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 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 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.
June 20, 2011 § 3 Comments
Yesterday, Italian Vogue Editor Franca Sozzani posted a blog entry titled “Why is it so hard to scout for black models?” In it, she discusses the disproportionate white-to-black model ratio in fashion today, which she attributes to model agencies’ heavy scouting in Eastern Europe and lack of scouting elsewhere. Franca, a steadfast proponent of diversifying fashion, offers one possible solution to increasing the number of black models: scout in Africa! “There’s a new generation of models coming from Tunisia and Morocco,” she says, so more aggressive scouting in these areas would increase the number of black models, right?
I have no doubt that scouting in Africa would result in greater numbers of black models on the runway and in magazines, but but I have reservations toward this idea because of the exotified way in which the fashion industry currently treats African, and more generally, black models. One way they do so is by physically separating them from non-black models in various fashion gigs. Take Lanvin’s S/S 11 show, for example, in which a cluster of 5 black models closed. Before this point in the show, the other models, almost all of whom were non-black, walked the runway as they usually do: one-by-one. In an interview with Robin Givhan, Lanvin’s designer Alber Elbaz explained that the gesture was purely aesthetic. The black models wore a group of prints he didn’t think coalesced with the rest of the show, and to work them in, he put them on a group of black models at the end as a visual addendum. “They would be separate. But equal.” Givhan writes.
The separation of black models is often seen in magazine editorials as well, and quite often, they’re dressed to look African, or at least African in the way the West conceptualizes it. This has happened in American Vogue several times this year alone. This past February, for example, they published “Gangs of New York” and dressed a group of black models in large head wraps and earthy Rodarte clothing. The head wraps were not part of the Rodarte show, but rather were a stylistic addition by Vogue. The other pages of the spread consisted of either all white or all Asian models wearing clothing that extended beyond ethnic costume: pantsuits, printed scarves, and playful cocktail dresses to name some.
Just one month later, Vogue published “The Life Rhapsodic,” in which a group of black models danced around in African-inspired looks. Some of their outfits were covered in animal prints, and those models with longer hair had dried plants woven through their braids.
So what are the repercussions of separating black models and conceptualizing them as old-school African? One is that these models lose their individual identities. Last week, New York Magazine featured Sudanese-American Grace Bol on their “Meet the New Girl” series that features fashion’s latest up-and-comers. In her interview, when asked if people compared her to Sudanese model Alek Wek, she replied:
“All the time! People actually think I’m Alek when I’m walking down the street. Several people have chased me down just to get my autograph, and even when I explain to them that I’m not Alek, they think I’m lying!”
To be fair, both models are skinny, dark-skinned, and have little-to-no hair. But still, repeatedly presenting black models in groups and styling them as tribespeople would encourage people to misidentify them. Why? Because it prevents black models from creating individual identities, or one that is distinct from other black models. We, as consumers, are taught to look at them only as part of an exotic group of “others.”
If modeling agencies begin to scout more heavily in Africa, I hope designers and editors dress them in more creative ways than animal prints and head wraps. I hope that they are given as much diversity in their work as their non-black counterparts, walk the runway individually, have their picture taken with models of different races, and get gigs that encourage personality and maybe even sexiness. This, to me, will diversity fashion in a way that feels genuine, and in a way that promotes real diversity.