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Why Fashion Keeps Tripping Over Race

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Other creative fields—visual arts, music, film, literature—seem to understand this. They wrestle with the complicated nature of race all the time, even as they also stumble. But the fashion community tends to play dumb or be disingenuous. It treats race like “a paint chip,” even while benefiting from the undercurrent of racial tensions that permeate our society. Recognizing the power of race—and the accompanying stereotypes—has led to some of fashion’s most glorious images. Part of what made the Polo Ralph Lauren advertisements featuring Tyson Beckford so compelling and groundbreaking was the contrast between Beckford’s mahogany complexion and the classic Waspiness of the clothes. The ads bucked a multitude of cultural clichés. Vogue also used assumptions about race and urban style to great effect when it photographed Sean Combs as an elegant Cary Grant figure for a couture story. The fashion bible bought into the subversive image that Combs had begun to craft of himself as a Hamptons-dwelling mogul who vacationed in St.-Tropez. And Liya Kebede, on the runway during Tom Ford’s reign at Yves Saint Laurent, expertly merged the “exoticism” of the brand’s past with the multicultural realities of the present.

Fashion pushes at the boundaries of political correctness in the name of creative freedom and buzz. But it often does it in a manner that is impish, sly, timid, and, at times, seemingly downright deceitful. How many times must we see a white model dressed in designer fare cavorting with the brown-skinned locals in India or Africa? Those who lead the cultural conversation about beauty, gender, and class biases can be shockingly uninterested in carrying on a dialogue about race—or simply unwilling to do so. I say, if you’re going to play with stereotypes, do it openly and honestly. After all, sometimes the culture needs to be challenged, even angered.

Which is why I couldn’t muster the kind of outrage so many did for a much-discussed magazine cover. The 2008 Vogue issue featuring LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen played with the cliché that black men are all brute strength and voracious appetites. Protect your white women! As James put on an expression of visceral emotion and Bündchen played the damsel gripped in his enormous hands, the power of the image came from the stereotypes. Some people were offended and compared it to an old King Kong poster. I had never seen the poster, but even when it was brought to my attention, I wasn’t offended. Indeed, in light of the poster, I found the image of this multimillionaire black male icon dominating the cover of the most mainstream of women’s fashion publications even more intriguing and provocative.

“I think it was a cover that stood out, with Gisele in the arms of this extraordinary creature—this man of extraordinary stature. I thought it registered as American heroism,” André Leon Talley says. The LeBron cover “was commenting on a so-called postracial culture. If you live in that kind of culture, you have to accept that image. For me, it was ahead of the curve.”

So, is the recent fascination with putting white models in blackface and body makeup also ahead of the curve?

“I hope not,” Talley says.


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