It’s no secret that fashion has a race problem. For evidence, you need only look at how fashion media collectively shat itself over Prada putting a black woman in an ad campaign to see how whitewashed the industry is. Or if you’ve got a strong stomach, go to the heinous #hallowood2013 Instagram hashtag. For a field that’s about being ahead of trends, fashion isn’t quite as progressive as it would like to think.
Race imagery in fashion is always a heated issue. Sometimes this is for better, like when Rick Owens replaced runway models with teams of step dancers. And sometimes it’s for worse, like when Miroslava Duma’s Buro 24/7 sat a rich white lady atop a black woman bondage chair.
Because there’s one thing fashion fetishizes more than black imagery, it’s controversy in any shape or color (dead bodies? Pro-ana mantras? Totes fair game). Unfortunately, casual racism is just one of the easiest ways to court it. An art critic we spoke to called Buro 24/7’s move “tasteless sensationalism at best, and racism at worst.” Buro just called it “art.” But while good art might be controversial, good controversy should throw dominant ideologies out of whack rather than perpetuate them. Dasha Zhukova is a very rich white woman who also likes to sit atop $1.5 billion yachts. Now she’s sitting on a barely-clothed woman who belongs to a race that has been oppressed for centuries, and certainly isn’t well represented in the top tiers of fashion. There’s your context (it was also Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but hey, they’re Russian?)
And the Chairgate scandal wasn’t the only thing to cast a shadow over the holiday. On Saturday the Business of Fashion published an op-ed by Jason Campbell titled, “It’s Time to Address Fashion’s Race Problem.” Campbell took issue with “Vogue Black,” the section on Vogue Italia’s website dedicated to black style, celebrities, and beauty tips. While the site’s “offensive, misguided, and racially insensitive” (Campbell’s words) black blog has existed since 2010, it was the column’s recent coverage of Pitti Uomo in Florence that troubled him — namely the decision of the editors to segregate black street style images in a section called “Vogueista Black”:
“I had a visceral reaction to this discovery,” he writes. “Do viewers require a different lens to appreciate our sense of style? Is it to say that we’re less or more fashionable? Why separate coverage of us at all?”
He then compares Vogue Black’s “separate but equal” crux to segregated water fountains and to race representations in Lee Daniels’ recent film The Butler. Oof. The film comparison is interesting though — certainly Hollywood, like the music industry, has had a huge appetite for black imagery as of late. But where music is more concerned with twerking than with being educated about the elements of culture it’s dealing with, film is obsessed with recounting tales of the breaking of chains. Slavery movies like Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln have all been massive box office and award show successes. Is it unconscious guilt? Is the repression of races just easier to stomach when simplified and sweetened? Does it have anything to do with racist furniture? Maybe not, but it’s obvious that depictions of slavery are pretty hot right now.
Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozanni hasn’t voiced her opinions on Chairgate, but she’s definitely not down with Campbell (Jason, that is, not Naomi). In an Editor’s Blog posted on Vogue Italia’s website today she ripped into the journalist for failing to back his accusations up with proper research before he implicated the work of Bethann Hardison and the Diversity Coalition:
“Bethann is a former black model who today scouts for new black faces. Who does she collaborate with? With Vogue Black. And for whom did Naomi go to Dubai to raise funds for Ethiopia? For Vogue Italia! And with whom did she do Fashion for Relief? With me!!! The journalist wrote that Riccardo Tisci has chosen black models for his runway shows and for Givenchy’s campaigns, yet he doesn’t know that Phillip Plein sent down the catwalk only black models and black models appeared in his Spring/Summer 2014 campaign” (he also had rapper/fashion darling Angel Haze perform on his runway, which was awesome).
Hardison even weighs in herself. “I appreciate his concern about how blacks appear, are portrayed and where. But as much as I appreciate it and fight for racial diversity, I was elated when in 2009 Franca called with the secret to do Vogue Black. To compare Vogue Black to the days of southern segregation… “black and white fountains” is offensive to me. Since I experienced it and others only heard or read about it, I resent the ignorance.”
Any discussion of the representation of black people in fashion is an invitation for think pieces. Like unretouched Vogue photos or songs about women enjoying sex, black faces in fashion are, sadly, not the norm. When a beautiful magazine cover featuring a black woman comes out, the discussion is normally always about how many months/years/decades since the last black woman was on the cover, how much her skin was lightened, or why the shot is in black and white.
Sometimes it’s good to have a “visceral reaction” to such representations. Having an emotional response to something, whether it’s a positive one or a negative one, shows that your expectations have been jolted. When you click through the photos from Rick Owens’ Spring 2014 show in the whitewashed galleries of WWD and Style.com, you’re aware something is unfamiliar. This isn’t a bad thing.
Unfortunately we can’t say the same for that chair, which only paints a sad portrait of a dominant race literally wearing the pants and the oppressed one in a very compromised position. Any visceral reaction you experience when looking at the bound and gagged black woman isn’t a result of presiding ideologies being rattled — but it does make you want to talk about it, and it makes other people want to know why you’re talking about it, and it results in click-throughs, ad dollars and Twitter mentions for whoever’s behind the so-called-arty move. It’s the same thing as Lena Dunham and Vogue. It’s not the legendary magazine that’s going to suffer because Jezebel leaked some unretouched photos; it’s the “average woman” who’s being body shamed.
It’s a predicament: On one hand, people need to be called out. But on the other, you know that doing so means a few more dollars to spend on champagne when [insert offending company here] celebrates meeting 2014’s traffic goals before it’s even February.
Obviously, the matter is more complicated than just races (and sizes) being underrepresented. What we need is more diversity in the top tiers of fashion, not just in the pages of magazines – someone present who has the power to say, “Wait, no, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” when the boss suggests blackface, dead models, or a wildly inappropriate piece of furniture because “art.” Until then, let’s try to celebrate diversity instead of using it for provocation. Or at least learn how to apologize when we get the distinction screwed up.
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