Is it just me or did Black History Month feel a bit more eventful than usual? It’s as if this baby month had different entities– people, brands, and publications– either contemplating their effect on black people or just not giving a fuck, almost going out of their way to offend. Well, February seemed to have started off with a racially-fuelled bang. Let’s recap, shall we?
Ganni kicked it off by deciding to close out Copenhagen Fashion Week with a show that depicted the “beauty of life on earth”– of course that meant images depicting women from developing regions. And OF COURSE that meant one of them was a black woman in colorful clothing kicking up dirt. Cute. When I happen to be wearing traditional Nigerian clothes, honestly I’m trifling when I don’t immediately take off my Manolos, and make my way to some deserted dirt area. Cue the backlash.
The problem is not the image itself. It is that this is always the depiction of “Africa” and other non-western areas. It’s instantly either fetishized or sympathized, depending on the user’s needs. As Anaa Saber, who was in attendance, put it, “…they are shown through the ‘white’ gaze, reduced only to their aesthetic value. It looked “cool” in the background, right? It “gelled well” with the aesthetic of depicting the “human spirit”, right? Wrong. My people are not your aesthetic.”
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I need to take a break from all this fashion week hype to talk about something that has made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Today, I attended The Ganni FW 19 show “LIFE ON EARTH” during Copenhagen Fashion Week, which was centered on “sustainability” and the “global Ganni girl”. Throughout the show, there was a slideshow of images taken by Ami Vitale in the background, depicting underprivileged women in developing countries, while models gallivanted across the runway. How were these pictures of poor brown women aligned with the theme of of sustainability? How did this show benefit these women? The brand fetishized these women and used them as props and marketing tools. This was not a platform for these marginalized women to get representation; they were not treated as humans with agency and with stories of their own to tell. Instead, they are shown through the ‘white’ gaze, reduced only to their aesthetic value. It looked “cool” in the background, right? It “gelled well” with the aesthetic of depicting the “human spirit”, right? Wrong. My people are not your aesthetic. It’s worrying how this got approved. From the photography to the set design, did this pass before any people of color? Did nobody in management realize how this would be perceived by non-white audience members? This is why building diverse teams is critical. The fashion industry likes to throw around buzzwords like “diversity, inclusivity, and sustainability”, without introspecting on how exactly they are promoting these causes. It is unlikely that the women in these photographs received any compensation for “participating” in this show, while the brand profits. This is not just meant to call out Ganni for being problematic. This is a larger pattern of exploitation in the fashion industry. It is exactly women like the ones in these pictures that are worst affected by our industry: poor wages and terrible working conditions in sweatshops that manufacture clothing for many western brands. This treatment of women of color is particularly painful given how “progressive” the fashion industry claims to be. Stop being tone deaf and blind to your own internalized colonial mentality. Do better.
Moving on to what was arguably the biggest incident of Black History Month, Gucci debuted a black turtleneck featuring red lips that was basically blackface in sartorial form. Boycotts were called for, articles were written, and apologies were issued. At this point, as the collective involved in the lifespan of a brand’s scandal, we all know how to play our roles with a slightly uncomfortable automation.
Burberry also entered its name in the contest for dumbest PR mistake when it featured a noose as an accessory on the runway. When I read the headlines featuring the word “noose”, my mind immediately went to lynching, though a lot of people deemed it a reference to suicide.
From fashion we go to the greatest source of pride for the United States: politics. Wherein the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, allegedly (Governor Northam admitted to being pictured in the widely circulated photo but then denied it) got caught with his pants down (re: with his blackface on…twice). If that in itself was not enough, Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted–and so far has not done an about-face and denied it–to donning blackface.
one two three blackface incidents weren’t enough, Katy Perry’s line of shoes had a loafer pulled from retailers because it had a resemblance to blackface.
There was just. so. much. And all before Valentine’s Day.
From Gucci to the politicians in Virginia, it seems that blackface is quite the fashion statement. While there are those on the side of the offending party, there are also those that are discussing racism, diversity, and its implications. The New York Times featured Pyer Moss, and while it was mainly about the designer’s decision to not show during New York Fashion Week, it also touched on his history with Black Lives Matter and what it means to be a black designer in an industry that lacks true diversity. How eerily timely, but isn’t it always?
