There is no such thing as an original idea; we’ve all heard the saying. It’s the fairly downbeat theory that, whatever marketeers may put in front of you, it will always just be a rehashed idea of someone else’s. And nowhere does it ring more true than in the fashion industry. The departures of Raf Simons from Dior and Alber Elbaz from Lanvin are poignant reminders of the constant pressure to create collections – collections that are critically acclaimed and commercially successful. But as I perused this season’s SS16 offerings, it seemed that some designers thought it an opportune moment to borrow not from couturiers’ past, but from entire cultures. Collections were inspired by continents and countries and presented with none of their people, which in this day and age, is just not okay.
Complete with cornrowed hair and masai beading, Valentino’s SS16 offering was described by its designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, as a message in “tolerance and the beauty that comes out of cross-cultural expression,” and yet only 8 of the 90 looks showcased were on women of colour. Take to Valentino’s twitter to find the collection described as “primitive, tribal, spiritual yet regal.” The “yet regal” particularly hard to stomach. And in its subsequent critiques, fashion journalists threw glowing reviews of the “Africa-themed” collection, ignoring the fact that Africa is a continent with many different traditions, cultures and styles. So “Africa-themed” means, what exactly?
Japanese designer Junya Watanabe, a legend in the fashion world, intertwined Kente and Batik fabrics, traditionally found in West Africa and displayed his SS16 collection on models with the traditional scarring of the Karamojong people of Uganda on an all-white cast of models, ironically shown at Paris’ National Museum of Immigration History. This was prefaced by a SS16 menswear offering that included, (again, you’ve guessed it) an all-white cast in masai beads, battle shields, spears and fake dreadlocks. Twitter asked, quite amusingly, if this was the Junya’s Rachel Dolezal collection. And while we can laugh for a moment, you have to ask yourself, how did these designs make it down the runway without someone flagging the potential offence that could be taken? Is it a case of what the designer says goes? Or, more soberingly, does fashion just not want to face its own ignorance?
Designers have long taken inspiration from cultures and communities outside of their own. In 2011, Hermès debuted a limited collection of silk sarees designed in collaboration with Sunita Kumar, a Kolkata based designer; Alexander McQueen’s AW08 show was inspired by Indian costume and royalty; and John Galliano’s collections for Dior were filled with cross cultural references. All three stick out in recent memory as examples of when fashion designers have paid homage to the countries that they love. It’s a fine line, because if we’re constantly being mindful of appropriation and political correctness, it’s true that we may miss out on beautiful ideas and on an overarching message of unity that sometimes, fashion has the power to create. But too often fashion is not mindful, not at all, and it takes ownership of other people’s stories without giving them a chance to tell them. Instead of using beading, fringing and fabrics with a country in mind, why do fashion houses not find ways to incorporate the production of these garments into the places, and by the people, it lends from? Well, because of cost mostly, but given the cost of the items, surely this is achievable.
It’s 2015. With the click of a button, I can be transported around the world, and learn about clothes and cultures far away from my London bedroom. I can see the lands and the seas of people completely different to me. I can even communicate with them, share ideas and learn from them, and that is a beautiful thing. Something I would never want to eradicate. Why? Because it brings the world closer together. It’s something my parents weren’t lucky enough to be afforded when they were younger, and it’s our generation’s exposure and empathy to others across the globe that will, I believe, make the world a better place.
But the truth remains, that as much as I can Google, I will have never have walked in that person’s shoes, and I will have never have known their struggles or their circumstances. So no matter how much I enjoy learning about it, how accurately will I ever be able to portray it? As much as the industry can churn out £6000 dresses in an idealistic notion of an understanding and tolerant global nation, it’s a bit rich when representing cultures where that money could feed entire communities.
The fact is that women of colour make up only 21% of the models in the four major fashion weeks. What we need is representation, not tokenism, and by prominent industry players of all colours, not just people of colour such as Bethann Hardison and Edward Enninful, who tirelessly fight the cause. Racism in the industry must be fought just as hard by white editors, writers, designers, casting directors, photographers and model agents. The frustrating fact is that this discussion is not new, and it won’t get old until the entire industry moves forward, together.
The thing I love about fashion is its potential for transformation. I can step into a store as me and come out as someone completely different – someone nowhere near as pedestrian. Saint Laurent tux and killer heels and I am a power exec whose closest thing to a daily commute is walking from the curb to the car. Simply slip on a floor-length satin gown and you can channel 1940’s Rita Hayworth glamour. Indeed, fashion remains one of the simplest ways to feel good, feel different and feel like someone else. But that’s exactly what it is: a feeling. The reality? I will always be me. In life, there are constants and there are variables. One of my constants is that I am black, and I am completely fine with it. Not just fine, incredibly proud of it. The variables? I can’t control how people feel about that or how my blackness is perceived. Fashion’s way of whitewashing cultures will hold us back decades unless the industry fully understands the subliminal messages it conveys every time a woman of colour fails to be included in a line-up, isn’t represented in the pages of its magazines or isn’t catered to in the beauty hall.
What’s so sad about all this is that fashion’s influence permeates through much more than just the industry. 2015 is truly the age where a model, designer or an editor can be a celebrity, a tour de force and more importantly, a force for change. Fashion must shake itself of its ignorant slumber and fully realise its collective reach and act more responsibly when it comes to race and cultural appropriation for everyone, not just a chosen few. The choice is ours. Wake up or keep dreaming?