Has a lack of diversity within the fashion industry allowed racial insensitivity to become endemic? Selectism Associate Writer Stephanie Smith-Strickland looks at some recent, high-profile examples and confronts an uncomfortable truth.
In the wake of last week’s controversial new collection presentation by A.P.C. founder Jean Touitou, I began collecting my thoughts for a response. At the time I was livid. So livid, in fact, that my first few drafts involved a lot of angry finger pointing and general “FUCK YOU”s at members of the fashion industry. Underneath that rage was hurt, disappointment and an overwhelming sense of exhaustion of the kind only those who form part of an underrepresented “minority” in society can truly understand.
But more than that was one question: Why? Why had there been yet another example of the fashion industry’s insensitivity towards black culture? Why was it even being questioned whether Touitou’s actions had been insensitive?
While the fashion industry has a longstanding, well-documented history of racial insensitivity and a troubling lack of diversity at its heart, we are told that, today, things are moving forward. Yet examples to the contrary are everywhere. Whether it’s the use of blackface in high-fashion editorials, respected publications intentionally dividing street style coverage into “street style” and “black street style,” or minority models struggling to find consistent work, it’s painfully clear that this is still not a level runway for everyone involved.
Despite this, throughout history the fashion industry has shown itself to be one of the world’s most consistent consumers (and appropriators) of black culture. This becomes immensely problematic when coupled with its often-insulting caricatures of “blackness.” Although he later issued a public apology, Jean Touitou’s recent and highly controversial A.P.C. presentation stands as an example of the industry’s continuing issues with race. During the show the designer openly brandished a sign bearing the slogan “Last N***s in Paris” (the collection’s chosen title, and an apparent conflation of the hit Jay Z and Kanye West single with the seminal Marlon Brando movie). This was followed up with yet another use of the racial slur in his explanation:
“I call this one look Last N****s in Paris. Why? Because it’s the sweet spot when the hood—the ‘hood—meets Bertolucci’s movie Last Tango in Paris. So that’s ‘N****s in Paris’ and Last N****s in Paris. [Nervous laughter from audience.] Oh, I am glad some people laughed with me. Yes, I mean, it’s nice to play with the strong signifiers. The Timberland here is a very strong ghetto signifier.”
The audience, who may or may not have been aware of the deeper, problematic (and poorly coded) implications of Touitou’s calling Timberlands a strong “ghetto signifier,” “laughed nervously.” That’s where the story ends; that is a problem in itself.
Later, when asked about his language choice, Touitou felt it necessary to mention that he had sent the original idea – name included – to Kanye West for approval. Not that it needs stating, but Kanye West is not, and has never been, the universal spokesperson for all black people. In alluding to his friendship with West, and citing his blessing, Touitou essentially invoked the tired “my black friend gave me a pass” excuse.
Unfortunately, the invocation of this non-existent “black pass” is alarmingly frequent among beneficiaries of the majority privilege. All too often a sense of subconscious entitlement prevents them from seeing that pre-screening something potentially offensive with one black friend does not equal a carte blanche to trample over the feelings of an entire demographic. Touitou is not the first (and probably will not be the last) to do this.
Franca Sozzani, editor of Vogue Italia, reacted similarly when confronted over the intentional separation of street style coverage into “street style” and “black street style.” In response to a critical article pointing out the problematic nature of such separations, Sozzani wasted no time contacting friends Naomi Campbell and Bethann Hardison, asking them to provide written statements verifying that they did not find her decision offensive. Sozzani also felt it necessary to mention that she traveled to Africa twice a year to create “job opportunities.”
Even more troubling than Sozzani’s unwillingness to acknowledge the potential problems in creating a “separate but equal” arena for personal style, or Touitou’s apparent comfort using a word still considered an egregious racial slur by many today, are the rampant excuses and mislaid blame that spring up in the wake of such behavior.
Rather than stepping back to consider how the historical context of the situation, or the contemporary climate surrounding issues of race, might lead affected communities to take offence, each implicated party jumped straight into defending their actions. Such a response sends the message that the feelings of the perpetrator are more important than those of the people offended. In short, it implies “fuck your feelings”. This is an inherent byproduct of majority privilege, and when other people condone such behavior it compounds the hurt of those originally offended.
The message taken from such episodes is this: we like your culture but we don’t care about you. We think your creativity is cool, so we’ll borrow your ideas, your bodies and even your intellect, but we won’t respect your psyche, your feelings or your well-being. For those people on the receiving end of such duplicity, it feels like double the insult.
Some of the justifications given by people called out for acts of racial insensitivity in the fashion industry truly beggar belief. Vogue has come under fire more than once for editorials utilizing blackface and black minstrelsy under the guise of “artistic license.” In 2013, Vogue Netherlands published an “homage” editorial entitled “Heritage Heroes” that was supposedly inspired by the style of “(black actress and ballet dancer) Josephine Baker mixed with tribal influences.” In place of a genuine black model, it featured the white, Dutch Querelle Jansen as the central protagonist in an assortment of afro wigs and black facepaint.
Meanwhile, fashion designer Allessandro Dell’Acqua (along with a slew of other industry insiders) donned blackface for a “Disco Africa” Halloween party in Milan that same year, thinking nothing of sharing several images of them in such getup across social media. When confronted, the party’s creators insisted that the event was intended to honor the growing influences of Africa in the design and fashion world. In such instances as those described above, one has to ask, “if there were more people of color within the fashion industry, would such things be allowed to occur?”
Even those few black faces who have managed to carve themselves a space within the fashion world aren’t exempt from such treatment. Former Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley was once referred to as a “dandy nigger” by Yves Saint Laurent’s late jewelry and accessories designer Loulou de la Falaise. A New Yorker article tracing Talley’s rise in the fashion world even suggested that his upward mobility came as a result of his friendship with Diana Vreeland, claiming:
“He was successful because he wasn’t a threat. He’ll never be an editor-in-chief. How could America have that dictating what the women of America will wear? No matter that André’s been the greatest crossover act in the industry for quite some time.”
What’s even more outrageous is the apparent “hierarchy of offense” that has been constructed for different groups by those entirely unaffected by it. When John Galliano unloaded a bevy of anti-Semitic slurs at a restaurant table in Paris, the fashion industry didn’t think twice about blackballing him. No media outlets suggested his behavior was anything less than distasteful, hurtful and highly inappropriate. Galliano’s fall from grace was meteoric, and he is only now recovering from it. Why, then, doesn’t the industry appear so generous when it comes to the hurt feelings of black people?
Why? Because a lack of diversity at its very core creates a distinct absence of voices on hand to remind people why such behavior is inherently wrong. Black culture and black people are NOT mutually exclusive; you cannot consume one and refuse to pay attention to the needs of the other. In an industry that benefits so heavily from the creativity, style and intellect of black people, there is a duty to serve as an advocate for those very people it purports to admire. Or, better still, to create the kind of opportunities where they can advocate for themselves.