How Can Fashion Create A Better Relationship with Africa?

August 29, 2011 § 3 Comments

(L-R) Thakoon F/W 11, Louis Vuiton S/S 12, Thakoon F/W 11

Fashion’s conflicted love affair with Africa is on again. Louis Vuitton featured cobalt and berry Masai prints for its S/S 12 menswear show last June, while Thakoon fused Victorian tailoring with traditional East African patterns for F/W 11. Critics unanimously exalted both collections. Nicole Phelps of Style.com hailed Thakoon’s showing as “his freshest, most alive collection in a while,” and The New York Times Magazine proclaimed Louis Vuitton as the “winner” of Paris Fashion Week for menswear S/S 12.

Sure, the clothes were beautiful, as they tend to be from practiced and esteemed labels like Louis Vuitton and Thakoon. But the use of African aesthetics for the financial and cultural benefit of the West conjures a host of unanswered questions: Is this practice exploitative? What image of Africa does it create in the West? Should designers give back to the communities from which they benefit?

Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907; painting-analysis.blogspot.com)

Africa has served as inspiration in Western fashion and more expansively, Western visual culture, for decades. In 1907, Pablo Picasso painted two women with African masks for his magnum opus Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. More recently, in 1997, John Galliano featured a series of reinterpreted Masai warrior costumes for his debut couture collection at Dior. Over a decade later, for Dior’s S/S 09 show, he styled his models with vase-like hair resembling ancient Congolese head dresses. And in a similar vein, Jean Paul Gaultier used African hunter shields, African carvings, the patterns of Masai beading as the inspiration for his Spring 2005 couture collection.

Fashion critics have largely praised Galliano and Gaultier’s use of African aesthetics in the context of “diversifying fashion.” In a review of The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk, a retrospective of Gaultier’s work at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Robin Givhan of The Daily Beast writes: “Gaultier looks outward at the swirl of life that engulfs him. And he is fully and optimistically engaged with it. Gaultier’s multicultural inspiration, which spans the entire breadth of his career, beginning in 1976, reminds us of the beauty of cultural diversity.”

Looks from Dior Couture '97

As a foil to fashion’s praise for using African aesthetics in Western design, art critics have debated the merits of this practice with more skepticism. Arguably the most famous debate arose in response to a show in 1984 at the New York Museum of Modern Art titled, “‘Primitivism in 20th Century Art,” which sought to elucidate the connection between the work of European artists like Gauguin and Picasso with African “tribal” art. The show’s most aggressive critique came a couple of years later from writer Thomas McEvilley whose piece “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief” in Art Forum, sharply criticized the exhibit’s lack of information and context about the tribal objects:

“No attempt is made to recover an emic, or inside, sense of what primitive esthetics really were or are… The point of view of Picasso and others… is the only focus of MOMA’s interest… By their absolute repression of primitive context, meaning, content, and intention… [the curators] have treated the primitives as less than human, less than cultural – as shadows of a culture, their selfhood, the Otherness, wrung out of them.”

The New Yorker summarized this argument: “In other words… people of color don’t exist unless whites say they do – and, even then, they exist only as they are seen by whites.”

A portrait of Senegalese women from the 50s by Senegalese photographer Seydou Keita (via origidij.blogspot.com)

Like the aforementioned MoMA exhibit, fashion shows that reference Africa can seem exploitative due to a lack of real connection to African culture or African people. The image of Africa on runways is almost entirely created by Western design teams that convey a shallow knowledge or appreciation for the communities they are referencing. To counter this, if designers want to utilize African culture in a responsible way, it must rethink the way it interacts with Africa itself.

One way Western designers could convey a deeper appreciation for Africa is by offering adequate historical or cultural context of their designs when they reference aspects of African culture. If Louis Vuitton offered more background information on Masai prints for his S/S 12 show, for example, viewers would have a better idea of what Masai prints signify and how they became so prominent among Masai tribes. The information could be placed in a pamphlet that accompanies the show’s gift bags or sits on each seat in the audience. This, to me, would ameliorate the feeling that the label was exploiting African culture and give the sense that the label was celebrating it.

