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.


Power Execs and Saggy-Boobed Hippies: Portraits of Everyday Women

August 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

After several seasons of flying under the fashion radar, Donna Karan released an ad campaign for F/W 11 that has people talking. Fashionista exclaims that they “love the story in this campaign” while Made in Brazil toots that it’s “the best Donna Karan ad campaign in a very long time.” What’s ironic about this campaign’s widespread praise is its somewhat banal narrative and down-to-earth imagery. It’s not edgy and eye-catching like Versace’s F/W 11 campaign, which depicts Saskia de Brauw posing in a disco-meets-Seventh Seal landscape. Rather, Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin shot Brazilian model Isabeli Fontana conducting a series of mundane activities: meeting with executives at the office, testifying in court, lounging in the back of a car, attending what could be a chichi charity event, and looking after her children. All the while she wears quietly elegant Donna Karan dresses and suits constructed from fur, wool, and silk in shades of creme and grey.

The power of this campaign lies in its ability to speak to the everyday woman. Seeing Fontana in familiar roles like business partner, date, and mother, leads viewers to easily identify with her and the American dream she embodies of having it all. Unlike fashion campaigns set in highly conceptual or digitized spaces that bear little resemblance to mainstream American life, Donna Karan’s ad campaign allows consumers to see themselves in the fictional, yet seemingly accessible space where the ad takes place.

Feminist artist Cindy Sherman has explored the idea of the everyday woman in her photography-based work since she debut her series “Untitled Film Stills” in the early 80s. From then on, she has utilized a modest set of costumes, wigs, and makeup to photograph herself as a range of satirical characters – an entertainment mogul’s wife, a desperate hitchhiker, a mousy librarian, a still corpse, a supine catalog model, a rustic cowgirl, a Renaissance courtesan. At first glance, Sherman’s characters seem like mere satires of familiar, American female figures. But closer inspection reveals their reflection of the hopelessness and longing that women can feel in our image-obsessed world today.

For a show at the Gagogian Gallery in 2000, Sherman assembled 12 photographs of herself as a washed-out biker chick, an aging Upper East Side lady-who-lunches, a jogger pruned from the sun, and a dreadlock-donning hippie with boobs sagging to her knees, amongst others. There is an blatant humor in these images, seen in the conspicuously artificial costuming, the awkward poses, and emphasis on sagging breasts. But the women also convey a sense of  sadness and longing in their empty smiles and dated sense of beauty. In a profile of Sherman for the New Yorker in 2000, Calvin Tomkins comments that Sherman’s figures “projected a kind of desperation that went beyond parody. They weren’t losers, exactly, but you couldn’t help but see how hard they worked to hang on to things- youth, glamour, hope. Although the women might appear shallow, with their silicon implants and gaudy makeup, their stories ran deep.”

We initially laugh at Sherman’s characters’ attempts to fulfill an aspirational beauty ideal, but we soon empathize with them as we become aware of their seemingly pathetic inability to achieve it. We feel their powerlessness.

V Magazine‘s current “Transformation Issue” features an interview with Sherman. The introduction reads:

“What Sherman captures with her physicality, costuming, and performance posing is a rendering of what it means to be a woman. And that means being everything a woman can be – with the constant fear of collapsing into nothing. Sherman’s work recalls Berlin’s song ‘Sex (I’m A…),’ in which singer Terri Nunn’s refrain is an increasingly frantic plea declaring her uberwomanhood: ‘I’m a slut, I’m a geisha, I’m your babe, I’m a dream divine.’ The list goes on.”

While the Donna Karan ads created an aspirational ideal of the everyday woman, Cindy Sherman’s work constructs an image of the everyday woman that’s impressionable, aesthetically insecure, and closer to the reality of how many women (and men) live. Sherman’s range of characters, at once sad, joyous, and mysterious, show a diversity of identity with which women, and more extensively all people, can express themselves. But her work also elucidates our vulnerability to hegemonic beauty ideals and our constant temptation to be people we are not or can ever become. In exposing the bizarreness of straying from one’s true self, Sherman teaches us to acknowledge our shared human experiences and at some point, to laugh at our own attempts to be what Donna Karan would say is just “everyday.”

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.

Color Recap For Paris and Milan Menswear S/S 12

June 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Milan and Paris shows took a different spin on the primary colors, turning reds into coral and berry, yellow into mustard, and blue into an icy cerulean. Designers mixed these with deeper neutral hues of browns and whites, creating a warmer and slightly more somber color palette. This was a shift from a spring/summer 2011 season that was heavy on saturated brights.

