August 29, 2011 § 3 Comments
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?
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.”
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.”
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 Hipsters, the 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.
August 22, 2011 § 2 Comments
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.”
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?
August 11, 2011 § 2 Comments
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.