Another way fashion could start projecting a more respectful perception of Africa is by incorporating African textiles into their designs. Today, most African-print textiles are manufactured in Europe or Asia – they’re African-inspired, not African. As writer Maya Lau suggests in a Huffington Post piece entitled Senegal’s Accidental Hipstersthe African textile industry is largely foundering in countries like Senegal. Investment in textiles from these countries would 1) feed into the local economy 2) maintain traditional, or at least local, ways of producing textiles, and 3) cultivate a more human relationship between Western fashion and Africa. If Western designers continue to use African prints, sourcing fabric from Africa would give both Westerners and Africans monetary benefits (it would be cheap for Western brands to manufacture in Africa and it would power the African economy) as well as social benefits (it would begin a symbiotic relationship between the West and Africa).

Yet another way for Western designers to convey a deeper appreciation for Africa is by giving back to the communities from which they borrow. After using Masai prints for his F/W 11 collection, Thakoon has done just this. According to Thakoon.com, the label will donate all proceeds from a particular Limited Edition Masai Plaid Scarf to an international children’s relief organization working to reduce rates of malnutrition in the Horn of Africa – the area where Masai Tribes are located. The donor-benefactor relationship isn’t ideal; however, it is one way for Thakoon to give back to the community that offered him so much for his latest collection.

The relationship between the West and Africa is long and complicated, and because of this, there are no real answers as to how to create a healthy relationship between Western fashion and Africa. Here, I’ve tried to offer some solutions and have highlighted others that are currently in the works. More than finding the best solution, however, I hope that designers start thinking more critically about their relationship with Africa and the best way for them to face the conflicts inherent in utilizing African designs. This way, at least fashion can begin to celebrate cultural diversity in a way that feels new, thoughtful, and genuine.

Is the Black Dandy the “Civilized” Black Man?

August 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

Nivea's "Re-civilize Yourself" ad campaign

Late last week Nivea set the Internets atwitter with an ad showing a black man, with a shaved head holding a mask with an afro and facial hair à la Cornel West. The image was emblazoned with the tagline: Re-civilize yourself. A study in contrast, the white version of the ad had the message: Sin City Isn’t an Excuse to Look Like Hell. Other Nivea ads also show other white men – some with facial hair with clean edges, some without – with the simple slogan: Look Like You Give a Damn. Why does Nivea think that the slow crawl towards civilization for a black man requires shedding an afro and facial hair?

The problem, as many bloggers have pointed out, is that the ad relies on the trope of the savage black man, an idea as old as the nation that has only changed rather than disappeared over time. Today, there are “good” and “bad” black men – the former are what then Senator Joe Biden thinks are “articulate and bright and clean” and the latter are probably what he sees on the Music Television. It must have been quite a shock for Biden to see that then Senator Obama did not end his campaign speeches with Yo yo!

The recent Times piece on black dandyism, “Pushing the Boundaries of Black Style,” which ran just a day before the Nivea controversy, has received a favorable reception. And yet for me, raises feelings of unease not unlike the Nivea ad. While the article is a celebration of the style and savvy of the bloggers of Street Etiquette, Travis Gumbs and Joshua Kissi, the article takes on a slight tone of wonderment I imagine Biden experienced when he saw this young, black man whip him during the Iowa caucuses.

I should be clear: Street Etiquette is one of the best personal style blogs out there. It has everything that any reader interested in fashion would want: history, know-how, cool, and lots of shiny photos of beautiful people. And yet, I found the language they used to champion black dandyism to be uncomfortably reminiscent of the Nivea ad. Speaking about his blog, Kissi says, “It shows people of African descent in a good light…Where they’re from and where I’m from, self-refinement isn’t welcome in a sense.”

An image from "The Black Ivy" (via Street Etiquette)

Throughout the piece, “dandyism” is posited as classy, refined, and aspirational, while “hip hop style” is imprecated as unrefined, coarse, and well, uncivilized. The black dandies are constantly trying to get away from the paradigm of hip-hop, but in doing so, embrace another, arguably more dominant, paradigm. As if there were any further indication needed, their largest photo shoot, “The Black Ivy” is a not-so-subtle embrace of “our kind of people.”

Furthermore, this “self-refinement” is expressed not simply as an evolution of style, but also one of growth. “I used to wear size 42 jeans. Coming from that to a tie and shirt, people perceive you in a whole different way,” says Kissi. He isn’t wrong. Those baggy pants have been quite a site of contention; in 2007, cities across the South passed anti-sagging pants ordinances. Legislators weren’t just trying to police fashion, but specifically, what they saw as an expression of a dangerous black masculinity. Atlanta Councilman C.T. Martin said such laws are a “remedy” for “a prison mentality.” Other lawmakers believed the style invoked fear in others. Ooga booga, indeed.