My favorite palettes of the spring/summer 2012 season were the corals at Commes des Garcons and Versace, and the dark blues at Armani and Gucci. Mustard, one of the new colors of the season, looked fresh and gave the collections a retro kick. Look below for some colors to look forward to next spring.


Clockwise from top left: Dries van Noten, Roberto Cavalli, Costume National, Versace, Canali, and Commes des Garcons

Mud Brown

Clockwise from top left: Bottega Venetta, Etro, Missoni, Z Zegna, Burberry Prorsum, and Louis Vuitton

Pool Blue

Clockwise from top left: Bottega Venetta, Martin Margiela, Raf Simons, Canali, Burberry Prorsum, and Z Zegna

Shades of Grey

Clockwise from top left: Commes des Garcons, Bottega Venetta, Gucci, Lanvin, Hermes, and Calvin Klein

Midnight Blue

Clockwise from top left: Salvatore Ferregamo, Gorgio Armani, Gucci, Etro, Missoni, and Canali


Clockwise from top left: Canali, Gucci, Missoni, Commes des Garcons, Burberry Prorsum, and Lanvin

Bright White

Clockwise from top left: Commes des Garcons, Z Zegna, Calvin Klein, Dolce and Gabanna, Moncler Gamme Bleu, and Bottega Venetta


Clockwise from top left: Alexander McQueen, Burberry Prorsum, Roberto Cavalli, Versace, Raf Simons, and Z Zegna

The 5 Best Trends From Milan S/S 12

June 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Most people wait until the end of the Paris shows to analyze trends, but there were so many that emerged in Milan that I figured I’d just start now. So without further ado, here are my 5 favorite trends from the Milan S/S 12 shows.

5. Head-to-Toe Striped Looks

Moncler, Roberto Cavalli, and Band of Outsiders (via GQ)

Just when I was getting bored of stripes, designers in Milan served them in a new way – with even more stripes. Head-to-toe stripe looks were seen at Roberto Cavalli and Band of Outsiders (BoO), but they dominated the runway at Moncler Gamme Bleu, where almost half of the looks followed this trend.  The stripes at BoO and Moncler were horizontal black and white, nodding to the perennial nautical trend and perhaps the Hamburglar as well. The hoodies weren’t anything special – you’ll probably find them at Uniqlo next summer in 8 colors– but the tailored items looked dazzling, bringing to mind images of sailboats in Saint Tropez. Roberto Cavalli sent railroad stripes down the runway in conventional navy as well as it’s signature cranberry. The overall effect was somewhat 70s, but with a gritty edge.

4. Space Dying

Jil Sander, Gucci, and Missoni (via GQ)

Space dyed knits can sometimes look dowdy, like you stole it from your grandpa’s closet, but for S/S 12, designers offered space dyed items infused with youth and contemporary appeal. Jil Sander, for example, showed a number of short-sleeved sweaters in mandarin, crimson, and forest green. They looked perfect for a tennis match in the Hamptons, but don’t tell Jil Sander’s goth-inspired designer Raf Simons – he wouldn’t be pleased. Missoni offered a wide range of space dyed items per usual – sweaters, cardigans, and shirts – but this season she used a tighter knit, giving them a weightless visual quality. Gucci’s space dyed sweaters in charcoal were the biggest and chunkiest of the season. Perhaps you should save them for winter, though. They might cause heat stroke.

3. Scrollwork

Etro, Versace, and D&G (via GQ)

For those of you who don’t know, scrollwork is the twisty, plant-like pattern often printed on silk. I had no idea what it was called until I Googled it last night – it originally sat in my notes under the label “gold thing.” I had once thought scrollwork was tacky, associating it with church ladies and rich men from Miami who unbuttoned their shirts to their belly buttons. But for some reason the print looks fresh and youthful this season. Its vine-like forms crawled around blazers at Etro. At Versace, it mixed with psychedelic zebra stripes for an explosion of contrasting shapes. But D&G embraced scrollwork the most, printing it on silk shirts, jackets, and shorts worn all at once.

2. Child-like Prints

Prada, Z Zegna, and Burberry Prorsum (via GQ)

Some of the prints from Milan got me thinking of how I might want to wallpaper my future child’s bedroom. Would a candy theme make them fat when they grow up? Would cartoon wrenches make them too masculine? At Prada, Z Zegna, and Burberry, the child-like prints of cartoon cars, tools, and what looked like abstracted candy wrappers tickled the imagination and brought a sense of playful nostalgia to the fashion season. “Lighten up,” they seemed to say, “It’s just fashion.”

