In case you’re not up to date with the latest fashion industry gossip, a scandal recently erupted that has shaken the world of style to its very core. At the center of this scandal we have two Russian fashion figures: blogger-turned-entrepreneur Miroslava Duma and clothing designer Ulyana Sergeenko.
The scandal began at Paris Fashion Week on Tuesday, January 23, when Duma posted an Instagram Story in which she showed off a bouquet of flowers that Sergeenko had sent her. These flowers came attached with a note, which Duma then proceeded to open, revealing a message that read “to my niggas in Paris : ).”
At this moment, hell broke loose on social media and the pair came under a barrage of scorn from all corners of the internet. They were accused of racism and then, later, trans and homophobia after a six-year-old video of Duma emerged showing her making conservative remarks about Bryanboy, a blogger, and Andrej Pejic, a transgender model.
Duma quickly went into PR self-defense mode while Sergeenko reached for a shovel and started digging the pair into an even bigger hole when she released a tone-deaf statement declaring, “NP is one of my most favorite songs... we call each other the N word sometimes when we want to believe that we are just as cool as they guys who sing it.”
Okay, so now that I’ve provided some context and fulfilled my duty as a commentator, we can down get down to my take on all of this. But don’t get me wrong, I am not sidelining the importance of context: if everyone paid more attention to context the internet would be a less angry place. Now, at risk of sounding like an apologist for Duma and Sergeenko—which I’m most certainly not, by the way—there clearly wasn’t any racist intentions in the offending message.
Sergeenko was paraphrasing the title of Kanye West’s and Jay-Z’s absolute banger of a track, "Niggas in Paris." The N-bomb is quite obviously a horrifically racist term, but her use of it in this particular instance appears to be founded in ignorance and stupidity rather than the propagation of racism. While it’s obviously not acceptable for white people to drop the N-bomb, there is a long-running debate about whether it’s okay for us to do so when rapping along to "Niggas in Paris."
Sergeenko’s note falls somewhere in between the two. Does this transgression justify the hounding that she and Duma have received from the online social media mob? It’s not a question I’ve given much thought to, mainly because I’ve been distracted by the hypocrisy of it all.
Now let’s engage in some real talk: isn’t it a bit contradictory that the fashion-conscious masses feel compelled to reach for the proverbial pitchforks and mount their rhetorical high horses when they see a white person paraphrase a song title containing a racist term, while continuing to celebrate an industry that propagates class-based bigotry and relies on racial exploitation to thrive?
On the same day that the Ruskies in Paris scandal broke, it was reported that Balenciaga had decided to shift production of its Triple S sneaker from Italy to China. The move certainly wasn’t motivated by a desire for cultural exchange; it was driven by the opportunity to drive down production costs.
The reason why Chinese workers are paid less than Italian ones has a lot to do with China’s draconian labor laws. But it’s also a lingering byproduct of the colonial era, when European powers exerted their dominance over the rest of the world, using their superior military and industrial might to exploit non-white nations. The British flooded China with opium, weakening the ruling Qing dynasty and forcing them to open the country up to international trade on European terms.
For almost a thousand years, China’s place in the tributary-state system in East Asia had made it the world’s dominant global power, but the arrival of European colonialists sparked a period of severe decline often referred to as “the century of humiliation.” China is still in the process of recovering from its humiliation, which allows Western companies like Balenciaga to exploit this enduring colonial-era disbalance to boost their profit margins.
I think we can all agree that this is at least equally racist as Sergeenko’s note. Then why aren’t the outraged fashionista army kicking up a fuss about all of this? I think I know the answer: because they’re too busy playing dress-up and looking for the perfect selfie angle to read up on history or economics or engage with any issue that can’t fit into a hashtag.
Also, if they start paying attention to the ethical problems in Balenciaga’s business model, then they have to start scrutinizing the rest of the fashion industry, which would then force them to face up to the fact that their appetite for clothing and elitism compromises their own self-perceived wokeness. It might also force them to put their money where their mouth is and, God forbid, actually do something beyond cheap virtue signaling — like realign their behavior so it’s more congruent with their professed values, for example.
The Ruskies in Paris scandal isn’t just hypocritical, it’s completely undignified as well. I’m sure that this article is going to be misconstrued as a defense of Duma and Sergeenko, but it really shouldn’t: both come across as pampered morons and I have no interest in standing up for them. But that doesn’t excuse the subsequent social media mob.
This sort of behavior is typically associated with alt-right Twitter trolls who descend like a swarm of digital locusts and harass anyone who might disagree with them into silence. Although they might differ in their politics, their tactics are the same, which is precisely what I have a problem with. Acting like a dickhead makes you a dickhead, regardless of your personal beliefs. The online outrage economy is a bipartisan issue and it’s precisely what has turned the internet into such an utter cesspool.
Also, what does it achieve? Nothing. Actually, it achieves less than nothing because it distracts us and eats up energy that could be devoted to the real issues. Then why do it? Because it gives the mob an excuse to avoid facing up to the big questions that don’t have an easy answer.
Ashley "Dotty" Charles, a BBC radio presenter, recently wrote in The Guardian: “outrage used to require more than a caption under a reposted picture. It required action and intent. It was the train that aimed to move protest toward progress… Outrage doesn’t sit on its sofa complaining about how Kim Kardashian culturally appropriated braids. It means refusing to give up your seat on the bus in 1950s Alabama.” The backlash against Duma and Sergeenko illustrates her point perfectly.
By shouting the pair down, the online fashion mob have made a superficial stance against racism without having to truly engage with the racism that remains rampant throughout the fashion industry. They’ve printed off some T-shirts, typed out a few indignant hashtags and now they’re free to kick back, disengage and bask in the smug glow that comes from having Done Something. Of course they haven’t really done anything of any significance, but for the fashion crowd that doesn’t matter: in a subsegment of society that trades in appearance all you have to do is look like you’ve done something.
Duma and Sergeenko have surely been silenced. We can be almost certain that they will never use the N-word publicly again, and maybe not even privately to each other when they “want to believe that [they] are just as cool as they guys who sing it.” Other secret N-bombers will have watched the furore play out across the internet and will now choose their words more carefully. But have attitudes changed? Is the world any less racist than it was on the morning of January 23? Or does it only appear to be? Maybe that’s enough for some people, but it’s certainly not something to feel smug about.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
Next up; why can't the fashion industry stop making offensive mistakes?