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.

The Limits of Globalizing Fashion

July 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

Last week, in a post titled “Fashion is a Melting Pot,” Italian Vogue Editor Franca Sozzani praised the increasingly globalized nature of fashion, alluding to the growing number of non-Western designers participating and gaining respect in the Western sphere. To her, these designers have amassed international attention by incorporating elements of traditional dress from their home countries into a “contemporary” aesthetic. She writes:

“New fashion designers from emerging countries are proposing a new fashion inspired by their country’s tradition, considered not as ethnic element any longer, but as part of a historical know-how, re-adjusted to contemporary silhouettes and therefore wearable in all cities of the world… It’s not the folklore that is exported, yet the culture, the local craftsmanship, the colors and the mood.” [sic] 

There’s no doubt that more non-Western designers and designers with non-Western backgrounds are entering fashion. In the U.S., for example, some of the most celebrated emerging designers are either first or second-generation Asian Americans, like Alexander Wang (China), Doo-Ri Chung, (Korea), Thakoon Panichgul (Thailand), and Prabal Gurung (Nepal). For the past decade, Asian Americans have dominated the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) awards, highlighting the pivotal role they have had in shaping American fashion. Furthermore, outside the U.S., increasing numbers of non-Western designers are showing their collections at internationally recognized and media-heavy fashion weeks in Milan and Paris. South Korean brands Songzio and Juun J, for example, show their collections in Paris every year and General Idea, designed by Seoul-based Bumsuk Choi, shows in New York.

(from left to right) Wang, Doo.Ri, Thakoon, and Gurung

But amidst increasing numbers of non-Western designers in fashion, the caveat that limits how “global” fashion can become is the expectation that these designers cater to Western design tastes. When describing how fashion will continue to globalize, Sozzani wrote, “The new generations will keep getting here (New York, Paris, or Milan) from different countries and many of them are already studying in Italy, Great Britain, or America.” When talking about non-Western designers, Sozzani equates studying in Italy, Great Britain, or America as progress – steps toward success. While this may be true given the weight and the high caliber of designs schools in these countries, Sozzani elucidates a common practice among fashion people to place more value on studying and working in the West opposed to elsewhere.

The result of placing more value on the West pushes the globalization of fashion in many ways. For one, people wanting to succeed in international fashion feel pressured to study fashion abroad. At Parsons, arguably the most respected design school in the country, 32% of the undergraduate population comes from outside the U.S., mostly from China, India, Korea, Canada, and Mexico. In many cases, only very wealthy international students have the opportunity to study abroad in light of poor exchange rates, expensive airfare, and many colleges’ lack of financial aid for international students. These are very real financial limits for middle-to-lower class designers in the non-West. Furthermore, increased pressure for non-Western design students to study abroad devalues design education outside the Western world, removes talent from the local design scene, and prevents or slows the growth of fashion capitals outside the West.

Another result of constructing a Western-centric fashion industry is increased pressure on non-Western designers to abandon their own artistic autonomy and to replicate designs that already flourish in Western fashion. Last year, I attended Korean-based General Idea’s menswear show at New York Fashion Week. The first half of the collection was a parade of pieced shirts and newsboy looks that struck a striking resemblence to the work of Japanese designer Junya Watanabe, who has been showing his collections in Paris since the 80s. By contrast, the second half of the General Idea show had splotches of paint and large handwritten words scrawled across head-to-toe looks (including bags) á la Stephen Sprouse. The artistic reference was crass in light of Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with Stephen Sprouse in 2008, which resulted in a line of classic Louis leather bags covered in bright, painted-effect “Louis Vuitton” text. But one has to wonder why a designer who often copies Western trends is one of the only Korean designers who shows at New York Fashion Week. One interpretation is that his aesthetic, though unoriginal, was in line with what the Western design world wants to see.

If fashion wants the globalization process to become more egalitarian, it needs to give more weight to non-Western designers and design schools in the international fashion market. One way to do this is by more actively and thoroughly covering fashion weeks that take place outside New York, Paris, London, and Milan. This would grant local talent more access to buyers, editors, and the general public, thereby increasing their potential growth and making the current, very costly trend of showing in Europe or the U.S. obsolete.

(from left to right) Kawakubo, Yamamoto, and Watanabe

Non-Western designers with international clout also have a responsibility to increase the profile of their home countries. Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo of Commes des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Junya Watanabe, for example, have been showing their collections in Paris for almost 3 decades with much critical and commercial success. They’ve become staples for major buyers and editors in the European fashion circuit. Suppose if these designers staged a collective revolt and showed in Tokyo instead of Paris every season. Editors and buyers would be forced to pay more attention to Tokyo as a fashion capital, thus allowing otehr Japanese designers more international exposure.

According to Sozzani, mixing a designer’s culture with that of others “must be true to one’s own history, otherwise, it is just an exercise in style, and ends up being too ethnical [sic] or too generic.” I agree, but what Sozzani doesn’t acknowledge is that in this “globalized” fashion industry, where non-Western designers work around Western expectations, non-Western designers must incorporate a large part of Western history into the telling of their own design stories. It is only this way that their histories will be heard.

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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