The only talking point more salient than the Chanel terminal that was set up at the Grand Palais yesterday to celebrate the house’s SS16 collection was the controversy that circumscribed Valentino’s later show at the Tuilerie Gardens.
But first thing’s first: it will be impossible to get through security in the chunky necklace chokers worn on nearly every model at Chanel.
Many of the slim pants on display (all wearable, all viable) were styled with sheer dresses over them. There were loads of sweaters and shirts worn around the waist. (Fabric cummerbunds, here we come!) The wheeled bags seem to indicate that luggage is the new handbag (Chanel make, monkey see, money do) and there is something very charming about a pair of Birkenstocks (they countered the silver/plexi flatform booties) produced almost a full year following the purported end of the trend. And! They were light up. Light up!
Also important: the patriotic pairing of red, white and blue is starting to feel like the freshest dressing color combination. More on that in another story.
Now, as for Valentino. It took the first look walking synchronously to drums and its following corn-rowed, largely white model army to recognize that the show would become an important talking point for the conversation of cultural appropriation in fashion. I find it difficult to weigh in given my respect for the creative directors, Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri. They are thoughtful masters of their craft, phenomenal designers who can execute a vision with the kind of precision you see only in prodigies. And their intentions (which are not everything, but are important) are not bad. I am sure of this.
VogueRunway.com’s Sarah Mower wrote that at the forefront of the designers’ minds while creating this collection were the refugees fleeing from Senegal, Nigeria, Eritrea, Mali and Gambia to Italy, and the backlash they’ve received upon seeking cover. Piccioli and Chiuri wanted to blend their cultures with that of Italy’s — the designers’ way of welcoming these people, an opening up of arms. In addition to citing the research and education that went into the duo’s collection, Mower quoted Chiuri: “We probably feel that the greatest privilege in doing our work is that fashion can give a message.”
“The message is tolerance,” Piccioli added. “And the beauty that comes out of cross-cultural expression.”
The problem is that the message was not heard loudly nor clearly enough. I think they hoped the collection would have been regarded as cultural celebration as opposed to appropriation. But of course, there is also the question of what constitutes appropriation: When you take, you’ve also have to give. Will the house work with African artisans on the creation of this season’s textiles? Will funds go to refugee relief efforts? Most immediately problematic to the audience: employing less than a single percentage point of black models through the duration of an entire, 83-look show isn’t “giving.” And that issue is much more dense than just this instance, too. If there aren’t as many working black models as there are white ones in general — and that’s a function of white privilege, how could a considerably larger number have been cast? That’s not an answer, that’s not a defense — it’s just a question.
Amid the media storm that rained on a show that had been articulately produced to evince the spirit of a culture that deserves celebration and visibility in its manifold permutations (following the show, the crowd was buzzing. “This was reason enough to come to Paris,” I heard someone say; another admitted that he’d been falling asleep all week until the show), what bothered me was that in all the call-out of purported racism on display at Valentino, not a single opinion suggested a solution.
Until we start putting actionable change into place, who cares?
So instead of sitting here and lambasting the designers for what seemed like ignorance, or naïveté, let’s talk about how to set the change in motion. This is our time, right? It’s our era, so we can do one of two things: continue to shout through our respective brain dead megaphones, or prove the millennial naysayers wrong and put our actions where our keyboards are.
Here’s one to get you started that a writer named Erika Butler wrote to me: if your collection is a celebration of African culture, close the show with black women.
Photographs via Vogue Runway; feature collage by Elizabeth Tamkin