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Dispatch from Paris: Chanel and Valentino

Fashion can transport us to different worlds, yes, but whether or not it’s done with respect to those worlds is a frequent industry issue.

10.07.15
Fashion Week
Fashion Week

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

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  • Thank you for raising this important point re: the Valentino show, MR! Here’s another thought:

    To omit black models from wearing any of the 10-12 finale looks, in particular, plays into a dominant narrative of the black woman who isn’t royalty, but is subordinate—that, as beautiful as black women are, as exquisite as our culture’s creative essence is, when it’s all said and done, the products of our culture end up being lauded on white bodies rather than our own.

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    • Very well said Erika! Its sad that Valentino didn’t take more of an authentic role in expressing their message of cross cultural diversity.
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    • Lua Jane

      Perfectly put.

  • Kelsey O’Donnell

    This is a thoughtful post, which I appreciate. I second Erika’s point that to have excluded black models from the final looks perpetuates a dominate narrative, which I believe is offensive and damaging for blacks and non blacks alike (exclusion, favoritism, oppression – limits society and slows progression).

    I think the question that, because there aren’t as many working black models, how could a considerably larger number been cast? ignores the prejudices, conscious or not, of the designers (which is a reflection of the industry at large), and underscores a lack of forethought and proper prioritization. Though minorities, there are several black models in the fashion industry who did not walk the Valentino runway, but likely would have if asked. Because there are fewer black models from which to choose, the pool of black models may provide less options for a certain walk or look than non-black models, but as Leandra said, when you take, you must give. Here, the designers had an opportunity to prioritize showing a black model over showing a non-black model with a specific walk, look, etc., and they forfeited this opportunity. They choose to perpetuate the narrative Erika describes, for what? What purpose could be of a higher priority than deconstructing that narrative?

    So I suggest we re-think our priorities. I would further suggest that designers do their research. Include people of the culture form which they are borrowing in the creative process. The creative process may be a delicate thing to amend, but at the very least, research the culture, listen to people from that culture, and value what you learn and hear. Then demonstrate that value in a way that can add context to your art for your audience, be it in show notes, through interviews, by inviiting people of that culture to the show, including them in the show, or in some other creative way. I would have loved to seen a demonstrated respect and valuing of the people of the culture from which the deisgners borrowed.

    • BK

      Hear hear. Also I’d like to add that whilst there may have been a smaller pool of black models to choose from, Valentino isn’t exactly an under-resourced company – they would have more than enough money, time and influence to make the effort to you know, go out and *find* some black models to walk for them. You can’t tell me that of all the thousands of aspiring, fledgling young models around the world, they’re all white and/or wouldn’t leap at the opportunity to walk for such a venerable house. I doubt the problem is with the resources at their disposal – it’s attitude, whether conscious or not I can’t say.

      • Caro

        It’s attitude, whether conscious or or not… I agree. If your priority is to honor…then honor. And go big or go home.

  • sepiolidae

    “So instead of sitting here and lambasting the designers for what seemed like ignorance…”
    I think it’s wishful thinking to call outright racist appropriation “ignorance” in 2015. Unless a house works directly with the individuals whose cultures are being unabashedly appropriated, and ensures they’re respectfully taking part in cultural exchange (including the mutual benefits that comes with that), then this is the same tired annual narrative of white fashion’s inability to put its work/money where its mouth is. Dressing up your appropriation via a narrative of “welcoming” is laughably tone-deaf. They also described Africa as “primitive.”
    I’m uncomfortable with any call that tells individuals who are directly affected by appropriation that they should resist “lambasting” over constructing a solution. We all know the solutions. Work with people without stealing from their cultures. Don’t just borrow the elements of cultures you like without considering how you can give back in equal measure. Learn to respect cultures by talking with communities. Hire designers who can share their cultural distinction. Learn what cultural EXCHANGE means. Obviously use diverse models, but that goes for everyone. And stop reducing a continent, a monolith, to a played-out narrative of “Primitive, tribal, spiritual, yet regal.”
    Primitive. Tribal. It’s pretty appalling. And wishing for ignorance doesn’t help when they were ALREADY called out for cornrows earlier this year. This is why it starts and ends with calling-out. People are tired. And are tired of watching the starry-eyed admiration and endless support of houses with a history of appropriation. I get that folk want to hope that they don’t know better… but how can anyone not get that they knew what they were doing when they reduced an entire diverse continent just to make and sell some clothes.

