On Cultural Appropriation, Racism and Fashion’s Blind Spots

Let’s get this out of the way: the hair at Marc Jacobs was problematic

09.16.16

This was originally slated to be a straight-up review of the Marc Jacobs Spring/Summer 2017 show. Clothes, accessories, influences. But there’s no way to review the show in any real manner and not talk about the hair. You can’t divorce the two.

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: The hair is problematic.

It was the work of hairstylist Guido Palau, who told Harper’s Bazaar that it was inspired by “certain types of cultures, like rave culture, club culture, acid house, Boy George and Marilyn.” The hair also resembles the look worn by Lana Wachowski, who starred recently in a Marc Jacobs ad campaign. To The Cut, Guido said, “The interesting thing about Marc is how he takes something so street and so raw, and because of the coloration of the hair and the makeup, it becomes a total look. Something that we’ve bypassed on the street and not really looked at, or seen a million times, he makes us look at it again in a much more sophisticated and fashionable way.”

This is the most, just the most problematic part, right? There is the blind spot. The use of the word “street.” The co-option of something that has now been made “fashionable.” Along with “urban,” or “flavor,” what’s “street” code for?

Guido found a woman in Florida on Etsy, and had her create the wool ‘locks. As The Cut explains in a very straightforward manner (presenting the racism in a way where it’s explicit without actually issuing judgement on it is, as we would say in publishing, “letting them hang themselves” with their own words), Guido, a team and Dreadlocks by Jena worked together on the hair vision, which required Jena and her daughters to “[hole] up in an apartment and hand-[dye] over 12,500 yards of yarn” before the show.

Even when asked, pointedly, about the “politics” of the hair, Guido said (again, to The Cut), “I take inspiration from every culture. Style comes from clashing things. It’s always been there — if you’re creative, if you make food, music, and fashion, whatever, you’re inspired by everything. It’s not homogeneous. Different cultures mix all the time. You see it on the street. People don’t dress head-to-toe in just one way.”

As Essence explains, “Here is the problem: there’s a thin line between creativity and cultural appropriation. Celebrating another culture becomes problematic when the origin itself isn’t properly credited.
That line was blatantly crossed when Jacobs’ lead stylist Guido failed to mention one person of color while explaining the inspiration behind the look. Again, not one.”

On a meta level, it’s not only Jacobs who is profiting, but also the media. Veterans know that for readers a.k.a. eyeballs a.k.a. ~clicks~, New York Fashion Week is a total snooze. Maybe a celebrity will do something crazy, the Kardashians are always good for a spike, etc., but the hundreds of other show reviews barely register. The immediate response by online media is not only a sign that people are waking up and realizing that cultural appropriation is a thing that is very clearly not okay — but also that people online will be upset about this, and that is good for traffic.

Oh, the clothes? The accessories? They were amazing. Marc’s handbags, which were The Thing circa 2003, have yet to regain their moment in the sun — but the big suede studded ones we saw yesterday looked pretty promising. The clothes, which had a raver-meets-Rainbow-Brite feel, were extremely fun. That’s in contrast to so many of his past shows, which have felt serious, sad, ominous or otherwise dark. The Blade Runner-slash-nightclub-inspired set was impressive too, featuring more than a thousand light bulbs dangling from the ceiling — but then again Stefan Beckman’s sets for Marc Jacobs are always impressive. His show — and the clothes, the ideas they present, the envelopes they consistently push, are always the highlight of New York Fashion Week.

But back to that hair: It’s a shame. A shame because it perpetuates a cycle of exploitative behavior for which we are responsible too and also because it was unnecessary and now this is the main takeaway. I can only assume that is not what Marc Jacobs had intended, though the truly, truly cynical might say that he saw it coming and knew it would garner him buzz.

Feature photograph by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images; carousel photograph by JP Yim/Getty Images; slideshow photographs via Vogue Runway.

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