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.

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.

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.

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.

Burberry’s F/W 11 Ad Campaign Goes Interracial

July 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Burberry was really into couples for the S/S 11 season. Each of their ads featured a man and a woman lounging on the shore of a rocky beach in studded motorcycle jackets, leopard dresses, and silver leather pants. “Lost Goes Luxury” might have been the concept.

Burberry S/S 11

Burberry S/S 11

Burberry S/S 11

The clothes looked great, and the ads promoted an accessible, almost wholesome image for the brand. I thought it was strange, though, that the couples (I found 5 total) were either all white or black – there weren’t any interracial ones (or Latino or Asian ones, but that’s another story). Considering they released at least 5 couple images for the season, why did Burberry choose to separate models by race in each shot? What did Burberry think interracial images would say about the brand? Would it have been too “edgy,” perhaps? I’m sure there was some marketing strategy at work here. Perhaps different images catered to different communities or publications (or countries?). I can’t be certain; however, I found the distinct separation of black and white to be off putting. It was, on some level, a “separate but equal” situation.

In light of the segregated images from the S/S 11 season, I was pleasantly surprised to see two interracial images as part of Burberry’s newly released F/W 11 campaign. They feature black model Jourdan Dunn posing with white British model Matthew Whitehouse.

Jourdan Dunn and Matthew Whitehouse for Burberry F/W 11 (via imageshack)

Jourdan Dunn and Matthew Whitehouse for Burberry F/W 11

The other images not included in this blog from the F/W 11 campaign feature random numbers of people posing, which makes the images of Dunn and Whitehouse appear much less couple-y. Regardless, it is nice to see interracial images when I open fashion magazines because, sadly, they can be rare.

Perhaps Burberry will push their racial consciousness even further next season and finally hire an Asian model. They might, but I’m not holding my breath.

Is Fashion Ready to Scout African Models?

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.

Black models closing Lanvin's S/S 11 show (via jadorefashionblog)

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.

"Gangs of New York" in American Vogue (via Models.com)

Another image from "Gangs of New York" (via Models.com)

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.

Image from "The Life Rhapsodic" (via Models.com)

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!”

Grace Bol (via NYMagazine)

Alek Wek on the cover of L'Officiel (via Models.com)

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.

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