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.
July 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.