Is it possible for multiple expressions and styles to coexist? Mos Def, also quoted in the article, probably has it closest: “White people have all kinds of archetypes, from Brad Pitt to Al Bundy, everything in between. The cultural paradigms that are aggressively promoted to young black people and young poor people are extremely narrow.” Multiple style paradigms – and relatedly multiple masculinities – are vital, especially in communities of color. But does the ascension of one necessitate the denigration of another? Can’t I have my high-tops and wear them too?

Yves Saint Laurent: A Pioneer for Models of Color

August 11, 2011 § 2 Comments

Saint Laurent with Mounia, his muse (via fashionbomb.com)

“L’Amour Fou” is the latest film to feed the trend of fashion designer documentaries, joining Valentino’s acclaimed “The Last Emperor (2008),” the elusive “Lagerfeld Confidential (2007),” and the soon-to-be-released “The Guts of Duckie Brown (2011). It traces the life of the late Algerian-born designer, Yves Saint Laurent, as framed by his widower Pierre Bergé’s narration and the epic Christie’s sale of his expansive art collection at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2009. Overall, you get the sense that Bergé, who had a heavy hand in shaping the story, used the project as a cathartic release. Instead of celebrating the life of his partner, he and the director, Pierre Thoretton, focus instead on Saint Laurent’s intense bouts of depression, excessive drug use, and occasional philandering. It was sad, really. But despite the film’s unexpectedly dour angle on narrating Saint Laurent’s life and work, it joyously celebrates, perhaps unknowingly, Saint Laurent’s pivotal role in placing models of color in the world of high fashion.

The movie never explicitly discusses Saint Laurent’s penchant for models of color; however, its streams of archival footage from Saint Laurent shows in the 60s, 70s, and 80s show a range of black models that often stepped on his runway and posed for his ad campaigns. The YouTube clip below gives offers a taste of this, featuring a montage of black models he often used in the 80s specifically: Naomi Campbell, Iman, Sonia Cole, Dalma Callado, Maureen Gallagher, his muse Katoucha Niane, and others.

Although Saint Laurent’s avid support for black models eluded the general public, fashion insiders readily acknowledge it. In an article from NowPublic published shortly after Saint Laurent’s death to a prolonged disease, writer Adrienne Anderson thoroughly discusses the designer’s role in breaking down barriers for women of color, offering a quote from an interview with Naomi Campbell that illustrates how Saint Laurent generously launched her career: “My first Vogue cover ever was because of this man, because when I said to him ‘Yves, they won’t give me a French Vogue cover, they won’t put a black girl on the cover’ and he was like ‘I’ll take care of that,’ and he did.” In August 1988, Naomi Campbell became the first black model to land the cover of French Vogue, which consequently opened the doors for jobs at Ralph Lauren, Versace, and Francois Nars soon thereafter.

Saint Laurent aggressively featured his designs in black magazines, a practice considered a precarious marketing risk at the time. In particular, he showcased his designs in the pages of Ebony Magazine as well as in the related Ebony Traveling Fashion Show. He was also known to cavort with Eunice Johnson, the producer of the Traveling Fashion Show and the reputed “black matriarch” of publishing.

Yves Saint Laurent once described his appreciation for black models in an interview with the French press, saying, “It’s extraordinary to work with black models.” His explanation takes an exotifying turn, however, as he continues, “because the body, the way they hold their head, the legs… is really very, very provocative.” His sexualization of black female bodies puts his motives into question. But perhaps he was merely using language that the fashion world often used at that time to describe models, a time when women like Cindy Crawford, Tyra Banks, Linda Evangelista, and Christy Turlington ruled the runways with their curvaceous forms. In other words, Saint Laurent’s view of black models as “provocative” might merely reflect a mantra or standard way of thinking about models of various races at the time. (I know this is a pretty generous analysis, and I encourage you to comment).

Despite the pleasure in learning about Saint Laurent’s use of models of color, it’s disheartening to realize that YSL’s current designer, Stefano Pilati, has broken away from that tradition. The most recent YSL womenswear show, Resort 2012, cast only one model of color. The collection before that, Fall/Winter 2011, featured only 2 out of a cast of 37. Unlike Saint Laurent, who set the standard for model casting in his day, Pilati merely follows it.