There was a deluge of articles from multiple publications covering the Gucci debacle. Business of Fashion discussed the race issue (paywall) within the world of stylists in Hollywood. Man Repeller considered the implications of code-switching. Coveteur happens to be the most talkative of them all with multiple features for the occasion, like black creatives discussing what Black History Month means to them and a listicle featuring books celebrating black culture.
What does diversity mean for the fashion industry? An industry that has such a significant impact on the culture at-large, and how do we get there? The glaring problem is that it’s systemic. Gucci wants diversity. H&M wants diversity. Prada wants diversity. British Vogue wants diversity (thank you Edward Enninful). They all (claim to) want diversity. But as much as they may want diversity, who exactly are they hiring? The young black kid fresh out of college? That’s cool and all, but highly unlikely. Beyond those questionable unpaid internships, people of color experience difficulty progressing and reaching that next step– actual employment with actual income. Because no one can live off those “stipends.”
The fashion industry is plagued by bias, whether subconscious or fully realized. It almost feels like an attack on your right to self-determination. Black sounding names can take you out of the running before you even have a chance to get in the room. Of course this is not just a fashion industry problem. Studies have been performed on this subject to examine just how widespread this problem is. And some recruiters have even admitted that discrimination is a real thing. It’s time to truly address it and not just fling the diversity buzzwords around everywhere and lull us into a false sense of progress. The fashion ecosystem as a whole has managed to shut out many deserving people of color in various areas of the industry. You will have your tokens, but they can’t move the needle by themselves.
So what can be done about it? The obvious, most sensible answer is to: hire more people of color at the entry level, and I don’t just mean internships. This would ensure a number of talented and experienced professionals of color, instead of a droplet, from which to pull. The solution is simple, but for those in power, execution seems to be a struggle.
However, change is on the come-up. Prada has enlisted Aunty Ava Duvernay to lead its diversity council. Gucci will be implementing a diversity and inclusion plan in an effort to hire diverse candidates, which includes a scholarship program in cities like New York, Hong Kong, Nairobi, New Delhi, Beijing, Hangzhou, Seoul, Tokyo, Beirut, London and Dubai. H&M hired Annie Wu as the Global Leader for Inclusion and Diversity as well as Ezinne Kwubiri as the Head of Diversity and Inclusion for North America. Burberry announced that it will be launching diversity and inclusion initiatives. The brand will also expand its arts and culture school program as well as its international creative artist scholarship to employ 50 graduates over 5 years.
February wasn’t all about colonizers’ ignorance; the month had somewhat of a bright spot, depending on who you ask: awards season. At the Oscars, Regina King kicked the night off by winning the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Mahershala Ali won the award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in “Green Book.” Spike Lee (finally) won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman.” “Green Book” also won the Oscar for Best Picture, but there has been plenty of debate about how accurately it depicts race relations and if it is, instead, somewhat of a caricature. I’d argue that it’s the prioritizing of comfort over truth that has gotten us to this point.
The Grammys saw big wins for Childish Gambino, winning Best Rap/Sung Performance, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year for “This Is America”, the astonishingly reflective portrait of today’s America with elements that we thought we left–or should have already left–behind. After the Beyonce Injustice of ‘17 where a white woman doing her interpretation of Lionel Richie’s “Hello” beats the musical and visual storytelling package of what it means to be a black woman, the Grammys had to make a move towards contrition. (I love Adele. I really do. But even she knew being up on that stage accepting that award was a problem.)
Drake won the Best Rap Song Grammy for God’s Plan, and while he isn’t usually here for the Grammys and their misdeeds, he decided to grace the event with his presence. In his acceptance speech, Drake delivered a modicum of our truth, but it was no less profound as it extends beyond music and reaches us here in fashion and other industries: “This is a business where sometimes, you know, it’s up to a bunch of people that might not understand what a mixed-race kid from Canada has to say, or a fly Spanish girl from New York, […], or a brother from Houston.”
It’s 2019. If you don’t understand, you bring someone into that room who does.
At 65 years removed from the start of the Civil Rights era and 10 years from when a black man entered the White House as president, here’s to a more enlightened (and less offensive) Black History Month in 2020.
Written by Uche Audrey