1. Floral

Alexander McQueen, Moschino, and Prada (via GQ)

Last night I was debating whether or not to buy an red, Engineered Garments floral shirt online. It was on sale, afterall. But then my boyfriend spoke: “You’d probably want to cover it with a sweater.” Enough said – it would make me look like Rose Parade float. It’s a shame, though, because the floral trend will be in full bloom next Spring. At Moschino, the flowers were red and blue Hibiscus and recalled a 60s vacation to Hawaii. Prada printed hot pink and neon green buds on everything from trousers to puffy jackets. At McQueen, the highlight piece was a dark, dense floral print blazer cut short at the waist and sleeves. The look was new for menswear, but it had clear influence from Balenciaga’s iconic F/W 08 show where he put floral print on a range of futuristic dresses.

Versace Goes Commercial, Just Like Everyone Else

June 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

For almost a decade, the Swedish mega-retailer H&M has collaborated with some of fashion’s biggest designers to offer their customers high fashion at commercial prices. The first line came out in 2002 with a collection by Karl Lagerfeld. Since then, the list has grown to include Commes des Garcon, Stella McCartney, Viktor & Rolf, and Lanvin, amongst others. Italian label Versace, known for its flamboyantly sexy aesthetic, is the latest designer to be tapped for collaboration. But this most recent choice is surprising, considering just a few years ago Versace’s queen bee Donatella explicitly rejected any possibility of doing a line with H&M in an interview with New York Magazine: “I work very hard to put Versace in the luxury section. I think to put the Versace line in H&M would confuse the brand.”

Versace working on her line (via NYMag)

A look from Versace x H&M (via NYMag)

Donatella was expressing the sentiment – once common in high fashion – that luxury and commercial don’t mix. That doing a line for H&M, a store made famous by offering cheap yet trendy clothes, would devalue the brand in the eyes of its rich clientele.

But clearly Donatella has since changed her point of view. Yes, luxury can mix with commercial! And there are already a number of designers who have come to this conclusion. Chanel, for example, shocked the fashion world last year by choosing Blake Lively as its new spokeswoman. In the ’90s, fashion houses used supermodels like Claudia Schiffer or Linda Evangelista as their public face, not teen idols who play superhero love interests. Choosing Lively made it clear that Chanel was going mainstream.

Blake Lively as the face of Chanel (via superstarmagazine.com)

As Chanel demonstrated with Lively, the most popular and probably most effective way for a luxury brand to put itself into the mainstream is by aligning themselves with celebrities. In 2009, Louis Vuitton took this method to another level when it released a line of shoes co-designed by Kanye West. This wasn’t a complete surprise, as Louis Vuitton had collaborated before with artists such as Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Murakami. But no previous collaborator had nearly as much commercial appeal as Kanye, who had already had several number 1 singles and Grammys by that time. Also, Vuitton’s previous collaborators had been visual artists who used their craft to add artistic dimension to existing Vuitton goods. Kanye, on the other hand, was a rapper designing shoes in the dark.

Kanye West and Marc Jacobs show off shoe from collaboration (via JustJared)

Later that year, in what many consider a moment of delusion, French fashion house Ungaro used a similar tactic by tapping Lindsay Lohan as artistic advisor for their S/S 10 line. Technically, the head designer of the line was Estrella Archs, but the runway show made it clear that Archs was merely serving as Lindsay’s puppet. That season, the Ungaro runway was lined in hot pink, and the models strutted down the catwalk in dresses that looked like chewed-up sticks of bubblegum wrapped around their bodies. To some, they simply read as glorified hooker clothes.

A look from Lohan's S/S 10 line for Ungaro

Lohan and Archs

But it seems that the products celebrities create for fashion labels often don’t matter – in truth, it’s only the association that labels care about. For example, although Ungaro’s Lohan collaboration resulted in a critically panned fashion show, the gesture put Ungaro’s name in the headlines in a way that even a stellar collection would not have. As a fashion house that had lost relevance over the years, this was an especially important jump start for the label.

Of all the ways a fashion brand can go mainstream, teaming up with H&M is one of the best. Both H&M and the brand benefit from increased media coverage and revenue, while fashion consumers gain access to the luxury brands they previously could only dream of. In doing a line with H&M, Donatella is just helping Versace stay in the game. We’re just happy she’s playing.

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