As fashion writer Guy Trebay wrote in The New York Times in response to a particularly racially-homogenous fashion season in 2007, the current runways are “fading to white.” The substantial number of black models seen on Saint Laurent’s runway shows are nowhere to be seen, and Asians and Latinas struggle to get booked. Although the days of Yves Saint Laurent-staged runways shows took place lightyears from now (speaking in the hyperspeed world of fashion), perhaps they were actually a glimpse into the future.

An All-Asian Fashion Ad to Commend

August 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

Fei Fei Sun, Shu Pei, Lui Wen, Ming Xi, and Xiao Wen Ju for Lane Crawford F/W 11

Asians are definitely having a fashion moment. V Magazine released their “Asian Issue” this past May, Givenchy staged a couture presentation for S/S 11 using only Asian models, and American Vogue published an all-Asian model editorial this past December, declaring that they’re “redefining traditional concepts of beauty.” These happenings often fall under the label of “diversifying fashion,” but they carry an insincerity as Asians consistently fail to book non-Asian themed photoshoots and runway events. Where were the Asian models in Givenchy’s latest couture show, for example? Or on the cover of Vogue?

Yesterday Hong-Kong retailer Lane Crawford released their F/W 11 ad campaign featuring a cast of exclusively Chinese models, but unlike other all-Asian campaigns or editorials, this is a breath of fresh air. It applies the for-us, by-us concept to Chinese fashion, and shows a Chinese company supporting some of the best Chinese modeling talent working today: Fei Fei Sun, Shu Pei, Lui Wen, Ming Xi, and Xiao Wen Ju.

Ballerina Tan Yuan Yuan for Lane Crawford S/S 08 (via girlspic.blogbus.com)

Film producer Fu Jia for Lane Crawford S/S 08 (via girlspic.blogbus.com)

This isn’t Lane Crawford’s first ad to feature Asians or Asian Americans. For their S/S 08 campaign titled, “The Innovators,” they photographed a number of prominent Chinese and Chinese American faces in Chinese arts and culture: ballerina Tan Yuan Yuan, actress Maggie Cheung, film producer Fu Jia, artist Terrence Koh, and model Du Juan, amongst others.

Too often Asian fashion companies use Western models in their promotions, which, as we suggested in a previous post, results from the pressure placed on these companies to cater to privileged whiteness in the global fashion market. I initially discovered Lane Crawford’s latest ad in the news section of New York Magazine. I hope one day, an ad campaign for an Asian company featuring all-Asian models won’t be worthy as news, or even celebration. It will just seem right.

Does American Apparel’s Ching Chong Hat Offend You?

August 1, 2011 § 3 Comments

The good women from Disgrasian have pointed out that American Apparel is selling a rice paddy hat for $15. I’m a little surprised it has taken American Apparel so long to get on with this “trend.” I remember first seeing it on whipster (white hipster) fashion student Nora from the first season of Project Runway, and that was like 8 seasons ago. Anyway, AA is really scraping the bottom of the PBR barrel with this one.

The Disgrasian bloggers let the hat speak for itself and instead eviscerate the would-be wearers as fashion victims. Fair enough. Wearing it would make you look like an asshat. But is it racist?

The hat brings me back to the sweet times of my youth when Abercrombie & Fitch was the hip brand (hey, I’m from Florida). A&F stirred controversy for their excessively racist t-shirts, that depicted caricatures of Asian men wearing – yup, you guessed it – rice paddy hats with slogans like “Two Wongs Can Make It White.”

Platoon, 1986

via Resist Racism

Rice paddy hats have a long history in the American imagination stemming, most directly, from the Vietnam War. Movies like Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and other Vietnam War movies, often depict desperate, fleeing Vietnamese in rice paddy hats. The hats are also a common trope in editorial cartoons. The hat itself isn’t racist, but it has a deep, Orientalist history that subsumes multiple nations, histories, and billions of people, under one big coolie hat. What is truly offensive is the ability of the West to take something like a rice paddy hat, something that has actual meaning and substance and shape and turn it into a cheap symbol of the Orient. If I drew a head with that conical hat on it, a viewer would immediately know to reference: Asian person.

