media outrage and a firestorm of negative PR calling into question Duma’s character and judgment. In the video, Duma, speaking in Russian, denounces Bryanboy and Pejić, suggesting that the two influencers could be harmful to the psyche of young children and should be censored. “We’re very concerned about the beauty and purity of the things we publish [at Buro 24/7],” she said, thanking God that “there aren’t that many of them.”
In the video, a member of the audience asked the entrepreneur: “You mentioned Bryanboy and his style… he wears women’s clothing. Female fashion is being modelled by men now. What is your opinion on, say, Andreja Pejić, who advertises women’s swimsuits? Would you consider that normal?” To this Duma replied, “Honestly, I dislike that. Because somewhere, on TV or in a magazine, a little boy could see it and that boy wouldn’t understand it correctly, react correctly. I think a certain kind of censorship and refined culture is needed here.”
In a statement provided to BoF and published on Instagram today, Duma said: “As we all know, the world is evolving at an extraordinary pace, and we as humans evolve too. The person I was six years ago is not who I am today.” She added, “I’d like to formally apologise to any individuals or communities that I have offended. Similarly, I’d like to extend this apology to the professional organisations I am affiliated with. The comments I made are in no way representative of those organisations or their teams.”
“If any positive change is to come from recent events, I sincerely hope that the public discussions surrounding me might shine a light on the broader need to stamp out discrimination from society once and for all,” she continued. “It is true that I come from a culture where words and attitudes may be different than the Western ideals that I, in fact, have come to understand and accept.”
This was the second apology issued by Duma in less than 24 hours. Yesterday, Duma posted an apology on Instagram for posting Sergeenko’s racist note: “I sincerely apologise for my regrettable Instagram story that went out. The phrase referenced is from a Kanye West and Jay-Z song by the same title. The word is utterly offensive and I regret promoting it and am very sorry. I deeply respect people of all backgrounds and detest racism or discrimination of any kind.” (The post swiftly drew almost 5,000 comments, many of them scathing, leading Duma to disable commenting functionality.)
For her part, Sergeenko posted a defense on Instagram that only seemed to stoke the outrage: “I was born in a small town in East Kazakhstan, my daughter is half Armenian,” she wrote. “Kanye West is one of my most favourite musicians and NP is one of my most favourite songs. And yes, we call each other the N word sometimes when we want to believe that we are just as cool as they guys who sing it.”
“I am deeply sorry to everyone whom I might have offended,” she continued. “Mira is a dear friend and even the fact she so naively posted my private card to her on her social means that we meant nothing wrong and didn’t realise the consequences. I have certainly learned my lessons and I am grateful for it. There is enough anger in the world out there, please, can we stop it here?”
Sergeenko’s apology was deleted not long after the post was published. Meanwhile, the PR controversy has drawn criticism from around the industry and continues to grow.
“Seriously!? Why would you a) write this b) post this…” wrote Le 21ème photographer Adam Katz Sinding on Instagram in response to Duma’s photo of Sergeenko’s note, while Naomi Campbell questioned whether it was real. “Racism and ignorance is real. Just sayin’! It’s 2018, people!” wrote Bryanboy.
“As we approach fashion week, remember your fave street style stars opt to use language like ‘niggas’ and think it’s a joke,” added Shiona Turini, an editor and fashion consultant, on Twitter. The Tot, a Dallas-based childrenswear retailer which Duma co-founded in 2016 with Nasiba Adilova (a friend and former business development manager at Buro 24/7), issued a statement on Instagram, saying it was removing the entrepreneur from the company’s board in response to the post.
Sergeenko also felt the repercussions at the presentation of her Couture collection on Wednesday afternoon, after the news broke. “It was real quiet [sic] outside the Ulyana Sergeenko presentation. I guess a lot of editors decided to skip it,” wrote photographer Phil Oh on Twitter.
Marc Goehring, fashion editor of the Berlin-based magazine 032c, expressed his outrage by posting a photo on Instagram of a t-shirt depicting Duma wearing a hoodie that reads: “Hi my name is Miroslava Duma, I am a racist, I am a homophobe, I am a transphobe.” “You forgot to add bully,” chimed in one of his followers. “As her former PA, she underpays her assistants and insults them.”
The current crisis follows a previous incident in 2014 when Duma photographed Garage magazine editor-in-chief Dasha Zhukova, who at the time was married to Russian billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich, sitting on a chair shaped as a black woman. It was an artwork by Bjarne Melgaard, known for his series of works depicting women as tables, chairs and other inanimate objects. (Duma later apologised on Instagram.)
Miroslava Duma’s full statement provided to BoF:
“First things first, I am deeply ashamed by the comments I made in 2012. Frankly, I’m as shocked as anyone to be viewing that footage today, and to see for my own eyes how utterly offensive and hurtful my actions were back then. And when I consider that my comments were made in front of an audience of students, it makes them seem all the more insensitive and out of touch.
The world is evolving at an extraordinary pace, and we as humans evolve too. The person I was six years ago is not who I am today. In the intervening years, I have committed myself to a journey of personal growth, where ignorance has been replaced by acceptance, and discrimination by inclusion. I deeply respect people of all backgrounds: I believe in equality for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender identity, religion or sexual orientation.
If any positive change is to come from recent events, then I sincerely hope that the public discussions surrounding me might shine a light on the broader need to stamp out discrimination from society once and for all. It is true that I come from a culture where words and attitudes may be different than the Western ideals that I, in fact, have come to understand and accept. I know now, better than ever, that I should be an example of positivity and progress for the people who follow me, and that my platform and privilege can be used as agents of change – particularly in our current political environment.
I’d like to formally apologise to any individuals or communities that I have offended. Similarly, I’d like to extend this apology to the professional organisations I am affiliated with. The comments I made are in no way representative of those organisations or their teams.
I do not expect instant forgiveness, nor forgiveness at all, for those I’ve offended. I know that my actions must speak louder than my words or gestures on social media — and I pledge to do the necessary work to gain back people’s trust and respect.”