Up until recently, racism in fashion was something that was less talked about and more generally understood as a pervasive, if lamentable truth.
Givenchy’s Fall 2009 collection was, for lack of a better word, “Middle Eastern”-inspired. Style.com mentioned Morocco, nomadism, and Berber tribesmen as inspirations for the collection, perhaps incognizant to the fact that the Berber people are often stereotyped as nomadic. In actuality, they’re an indigenous group from North Africa, west of The Nile River, and are not nomadic, but mostly farmers living in agricultural communities in the mountains along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts.
Remember that time in 2011 when Vogue Italia deemed hoop earrings “Slave Earrings”? No? Well here is an excerpt:
If the name brings to mind the decorative traditions of the women of color who were brought to the southern United States during the slave trade, the latest interpretation is pure freedom. Colored stones, symbolic pendants and multiple spheres.
And then the racism in Dolce & Gabanna’s Spring 2013 collection was no less visible—in their earrings with Blackamoor imagery and their burlap sacks with images of African women screen-printed onto them.
Yet at the beginning of the this year’s New York Fashion Week, fashion activist Bethann Hardison brought this issue out from under its veil and into the forefront of the public’s mind. She wrote an open letter to the leading cities in fashion week—Milan, London, New York, and Paris—explicitly stating the need to eradicate the burgeoning racism present in many Fashion Week shows. Casting predominately white models is racist, she argued, “no matter the intention.” She then went on to call out specific designers who are pioneering this deplorable trend including Chanel, Dries van Noten, Lanvin, Valentino, and Saint Laurent, to name a few.
And it’s true—some designers did appear to take heed of her claim. Others didn’t. And others seemed to have tried…but failed.
After Yeezus was released, it slowly emerged that Kanye wrote both “I Am A God” and “Black Skinhead” about Hedi Slimane, the recently-appointed head designer of Saint Laurent. Kanye was apparently slighted after Slimane told him he could only come to his first show as Saint Laurent’s head designer if he didn’t go to any other shows. Such a request comes off as bigheaded and implies, in a way, that Slimane regarded Kanye less as a musical genius and more as a spectacle or commodity who he can boss around at his leisure. The story might not be as telling if Slimane didn’t then go on to cast only two black models (out of a total of 44 models) in his most recent Spring 2014 show.
KTZ was another show this past New York Fashion Week that stood out as racist as well. Not only did they visibly fetishize Arabs, but they also mentioned “Berber women” as a huge source of inspiration.
And then, only a couple days ago Rick Owens showed in Paris. Instead of casting models, Owens casted the step team from Howard University’s Zeta Phi Beta sorority. The girls were predominately black, with full, muscular and womanly figures. And while the step show was dazzling—as was the fact that we got to see a show that as, for once, not teeming with white women—the show as a whole did nothing to deify these women. Which would normally be fine, if every other white model walking the catwalks during Fashion Week wasn’t already deified. Instead, these women intentionally contorted their faces into scowls—literal stink faces that could only be a result of explicit instructions, and that only serve to corroborate the stereotype that black women are an angry bunch.
They entered the stage banging on their chest, recalling cymbal-banging monkey toys. And to top it all off, Owens confirmed a twisted reasoning behind this decision when he called it a “fuck-you to conventional beauty.”
As Racialicious wrote,
And there we have it. The Owens show is less an expression that women of diverse races and body types can be beautiful, than a designer using brown bodies to present what he believes is anti-beauty to flip the fashion script. I think, this is not so much progress as business as usual.
The fact that the topic of racism in fashion is discussed at all is certainly progress, but there’s much work to be done. It’s also worth noting that, of all the Fashion Weeks, New York seems to be the most open to diversity. And yet, of all the Fashion Weeks, New York is also the least respected.