I’m trying to think of a time and place where I would welcome the coolie hat, that is not mid-summer on Bedford on a whipster or traveling in rural Asia. It would be Halloween. The wearer would be an Asian American female, dressed like a Vietcong guerrilla fighter with a sniper rifle slung around her in a reference to Full Metal Jacket. The hat would look pretty badass.

The Limits of Globalizing Fashion

July 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

Last week, in a post titled “Fashion is a Melting Pot,” Italian Vogue Editor Franca Sozzani praised the increasingly globalized nature of fashion, alluding to the growing number of non-Western designers participating and gaining respect in the Western sphere. To her, these designers have amassed international attention by incorporating elements of traditional dress from their home countries into a “contemporary” aesthetic. She writes:

“New fashion designers from emerging countries are proposing a new fashion inspired by their country’s tradition, considered not as ethnic element any longer, but as part of a historical know-how, re-adjusted to contemporary silhouettes and therefore wearable in all cities of the world… It’s not the folklore that is exported, yet the culture, the local craftsmanship, the colors and the mood.” [sic] 

There’s no doubt that more non-Western designers and designers with non-Western backgrounds are entering fashion. In the U.S., for example, some of the most celebrated emerging designers are either first or second-generation Asian Americans, like Alexander Wang (China), Doo-Ri Chung, (Korea), Thakoon Panichgul (Thailand), and Prabal Gurung (Nepal). For the past decade, Asian Americans have dominated the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) awards, highlighting the pivotal role they have had in shaping American fashion. Furthermore, outside the U.S., increasing numbers of non-Western designers are showing their collections at internationally recognized and media-heavy fashion weeks in Milan and Paris. South Korean brands Songzio and Juun J, for example, show their collections in Paris every year and General Idea, designed by Seoul-based Bumsuk Choi, shows in New York.

(from left to right) Wang, Doo.Ri, Thakoon, and Gurung

But amidst increasing numbers of non-Western designers in fashion, the caveat that limits how “global” fashion can become is the expectation that these designers cater to Western design tastes. When describing how fashion will continue to globalize, Sozzani wrote, “The new generations will keep getting here (New York, Paris, or Milan) from different countries and many of them are already studying in Italy, Great Britain, or America.” When talking about non-Western designers, Sozzani equates studying in Italy, Great Britain, or America as progress – steps toward success. While this may be true given the weight and the high caliber of designs schools in these countries, Sozzani elucidates a common practice among fashion people to place more value on studying and working in the West opposed to elsewhere.

The result of placing more value on the West pushes the globalization of fashion in many ways. For one, people wanting to succeed in international fashion feel pressured to study fashion abroad. At Parsons, arguably the most respected design school in the country, 32% of the undergraduate population comes from outside the U.S., mostly from China, India, Korea, Canada, and Mexico. In many cases, only very wealthy international students have the opportunity to study abroad in light of poor exchange rates, expensive airfare, and many colleges’ lack of financial aid for international students. These are very real financial limits for middle-to-lower class designers in the non-West. Furthermore, increased pressure for non-Western design students to study abroad devalues design education outside the Western world, removes talent from the local design scene, and prevents or slows the growth of fashion capitals outside the West.

Another result of constructing a Western-centric fashion industry is increased pressure on non-Western designers to abandon their own artistic autonomy and to replicate designs that already flourish in Western fashion. Last year, I attended Korean-based General Idea’s menswear show at New York Fashion Week. The first half of the collection was a parade of pieced shirts and newsboy looks that struck a striking resemblence to the work of Japanese designer Junya Watanabe, who has been showing his collections in Paris since the 80s. By contrast, the second half of the General Idea show had splotches of paint and large handwritten words scrawled across head-to-toe looks (including bags) á la Stephen Sprouse. The artistic reference was crass in light of Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with Stephen Sprouse in 2008, which resulted in a line of classic Louis leather bags covered in bright, painted-effect “Louis Vuitton” text. But one has to wonder why a designer who often copies Western trends is one of the only Korean designers who shows at New York Fashion Week. One interpretation is that his aesthetic, though unoriginal, was in line with what the Western design world wants to see.