  • sepiolidae

    “So instead of sitting here and lambasting the designers for what seemed like ignorance…”
    I think it’s wishful thinking to call outright racist appropriation “ignorance” in 2015. Unless a house works directly with the individuals whose cultures are being unabashedly appropriated, and ensures they’re respectfully taking part in cultural exchange (including the mutual benefits that comes with that), then this is the same tired annual narrative of white fashion’s inability to put its work/money where its mouth is. Dressing up your appropriation via a narrative of “welcoming” is laughably tone-deaf. They also described Africa as “primitive.”
    I’m uncomfortable with any call that tells individuals who are directly affected by appropriation that they should resist “lambasting” over constructing a solution. We all know the solutions. Work with people without stealing from their cultures. Don’t just borrow the elements of cultures you like without considering how you can give back in equal measure. Don’t hide behind “we did research” without actual collaboration (hey Valentino, remember your Metis collab? Learn from that). Learn to respect cultures by talking with communities. Hire designers who can share their cultural distinction. Learn what cultural EXCHANGE means. Obviously use diverse models, but that goes for everyone. And stop reducing a continent, a monolith, to a played-out narrative of “Primitive, tribal, spiritual, yet regal.”
    Primitive. Tribal. It’s pretty appalling. And wishing for ignorance doesn’t help when they were ALREADY called out for cornrows earlier this year. This is why it starts and ends with calling-out. People are tired. And are tired of watching the starry-eyed admiration and endless support of other designers with a history of racism and appropriation. I get that folk want to hope that they don’t know better… but how can anyone not get that they knew what they were doing when they reduced an entire diverse continent for the sake of fashion.

    • Caro

      Oh my god, I agree with this! I hadn’t read that they used the word primitive but that makes the pit of my stomach hurt. They did research and did this to honor and the the word they use to describe functioning humans in modern society is primitive? Not only is the description you provided above totalizing to countries full of individuals with their own identities, the description inappropriately romanticizes black Africans. It “fetishizes” the lives of people and it keeps them identified to those in power positions as “culturally other”. It allows the user to strengthen their own identity by using their mispercieved interpretation of a another human being.

      Continued conversations is the solution. Engagement with humans outside of our skin color, culture, etc that is not done in an effort to strengthen one’s own identity, but to strengthen the bond between humans.

  • Lori

    the messed up thing about this is that if it didn’t happen we wouldn’t have had a conversation about the lack of black models on the runway. why must we wait for shocking shows like this to have this convo? I re read the article on race inequality u guys posted and can’t help but notice that leandra brought up how white journalists might be scared to write about race issues cuz they’re white.. and I thought there was a good learning curve in that article. U guys all left off agreeing more needs to be talked about. but…. nothing has been talked about on the lack of diversity in the fashion world again Until this Valentino show. yet the first thing i always look at when watching these shows is how many black models compared to white models are on the runway. maybe its because im not a fashion journalist…but i like to think that we should put our own interests aside and talk about the more important things.

    • Caro

      I agree. I’ve been counting the number of blacks on the cover of Vogue versus whites for the past couple of years. And the fall 2015 ads. Business of Fashion posted the top 20 or something and the proportions of blacks to white was abysmal.

