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Why Fashion Keeps Tripping Over Race

The paint-chip problem, revisited.


Spring-summer 2011 Lanvin runway show.   

The guests at the Lanvin show in Paris had all been waiting more than an hour for the presentation to begin, and they were getting restless. This tardiness was out of character for Alber Elbaz, widely considered to be one of the most talented designers around—as well as among the most hospitable. He refrains from trussing models into unforgiving silhouettes that prohibit walking and make the consumption of anything more caloric than Saltines a wild-eyed risk.

It would turn out that the reason for the delay of his spring 2011 show was a matter of shoes. Elbaz’s original choreography had the models sashaying down a concrete walkway, about the length of a New York City block, wearing perilous stilettos. Apparently, during rehearsals, the skyscraper heels brought some of the models to tears. So Elbaz dispatched staff to retrieve kinder footwear. The result was a tardy show, but a beautiful one, with virtually half the models—an ethnically diverse lot—in flats.

This was all typical Elbaz. So it was with curiosity and confusion that I, one of a handful of black fashion editors, tried to absorb his show’s odd finale and the disorienting audience reaction. In a presentation that had (philosophically) been about female power and (aesthetically) about layering, the final moments were punctuated by a group of black models all dressed in tropical fern prints. The flora had nothing to do with any other element in the show. And frankly, the clothes were hardly showstoppers. But that didn’t seem to matter, because when the five models marched down the runway en masse—the five black models—large sections of the audience broke into applause for the first and only time during the presentation.

They were cheering the black women, but not because they had performed dramatic runway pyrotechnics. They were cheering the women for the great accomplishment of simply being black, which, one might argue, in an industry that remains stubbornly homogeneous in many respects, is a feat worth getting excited about. In fact, when the black model Jourdan Dunn appeared in 2008 in what had been up until then a relentlessly all-white Prada show, I marveled in my blog: “Black girl walking!” It was the first time in more than a decade that I recalled seeing a black model in one of Miuccia Prada’s shows. My enthusiasm and dismay were a throwback to the sixties, when, I am told, black folks called up friends and family to exclaim whenever a person of color was spotted on television. Whoop-whoop! Black people on TV! Black people on TV!

But was the group of five a political statement? An attempt at consciousness-raising? What was Elbaz thinking? And, more important, what did it say about the fashion industry?

According to Elbaz, the decision was purely aesthetic—a solution to a creative conundrum. He adored the prints but knew they posed a jarring juxtaposition with the rest of the collection. A more disciplined designer, he said, would simply have edited them out. So, in his search for a way to display them that would make sense, he hit upon the idea of using the black models. They would form a visual addendum to the main collection. They would be separate. But equal.

“I was trained by Geoffrey Beene and Yves Saint Laurent,” Elbaz told me at the time. “They both worked with African girls, black girls. Not because it was a political statement, but because they were beautiful girls.”

In short, Elbaz’s decision had nothing to do with race. And yet, it had everything to do with it.

“As soon as you put five girls together as a group—African-American or Asian—it does make a statement: a political statement,” says André Leon Talley, contributing editor at Vogue and a judge on America’s Next Top Model. “We’re supposed to be living in a postracial, nonracial world. We’re just not there.”

And so it goes in fashion. The industry sees itself as open-minded and progressive. (Yes, it’s judgmental about your weight, your hair, and your clothes, but it judges everyone.) So it aims to treat race like any other aesthetic touchstone, as unremarkable as red hair or a cleft chin. Race is little more than “a paint chip,” former fashion publicist Susan Portnoy, who worked for Nicole Miller and Oscar de la Renta’s Oscar line, once told me. The fashion world considers itself so cosmopolitan and sophisticated that it can play fast and loose with racial stereotypes—occasionally shattering them, sometimes benefiting from their stubborn existence. Fashion folks naïvely—bravely?—attempt to be racially blasé in a culture that still struggles with the burdens of prejudice and the wounds of history. As a result, the fashion community in general often comes across as bumbling on the topic of race. It gets tripped up by ignorance. Fashion editorials can be thoughtful and exasperating—sometimes in the same breath.

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