The fashion industry is guided as much by talent and creative vision as it is by trends and the pursuit of “newness.” Yet, as the old adage goes, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” So, in reality, “newness” is more the task of finding fresh ways to present ideas that already exist.
Part of this process involves searching for inspiration, which can be found in a number of places. But what if that inspiration involves the distortion of someone else’s reality? Is that still acceptable?
What happens if, for instance, a Japanese designer creates a collection inspired by the continent of Africa. Let’s say this designer presents his work at Paris Fashion Week, where he chooses the Museum of Movement as the platform to showcase his wares. Now let’s take it a step further and say that he sends exclusively white models down the runway sporting a variety of hairstyles he feels represent Africa, along with jewelry, spears, shields, fetish objects, and plenty of wax print fabrics…
Now let’s say that fashion editors and critics, perhaps in an attempt to circumvent public outrage, briefly point out the problematic nature of having all-white models walking in a collection based almost entirely on African culture, before going on to suggest that the designer was actually passing comment on the exploitative nature of Western colonialism (despite a complete lack of show notes suggesting such a thing). In essence, they are re-casting this extraordinarily loaded decision as some piece of performance art — one that excuses its potentially offensive nature and whitewashes its ethical repercussions.
The above scenario is exactly what happened at Junya Watanabe’s SS16 presentation last year, and it points to a recurring issue where fashion and inspiration are concerned. Often, the cultures that inspire creative work are not acknowledged respectfully, and the people who are most intimate with the histories that contribute to those cultures are not included in the creative process.
When those two things happen, the end product is not a collection inspired by anything, it’s a misrepresentation. By presenting specific aspects of a culture without context, you erase those who gave that culture to the world, and diminish their status as people.
The fashion industry has long been dogged by criticism of its lack of diversity. As such, in the last few years many labels have taken proactive steps to address the issue, and the resulting scramble to present a “progressive” image has yielded a whole raft of explicitly body-positive, age-positive, queer-positive and diversity-positive campaigns. While it’s not easy to say how much of this is genuinely sincere, at the very least it’s tipping the scale toward more permanent change.
Yet, for every brand on the “let’s-make-a-difference” bandwagon, there are others that simply don’t see the importance of taking personal accountability for the industry they’re a part of — especially given how slowly that industry has reacted to such matters in the past.
Here’s a prime example: although most critics raved over Demna Gvasalia’s recent Vetements and Balenciaga presentations, it was explicitly noted that both shows featured exclusively white, Western-looking models. What’s more, a quick look over Vetements’ previous presentations reveals that Gvasalia has never cast a single person of color in any of his runway shows.
Perhaps he and his casting partner, Lotta Volkova, felt that only white models could present their creative vision? Or perhaps they simply don’t feel it is their responsibility to actively address issues of diversity in fashion? If that’s the case, is that an acceptable stance to take in an industry with so much sway over cultural opinion, and should we be supporting it?
These choices bring about serious questions of accountability. More specifically, is there enough of it in the fashion industry?
For those who believe fashion serves as nothing more than a superficial vessel for mass consumption, designers are hardly expected to serve as representatives of moral propriety, let alone act as vehicles of change. However, for those who believe fashion, like other creative disciplines, can indeed create watershed cultural moments and hold sway over the opinions of millions, then it’s reasonable to expect that designers both participate in, and facilitate, conversations about the world they live in.
Gvasalia borrows his ideas and concepts from a myriad of places. While these influences may not always be easily identifiable, it is all-but-certain they are not solely the creation of white people. In fact, in the past he has cited racially diverse neighborhoods such as Paris’s 9th and 10th arrondissements as places he enjoys people-watching. This people-watching is reportedly an incredibly important part of the Vetements creative process, yet unless Gvasalia is only “watching” one very blinkered subsection of society, he is deliberately cutting all others out of the end result.
It’s troubling to know that a designer with such high influence and visibility seems largely ignorant (whether willful or otherwise) to the importance of diversity, especially when some quarters of the media are branding him “revolutionary,”. When the New York Times attempted to broach the topic of casting with Gvasalia, he answered evasively, stating, “What does attitude look like? Is it in the body, the clothes, the mind?”
Evidently he couldn’t find a single non-white person who possessed such “attitude” for his shows. Such a dinosaur mentality feels starkly at odds with Vetements’ supposed “progressive” positioning, not to mention their broad and diverse patronage.
In not dissimilar circumstances, KTZ came under heavy scrutiny last season when its fall collection featured a sweater that bore an uncanny resemblance to a traditional Inuit shaman’s parka.
The design, which dates back to 1900, was also used without the consent of the descendants of the shaman on whom the parka was photographed. KTZ went on to issue a full apology to the family before removing the garment from sale online. Yet these kinds of mishaps, even when handled with genuine remorse and sincerity, still point to a kind of blissful out-of-touchness that causes great hurt to already-marginalized peoples.
Such actions send the message that fashion is still stuck in an age where pallid faces and tall, thin bodies are the only standards that matter or deserve respect — even if those faces march down the runway with the history and culture of other people on their backs. For the people who are erased it sends the even more troubling message that they are of so little regard they can be taken from and misrepresented, all while being ignored.
This is exactly why inclusion and accountability are so important. Too often we still see brands inaccurately representing particular cultures or ethnic groups, or aggressively appropriating ideas without including the real creators. In these moments, one can’t help but think that if there were more diversity, more voices to help get it right and show labels how to honor without insulting, these incidents might not even happen at all.
However, while the industry is still working towards that day, accountability will always be a necessary step in the process. Critics can’t keep hiding behind the excuse that designers are just designers, and that fashion is just fashion. Apologists can’t keep telling the unacknowledged to “stop being so sensitive.” We must all take steps to recognize that you can celebrate global influences without erasing the people they come from.
Most of all, the industry and its customers can recognize their power to affect change through their power to choose.
As the quote goes,“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As silly as it may sound, it’s time this way of thinking was applied to the runway, too.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety or Titel Media as a whole.
- Carousel Image: Vogue Runway