Puma has been accused of glamorising and commodifying crime on London’s streets after it hosted a party centred around drug dealing.
People invited to the sportswear brand’s House of Hustle event were sent Puma shoe boxes which included fake £50 notes and so-called “burner” phones – cheap disposable handsets often used for drug deals.
Attendees to the event, which was held in an abandoned four-storey Soho townhouse last Thursday and featured a fake crack house, were also sent a business card telling them to switch on the phone. It read “turn on the trapline”.
The slang term trapping refers to the selling of drugs.
Once the phone was switched on, invitees received a message saying “Yo G what u sayin today? Pass tru the House of Hustle.”
The building for the event, which was held in partnership with JD Sports, was designed to look like a “trap house” with graffiti emblazoned across the walls, blacked out smashed windows, and mattresses strewn on the floors.
The event – thrown to attract so-called “hustlers” in the creative industries – saw party goers urged to use the “runthestreets” hashtag on Instagram and Twitter and tattoo artists available to ink people.
Coinciding with a spate of violence in London involving young people that has seen 10 teenagers killed since the start of the year alone, the party has been fiercely criticised as “tone deaf” and “exploitative” on social media.
“The production behind the event was as tasteless as the set would suggest,” a source who worked on the event but did not want to be named told The Independent.
“The people creating the marketing strategies and briefs should be politically engaged, clued up on society, history and current affairs, not just following trends, and regurgitating what they see in the media.”
“I’ve just sent the Puma story to a former teenage County Lines drug seller from London to see what he thinks,” Max Daly, a drug expert who wrote Narcomania: How Britain got hooked on drugs with Steve Sampson, told The Independent.
“He told me that ‘the Puma party is a terrible idea because it looks like they are glorifying trapping and making it seem like an okay thing’.”
County lines refers to the thousands of children being groomed to work as drug mules by dealers, who exploit vulnerable people as part of efforts to expand their operations across the country.
Beverley Skeggs, a sociologist and cultural studies theorist, was similarly dismissive of the event.
“Brands have no imagination and always pillage working class culture of many types,” the Goldsmiths academic told The Independent. “There is a very long history of using the culture of danger to sell spurious edginess to those who are very safe. The total disregard for how these pillaged forms of culture actually kill people is rarely a concern for those who make their careers from advertising.”
While Puma initially refused to comment on the controversial party the firm later released a statement apologising.
“In our invitations to the event, we used the terms ‘trap’ and “trapping” with the intention of the colloquial interpretation of ‘hard work’ and ‘hustle’ in a number of fields,” the German brand said.
“Unfortunately, these words can in some contexts be associated with the illegal drug trade. We want to make clear that Puma in no way endorses or intends to glamorise drug culture.
“We never intended associations with drug usage, drug culture or drug dealing in any way and we regret any misunderstandings in this respect. We apologise for any upset or offence caused in the usage of this language.”
Amber Gilbert Coutts, a London-based social worker who works with vulnerable families, lambasted the event in an open letter on Instagram.
“It is sadly nothing new for sports brands such as yourselves to attach your logo to the lived experiences of prominently working-class people of colour,” she said.
She highlighted a party held by the sportswear giant in 2012 with a “Jamaica” theme, saying this event featured “the aspects of Caribbean culture that people often celebrate and enjoy”.
“Puma in 2012 for example recreated ‘a corner of Jamaica’ dubbing it ‘the yard’ and picking the aspects of Caribbean culture that people often celebrate and enjoy; the spirit of the music, the sun, the food, and the rum. Here at least you managed to avoid any negative stereotypes,” she said.
“Fast-forward an apparently non-progress six years and what can only be described as a desperate attempt to remain relevant, you created the ‘house of hustle’ … [This] picked a much darker side of ‘urban’ youth culture so consistently appropriated. Far from cool, however, adolescent drug dealing so often results in violence, exacerbated deprivation and community pain.”
Six teenagers were stabbed within 90 minutes in London, with a 13-year-old boy among the victims of four separate knife attacks. The incidents took place as protesters assembled elsewhere in the capital to demand action to stop young people dying.
Another Instagram user praised the post, saying: “As someone who has lived through the things they are glamorising here I [really] appreciate this post which is something I could have never articulated.
“It’s grim to see my childhood used as a marketing tool when living through it was traumatic and still haunts myself and my family today.”
A Puma press release sent after the event described House of Hustle as “designed to specifically celebrate examples of creative entrepreneurial pathways that are being forged from within the often testing social and cultural environments that are a reality for an increasing number of young urban dwellers”.
The Independent has contacted representatives of Urban Nerds and JD Sports for comment.