  • Ana Romero Monteiro

    I really have a hard time with the American concept of cultural appropriation. The cultural and race issues in discussion in the article do not necessarily apply to the rest of the world, especially in countries like Italy where the black community is much smaller and that took no part in colonization. But the biggest reason being that in Europe, unlike the US, there have been centuries of cultural exchange with people from different parts of the globe. And I am not only talking about colonization. My country, for example, was occupied by the Arabs for centuries, by the Vikings, the Spanish and the French. I am happy to say my country’s culture, Portugal, came out enriched by that cultural exchange and you can see the influences in our gastronomy, our language and even in the moorish style tiles that decorate our buildings facades. To me the concept of cultural appropriation is synonym of cultural apartheid and a concept I dread profoundly. Would we even be having this discussion if the collection was inspired by Chinese or Japanese culture? It is “inspired by” not a replica. Isn’t the way to celebrate black culture to embrace it? Yes, having only white girls wearing corn rows on the show may have been distasteful but that is a social issue far beyond cultural exchange.

    • Jamie

      Finally an opinion I agree with.

    • sepiolidae

      -Cultural exchange (which seems to be what you’re emphasizing) is distinct from appropriation. Appropriation signifies how individuals (usually from the Global North) interpret a (usually marginalized) culture for some form of social/artistic/monetary gain. Appropriation in fashion is usually a stereotypical interpretation of a culture, does not include individuals from said culture, and turns a culture (in this case, an entire continent full of cultures) into a “trend.”
      -You can have an interplay of different cultures and cultural exchanges without appropriating someone’s culture. They are distinct ideas. One normally involves an unbalanced power dynamic and is one-sided, where the other celebrates diversity and reciprocity amongst people. There are certainly examples of the latter in fashion, but this is not one of them.
      -I sure as hell hope we’d be having this conversation if it affected an Asian culture, or any other (see: the Met Gala dresses, #dsquaw)
      -I don’t understand how this is embracing “black culture.” (which is incredibly diverse!) I’d say that’s an awfully risky thing to define since this collection was about a primitive interpretation of Africa, according to their own descriptions.

      • Ana Romero Monteiro

        I understand the concept of cultural appropriation and what it stands for. I just don’t have to agree with it. Culture is not something stagnant that we can fit between the lines. It is fluid and made of different moments in time, some better than others. The show may not be the best example and it sure had it’s problems but throwing cultural appropriation at people’s faces all the time is not the solution. As I said before, it creates cultural apartheid. The biggest problem I see with the American concept of cultural appropriation is that in America everything that is not white (Caucasian) is seen as exotic. That is not true for the rest of the world. It is a very anglo-saxon thing. As surprising as it may be to you, for someone coming from the south of Europe, the concept of cultural appropriation – as well intended as it may be – succeeds on affirming that notion of exoticness (aka inferiority). Please don’t speak for the northern hemisphere on American terms as it is also very diverse. America’s race and social issues do not apply to the entire rest of the world.

  • Lillian

    I wonder what the reaction would have been if they only cast black models in the show? just some food for thought…

    • Kandeel

      um… what food for thought? a good reaction? maybe some racists here and there or people claiming reverse racism but it would be really good considering black women in the modelling industry aren’t casted as much (+ a lot of other things abt how theyre treated in the modelling industry)

  • Laura De Valencia Kirk

    I felt the collection prints and patterns were too commonplace. Almost like Disney’s animal kingdom. Some Dresses were beautiful but literal. Almost too literal. I don’t think it’s wrong per se to use a culture as inspiration but you have to be careful about not being stereotypical. This discussion reminds me of the one that happened around the chinaMET gala where some guests wore disrepectful costumes while others really took the time to understand the culture and dressed to celebrate it.

  • Alessandra Ottolini

    How many arabic models in Chanel Dubai Cruise 2015? How many asian in the Valentino Shanghai collection on 2013? (and so on)
    Many artists and designers pick inspiration and key iconic images from foreign cultures, they always did and always will, sometimes with no clue of the meaning of the symbols they are using.
    Why are we discussing about this only now? Why this particular show touched us so much?
    Just asking you with no prejudice, just another cause for reflection.