If fashion wants the globalization process to become more egalitarian, it needs to give more weight to non-Western designers and design schools in the international fashion market. One way to do this is by more actively and thoroughly covering fashion weeks that take place outside New York, Paris, London, and Milan. This would grant local talent more access to buyers, editors, and the general public, thereby increasing their potential growth and making the current, very costly trend of showing in Europe or the U.S. obsolete.

(from left to right) Kawakubo, Yamamoto, and Watanabe

Non-Western designers with international clout also have a responsibility to increase the profile of their home countries. Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Junya Watanabe, for example, have been showing their collections in Paris for almost 3 decades with much critical and commercial success. They’ve become staples for major buyers and editors in the European fashion circuit. Suppose if these designers staged a collective revolt and showed in Tokyo instead of Paris every season. Editors and buyers would be forced to pay more attention to Tokyo as a fashion capital, thus allowing otehr Japanese designers more international exposure.

According to Sozzani, mixing a designer’s culture with that of others “must be true to one’s own history, otherwise, it is just an exercise in style, and ends up being too ethnical [sic] or too generic.” I agree, but what Sozzani doesn’t acknowledge is that in this “globalized” fashion industry, where non-Western designers work around Western expectations, non-Western designers must incorporate a large part of Western history into the telling of their own design stories. It is only this way that their histories will be heard.

Karl Lagerfeld’s Heterosexual Fantasy

July 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

For Fendi’s latest ad campaign, Karl Lagerfeld shot Polish beauty Anja Rubik, American model Brad Kroenig, and his French pet, Baptiste Giabiconi, in what looks like a late 19th century artist’s studio. Kroenig positions himself behind an easel while the statuesque Rubik languidly poses on various scattered items of furniture: a mustard-colored chair, a burgundy love seat, a stack of frames leaning against the wall, a wooden side table. In the background sit glass jars filled with brushes and monumental paintings, which in their soft color palette and ethereality, vaguely resemble French Impressionist works.

The shoot draws a comparison between the Old World painter-model dynamic and the more contemporary designer-model relationship. In the ad, Kroenig utilizes Rubik’s body as the inspiration for transforming a blank canvas into a work of art. In a similar vein, Lagerfeld directs Rubik, Kroenig, and Giabiconi to carry out his artistic vision for the Fendi ads. Instead of paint, however, Lagerfeld uses luxe fabric, flattering lighting, and a camera to create his work.

The images have a strong heterosexual imperative, which starts with Rubik’s sultry poses toward Kroenig and culminates in Giabiconi and Rubik posing with their fictional children for a family portrait. The heterosexuality of the photos is bizarre in light of Lagerfeld’s conspicuous homosexuality. To my knowledge, Lagerfeld hasn’t had any public romantic relationships with men, but his continuing infatuation with Giabiconi alone is telling. For the past few years, Giabiconi has starred in virtually every ad campaign and walked in almost every runway show Lagerfeld has directed, most of which are for womenswear. He even starred in Lagerfeld’s video ads for Magnum ice cream, one of which casts him as a playboy photographer. If I didn’t know better, I would assume Giabiconi served as Lagerfeld’s pool boy on his off days, scooping up leaves in a g-string while Lagerfeld looked on.

The series of ads could collectively be read as Karl Lagerfeld’s heterosexual fantasy. He shoots Kroenig gazing at Rubik, then puts himself in Kroenig’s position, staring at Rubik as if he were Kroenig. In doing this, he grants himself a heterosexual gaze. In another image of the series, he creates a family portrait with Giabiconi and Rubik as the parents, creating an image of the nuclear family he can’t have. Rubik’s conspicuous wig, Giabiconi’s stiff pose, and the incongruity of expression among the family members create an artificial quality, suggesting Lagerfeld’s awareness of the scenario’s impossibility in his own life.

One wonders what led Lagerfeld to create this imagery that strays so far from his own experience as a presumably gay man. But perhaps the answer is obvious. Lagerfeld is just doing what he does best: creating a fantasy.

Do Only White Models Get to be Ugly?

