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Why Fashion Keeps Tripping Over Race

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French Vogue, October 2009.   

What is it like being the only black editor, designer, publicist in the room? I recall walking into a luncheon at the Joseph Abboud showroom some years ago. I was the first to arrive, and a white valet waited in anticipation of the guests. I said hello. He nodded but said nothing, and did not offer to take my coat. Within moments, however, a group of white male colleagues arrived, and I watched as the valet immediately jumped into action, checking their coats and bags. I waited, and when it seemed he had no plans to come to my aid, I finally said, “You can take my coat now.” Without comment, he did. Did he think I was a delivery person? The help? Or was he just hopelessly distracted and unprofessional?


Sean Combs in Vogue, February 2010.   

Tracy Reese, arguably the country’s most visible black designer, was recently invited to a reception for underprivileged high-school students. “I was the only person of color, except for the youth and maybe one faculty member. The organizers were sort of urgent about my being there,” Reese says. “Sometimes you’re needed in the mix for whatever reason. I don’t internalize it, but I do a calculation in my head: Probably I’m here because of A, B, or C. Probably that’s wrong of me.

“Once you get past the politics,” she adds, “I suppose the most important thing would be for me to be in the room as a role model for other up-and-coming artists and designers.”

Demetria White has worked for such companies as Yohji Yamamoto and Christian Dior—which, she says, was like stepping through the looking glass into an exceedingly conservative, very French, and very white world. As a black person, “every time I went to Paris, I felt like it was me—and the cleaners that would come in at night.”

When Viktor & Rolf put models in blackface and body paint, should I not have been horrified?

One of her duties during runway season was to help welcome celebrities to the show and get them settled in to their proper seats. Her list of names would include people such as Lenny Kravitz and his daughter Zoë, Kanye West, and any other black VIPs. “Okay, I get it,” White says, acknowledging a human instinct to pair like with like. “But on the other hand, it’s pretty obvious.”


"The Black Allure" editorial in Vogue Italia, February 2011.   

The global nature of fashion means everyone isn’t hauling around the same societal baggage. France embraces “exoticism” and has a history of welcoming expatriate black artists. In Holland, the Dutch closely associate blackface with “Black Peters,” who, tradition holds, are Santa’s little helpers; at Christmastime, revelers dress up in blackface. (The practice now is greeted with some ambivalence, as many argue it references the country’s involvement in the slave trade.) So, in 2001, when Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren put their models in blackface and body paint for a collection focused on “silhouettes,” should I not have been horrified?

Designers around the world have, of course, long been inspired by race, and not just when they’re reaching for body paint. In the nineties, Jean Paul Gaultier found inspiration in the street styles of Harlem and in the faces of African immigrants in Paris. Elbaz presented a stunning collection at Krizia Top using all black models. John Bartlett has often allowed black models to dominate his runway. Each time Ralph Lauren travels to Africa—figuratively, if not literally—he produces some of his most moving and eloquent collections. And, of course, there’s Vogue Italia’s “A Black Issue,” and now February’s all-black editorial. (Happy Black History Month!)

I contributed an essay to Vogue Italia’s “A Black Issue,” and in it I discussed my own ambivalence about the project. I was happy to see such an artful and focused celebration of beautiful black women. I wasn’t bothered that they all appeared in a single issue; editor Franca Sozzani was making a powerful social statement through the act of segregation. But my concern was that once “A Black Issue” disappeared from newsstands, black models would as well.

To Sozzani’s credit, the black models didn’t disappear. But they remain segregated. She has fended off complaints that she is ghettoizing black models, telling me, “We do thousands of issues with Russian girls, and it’s not a ghetto.”

Aesthetically, Sozzani’s argument makes sense. But there’s a reason the standard all-white editorial isn’t described as a ghetto. There’s a reason no one talks about the oppression of blondes. Or the lack of redheads on the runway. The aesthetics of race can’t be wholly separated from the baggage of oppression, inequality, prejudice, and stereotypes. At least not yet. Mrs. Obama may be the patron saint of the fashion industry (and, arguably, Annie Leibovitz images of Michelle Obama channeling Camelot served as a political balm for a public adjusting to the idea of a black First Lady), but anyone who enters the blogosphere knows that the Obamas’ presence in the White House has not eradicated racism. In some ways, it is more vitriolic than ever.


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