Racism In Fashion

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.

Valentino, SS16

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?

Junya Watanabe, SS16

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. 

Binx Walton, Amilna Estevao, Aya Jones and Tami Williams styled by Edward Enninful for the August 2015 issue of W. Photographed by Emma Summerton.

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?