July 18, 2011 § 2 Comments

Lara Stone for Calvin Klein F/W 10 (via Models.com)

Fashion is having a Lara Stone moment – again. She is the face for Tom Ford’s new beauty line, meaning her exclusive for Calvin Klein has come to an end . No matter – she is still the face of Calvin Klein’s Fall/Winter campaign and its new underwear line, Naked Glamour. Stone is a unique face in fashion. While she can look pretty and soft, she has granite cheekbones, a protruding brow and a gap between her front teeth that give her a harder, more masculine edge. She also has breasts (a no-no in high fashion) and a clumsy walk. Still, her uniqueness has catapulted her to the top of fashion. In 2009, W called her the “most-wanted face” in fashion. In Interview magazine, Marc Jacobs writes that she brims with “feral attitude and personality and sexuality.” Stone, on the cover of August’s French Vogue, is an editorial favorite. That marked her seventh cover; former French Vogue editor, Carine Roitfeld put Stone on six covers, and even dedicated an entire issue to her. It’s easy to see why. Stone epitomizes the Roitfeld woman: tough, sexy, and a little freaky.

Lara Stone is part of an increasingly visible portion of high fashion – odd, gawky, and sometimes, downright busted. In a post entitled, “What is Beauty?” Photographer Garance Doré was taken by Nina Porter, then the face of Burberry. Porter’s grey eyes, short hair, and scrunched features look more appropriate in Middle Earth than on a catwalk. Doré believes that Porter, and other models like her, are an indication of evolving fashion standards. Others include Daphne Groeneveld, Lindsey Wixson, and Saskia de Brauw. They have awesomely odd features that makes them look distinctive, interesting, and alluring.

Saskia for Versace F/W 11 (left) and Saskia on the cover of French Vogue (right)

Nevertheless, the “blank canvases” – like Anja Rubik and Angela Lindvall – still exist. It is also true that any skilled Photoshopper can turn any of these eccentric beauties into a blank canvas. Compare the two images above: de Brauw’s Versace ad with her March cover of French Vogue. Still, the band of weird, tattooed, sometimes androgynous, sometimes masculine models are pushing the boundaries of fashion. They are moving fashion more towards the idea of individual beauty, and often, designers and editors use them to give their images personality and edge.

From left to right: Joan Smalls, Jourdan Dunn, and Liu Wen

While fashion’s expanding idea of beauty is something to celebrate, it’s important to ask: why all of these “pretty-ugly” models white? The current top models of color are, by contrast, very beautiful. Flawless, really. Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls, Liu Wen, et. al. all have the features of a classically beautiful model: small face, high nose bridge, symmetrical proportions. They don’t have jutting facial bones or bug eyes. And while it may sound contrarian to lament their fresh and clean looks, it is to point out that standards of beauty for models of color have remained almost static since the days of Beverly Johnson.

How can beauty standards for models of color evolve when it is a struggle to simply put one on the cover of a magazine? Fashion has a schizophrenic relationship with race. Either there are few to no models on the runway (as is often the case at Calvin Klein, Versace, and Jil Sander) or fashion wants to make a dramatic point about using models of color, as when Lanvin sent black models down the runway en masse to close its Spring 2011 show, or Vogue Italia’s now infamous “black issue” or V magazine’s recent “Asian” issue. They want you to know that they are celebrating diversity. Simply put, being of color is enough to set a model apart. So while funky features can be a boon to a white model,  they become a hindrance for a model of color. Their ethnicity is enough personality. Why add gapped teeth?

Similar standards seem to apply to “plus size” models. Representative “plus-size” model, Crystal Renn has a conventionally beautiful face. She is also the only one who has really broken into the higher echelons of fashion – a rise that coincided with a noticeable weight loss. As for the other “plus size” models, they, too, are never allowed to forget that fashion deems them big. Fashion editorials enjoy undressing them to remind people of just how big they are while slapping a bad pun like “A Life in Full” (Kate Dillon in American Vogue) or “Curves Ahead” (V Magazine) over their photos. It’s important to note that most of these women, too, are generally white. For a model of color, having a busty figure, would be yet another hurdle to overcome.

The one exception to this standard was probably Alek Wek – the Sudanese-born model – who rose in the nineties with a shaved head and full cheeks. Wek has since moved on to charity work, but her look has created the “exotic, dark-skinned African with a shaved head” type. Two rising African models – Ajak Deng and Grace Bol – fit the look (so much so that the latter says people sometimes confuse her with Wek); they also just so happen to also be Sudanese in origin. Perhaps it is only through these problematic “categories” that models of color will begin to achieve the diversity that their white counterparts so enjoy.

What’s “Too Gay” For Fashion?