    • pamb

      We’re not only discussing it now, For several years blogs and new media have made a pint about counting how many models of color are on the runway. It’s very few. We’re discussing the ‘cornrows on White women’ look because people are getting tired of cultural appropriation. And there are actually more Asain models being cast these days because China is a huge market. So I guess the answer is “if we think we can sell to you, we’ll put you in our show/in our magazines”.

    • abdc123

      Hi Alessandra,
      I think you make a good point. No one is up in arms that those shows didn’t feature more “local” models.
      I think having few black women in the show is only one part of the equation (and by equation I mean hot mess). To me, the most shameful thing is the level of dishonesty here in claiming that this collection honors immigrants fleeing poverty and political problems, when they haven’t done their research or honored those cultures in an inventive or meaningful way. People’s real pain and suffering shouldn’t be something to throw around as a PR soundbite. You say designers “always will” pick up symbols of other cultures carelessly– I would hope that this isn’t the case as we wise up to the incredible influence of fashion to shape the culture, and with it the responsibility to not perpetuate colonial narratives through design.

  • abdc123

    Thanks for bringing up this discussion, MR! Three points:

    1) As other commenters have noted, saying one is inspired by “Africa” is laughable since Africa includes so many cultures. What if a designer had a collection with French lace, Swedish embroidery, and Scottish knits and said it was inspired by “Europe”? That would be strange, wouldn’t it?

    2) Another note is that the countries that Sarah Mower’s review notes as sources of immigrants to Italy do not match up with the collection’s inspiration source cultures. A technique they used heavily like Masaai beading comes from Kenya/Tanzania, an area where people are not leaving to go to Italy! This is insulting to imply, “Oh we care a lot about refugees, but not enough to look up where they are from on Wikipedia.” Why would this collection make immigrants feel welcome if they don’t see themselves in it? Should we play “The Lion King” for them, as well as “Disney’s Alladin” for Arab immigrants? Of course not!
    And then the prolific use of raffia is essentially a repeat of Yves Saint Laurent’s African references — in fact this collection looks heavily influenced by YSL. YSL himself was, of course, North African. But why do we need to re-hash his version of Africa from the 1960s/70s? Is that innovative?

    3) What a shame they didn’t do deeper research. Did the designers travel to these countries? Have they met some of their new countrymen that are African immigrants? There are cool things coming out of many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. There are African sub-cultures and African subversions of traditional dress. African is generating photographers, artists, and dandies that are creating something new — something syncretic. Why couldn’t they look to Africa as it exists today, in it’s beautiful fullness. Are the two substances mixed or does the oil float in the water? To me, that is the key to cultural inspiration, there needs to be an aspect of miscegenation. Have you created something syncretic? In this case, unfortunately they have not. Fashion has a responsibility to be honest and not just “have a message” but think it through first.

  • Lua Jane

    Great and eloquent article on the responsibility that comes with the influence that fashion unquestionably has.

  • pamb

    Sorry, I’m not buying that they couldn’t find enough black models. If it was so important to them to express cross cultural influences, they should have done more than lip service and actually hired a few models of color. I don’t think they are racist, I just think they didn’t THINK. Which is the very definition of White Privilege. “Let’s talk about all these new refugees! Let’s have all our white models in cornrows to show support! There, we’ve done our part for world peace…”

  • Erika Torres

    I feel like welcoming refugees by using their culture in the new collection of high end clothing is not the appropriate way to do go. This approach takes the cultural significances of certain imagery, patterns, and colors schemes, and alienates it from its origin. This isn’t welcoming, it can feel frustrating because the people from those cultures no longer own the imagery. The significance becomes less important because the producer has left it behind. The average consumer of Valentino is rich. So now, not only is cultural imagery taken, but also the refugees from these cultures can’t own the actual clothes. How would that make a group of people feel welcome? How can we celebrate a culture but not invite them to the party?

  • this goes beyond fashion, My problem with this is that peope often simplify Africa into this little village while in fact its a continent with 54 countries and hundreds of ethnic groups.