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.

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.

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!

Japanese Models Absent From Armani’s Japanese-Inspired Couture Show

July 6, 2011 § 4 Comments

Although Japan was on Armani’s mind in the process of designing his latest couture collection, it certainly wasn’t when he was casting models. Out of the 44 looks that came down Armani’s mirrored runway yesterday, none of them were modeled by a Japanese person, or even a person of color. This white-out casting isn’t out of the ordinary in fashion shows, but it’s surprising in the context of the Armani’s Japanese theme, which produced dresses and pant suits adorned with cherry blossom prints and accessorized with oragami-inspired headpieces and obi-like belts. You would think Armani would have at least cast Japanese model Tao Okamoto, who was at Chanel yesterday.

Looks from Armani Prive

Armani should have taken advice from Ralph Lauren, who for his China-inspired F/W 11 collection cast new and old Chinese models throughout the show: Sui He, Lela Rose, Jing Ma, Ming Xi, Liu Wen, and Lily Zhi. While the show celebrated various aspects of Chinese culture, it also propelled a sizable group of Chinese models forward, giving them a modeling opportunity most often reserved for the standard ring of European and white American models, which includes Karlie Kloss, Freja Beha Erichsen, Abbey Lee, etc.

Rose, He, and Ma at Ralph Lauren's F/W 11 show

Although creating collections inspired by non-Western cultures makes me uncomfortable, I would prefer that when it happens that casting for the runway show reflects a wider appreciation of beauty from the cultures they are referencing. The Armani show clearly showed appreciation for the beauty of Japan’s art, flora, and history, but it would have been nice to see an appreciation for the beauty of Japanese people as well.

Valli Makes Sure You Know When He’s Using African Models

July 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

What I remember most about Giambattista Valli’s debut couture collection last monday was look #26 – a minidress constructed with layered ruffles of leopard print fabric and a wide band of spotted pheasant feathers around the collar. I’m sure it wasn’t a show stopper for most people, but it caught my attention on Sudanese model Ajak Deng, whose obvious African heritage transformed the dress into African tribal costume. It was as if Valli was saying “Voilá – look how pretty I made the African!”

Two looks after this, we saw a similar effect with Zimbabwe-born model Nyasha Matonhodze donning a tight, long-sleeve leopard dress accented again with pheasant feathers around the hem and what looks like a crescent metal work necklace.

Previous posts on this blog have commented on the ways in which fashion exotifies African models – clustering them at the end of shows, dressing them in head wraps and faux-tribal wear, and booking them exclusively for African-themed spreads. Here, Valli consciously dresses his two African models in animal prints and feathers, creating an exotic mystique around them. They’re visually separate from the other, non-African models who wore conservative, classic European looks referencing the blouse de cabine, a white poplin shirtdress commonly worn by atelier workers.

Valli sent down two other leopard-print looks down the runway that weren’t worn by African models. One of these looks directly followed Deng in the show – a voluminous leopard-print gown with a dramatic wrap of fabric around the waist and a long, airy, leopard-print cape trailing behind. It was modeled by Shu Pei Qin who is Chinese. The other leopard-print look was modeled by Dutch model Melissa Tammerjin and resembled that worn by Qin. The main difference between the two looks was that this one had more white in the print and had a gold leaf accessorizing the front of the gown.

Although these two looks are both leopard print, they evoke very different feelings than those worn by Deng and Matonhodze. The volume of their skirts and the presence of the cape make them more elegant and refined, recalling an exotic ball. By contrast, the more casual attitude and the pheasant feathers on the looks of Deng and Matonhodze make them look more primal and animalistic. It paints a picture of these African models as more primitive than their more upper-crust counterparts.

I appreciate that designers are hiring more African models, but I hope that they begin to treat them as equals. Perhaps this way, fashion, and eventually the public, will start seeing their real beauty.

Chanel and Givenchy Get Catty

July 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Feline pheromones are in the air! Just one day after writing about the emerging jaguar-print trend, Chanel released the first image from its F/W 11 campaign featuring my favorite lesbian model Freja Beha Erichsen working a high fashion catsuit. It’s not the sexy, shiny look that one would expect. Instead, Chanel designed a more modest, perhaps homely, version that resembles a really comfortable interpretation of the cat costumes my elementary school teachers perennially wore at Halloween. I love how the beanie-turned-cat head makes Freja look like she robbed a bank as a budget-version of Catwoman.

Meow (via FashionGoneRogue)

This ad is surprising in the context of recent Chanel campaigns, which usually present mundane images of Blake Lively climbing stairs or models having a picnic. With this ad, Chanel took a more abstract approach that leaves viewers with a list of questions: Why is she dressed like a cat? Why is she in a photobooth? Is Chanel really selling that outfit? My biggest question is why its stylist Carine Roitfeld, the ex-French Vogue Editor and queen of “porn chic,” styled the sexy, rock-n-roll loving Freja so conservatively. Roitfeld is known for vice-filled photo shoots involving lots of bare breasts, cigarettes, and grease. The conservatism of this ad makes me think that there is a deeper, Freudian meaning – maybe Freja is a Furry?

Givenchy has another take on the model-as-cat look from its F/W 11 campaign featuring supermodel Naomi Campbell, sitting on what looks like a really fancy cat bed. Campbell is definitely channeling a much angrier, sexier cat than Freja, but she’s also channeling Dracula as well (Doesn’t the design over her crotch looks like a pair of fangs?). This could possibly double as an ad for True Blood.

rawr! (via NYMag)

So as predicted in yesterday’s post on jaguar prints, cats are definitely having a moment. But unexpectedly, fashion doesn’t want you to just wear cat prints, they want you to act like cats. But please don’t take this trend too seriously. We don’t want to see people looking like anything besides human.

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