July 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’m pretty sure most people would say that I dress gay. I’m not afraid of short shorts, my jeans are sometimes so tight I have to put them on laying down, and my t-shirts show off my time at the gym as well as my time away from it. But even for me, a flamer working in fashion, there are limits to how much flamboyance I want to project in my wardrobe. Just the other day, I considered buying a red, floral Engineering Garments shirt online. The pros included that it was cute and 50% off. Plus, I’ve always wanted a floral shirt; Simon Doonan, the Creative Ambassador for Barneys, wears them all the time and looks fabulous. But after some discussion with my boyfriend, Alex, I decided to forgo it. “Too gay,” I thought. “Too gay and not-on-sale enough to risk looking like a Rose Parade float.”

I realized recently that my seemingly silly concern about looking “too gay” was shared by other faggy fashionistas. Over the weekend, I saw clips from the soon-to-be-released documentary The Guts of Duckie Brown, which follows Duckie Brown designers Steven Cox and Daniel Silver as they create their latest collection. In one particularly endearing and utterly honest clip, Steven Cox discusses the conflict and eventually acceptance he experienced in dressing what some would consider a garish (or gay!) manner: “I admit sometimes that I have been homophobic and have been a self-loathing homosexual because I wanna be like butch and like a real man and things like that, but in the end you’ve got to own it. It’s ok to wear a floral, nylon jacket.”

The male desire to look butch – or stereotypically masculine – that Cox expressed serves as a strong marketing and design force in menswear. Fashionista reports that at a Q&A following a private screening of their documentary, the Duckie Brown duo shared that “their clothes have been criticized for being ‘too gay’ and unfit for mainstream fashion magazines that target ‘real men.’” As a result, their clothes don’t receive the attention from buyers or the coverage from media that they would need to grow as a brand.

Chris Evans on the cover of July's GQ (via deskofbrian.com)

Ryan Reynolds on the cover of Details' July issue (via modareel.com)

The value placed on conventional masculinity that the Duckies were expressing is seen in fashion magazines every month. Take GQ’s July cover, which features Chris Evans sporting a double breasted navy blazer, blue jeans, simple white t-shirt, and a tuft of chest hair. With no pattern, color, or new design ideas, the outfit doesn’t push any sartorial boundaries. And I don’t think anyone is going to argue that Evans is a fashion icon. But despite the seeming lack of fashion on this cover, GQ chose this image because it reflects a mainstream ideal of masculinity that America covets. Evans is straight and buff, and his clothes are understated and follow a classically masculine silhouette. Male readers can see it and think, “I want to look like him,” and because of this, GQ will probably sell more issues.

Details Magazine’s July cover demonstrates a similar mentality, putting another straight, uninspiringly dressed figure – Ryan Reynolds – on its cover under the tagline, “Ryan Reynolds is just like you.” Like the GQ cover, it promotes a conventional masculinity targeted at the average American man. The overall image has enough polish for a fashion magazine, but it’s not obscure or experimental enough to scare away readers or make them feel emasculated (no Duckie Brown here!).

Despite my criticisms of these images, I’ll readily admit that I’m not above staring at or even sometimes admiring them. But for me, an awareness of my reactions to media allows me to better control their impact on my self expression and self esteem. I think other men should reflect on how media influences them as well. Maybe if this happens, boundary pushing designers like Duckie Brown will get more editorial attention, attract more buyers, and have a clientele that extends beyond just big fags.

Freja’s Muse

July 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Freja and Arizona, shot by Terry Richardson last April (via Elle)

I never intended for this space to feed into the fashion rumor mill (this is a classy blog, damn it!), but if gossip about same-sex models dating emerges, you can bet it’ll show up here sooner or later. On that note, Elle reports buzz from the Paris Couture shows about a courtship between my favorite lesbian model Freja Beha Erichsen and the face of Prada’s baroque-gone-bananas S/S 11 collection, Arizona Muse. It’s surprising because (a) I only know of 1 queer model couple in fashion history – Freja and Catherine McNeil who dated in 2008 – and (b) who knew Arizona was queer? (I had assumed she was straight after hearing she had a baby just a couple of years ago. I was equating birthing with sexuality – silly me, I know.)

So there now might be a new queer model and a new queer couple! How exciting! If Freja and Arizona are, in fact, dating, I wish them the best. If they’re not, then blame Elle for spreading false gossip!

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