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The designer was swiftly accused of cultural appropriation, with critics pointing out that the dreadlocks hairstyle bears significance for, and was originated by, people of color. Others reminded Jacobs that many black people are chastised for wearing dreadlocks, while his models wear them as an edgy fashion statement. This point was especially relevant as a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that banning dreadlocks in the workplace is legal the very same week as Marc Jacobs' runway show. For many people, watching his nearly all-white cast of models strut down the runway in their pastel ‘locs just added insult to injury.
While people of color are being discriminated against in the workplace for looking “unprofessional” because of their hair, Marc Jacobs' use of the same hairstyle is praised as artistic innovation. Hairstylist for the show, Guido Palau, went so far as to say of Marc Jacobs, “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.” He went on to identify “rave culture” as his inspiration for the look, a sorely misplaced attribution that doesn’t give artistic credit to the people of color that inspired those club-kid fashions.
While this particular runway show garnered major media attention, the issue of cultural appropriation is not uncommon in the fashion industry. From Givenchy’s “Victorian Cholas” in 2015 to Valentino’s “Africa-inspired” show, complete with cornrowed hair that featured just eight models of color out of a total of ninety, the fashion industry’s attempts at using cultural inspiration tend to fall flat. Instead of a vibrant celebration of cultural traditions, we are left with a reductive interpretation that does not involve a real understanding of the culture being presented.
Photo from The Daily Front Row
In looking for the reason fashion houses don’t learn from these tired mistakes, it’s important to look at who is running these shows: it doesn’t take long to identify a major representation problem. On the runways, there are limited opportunities for models of color, despite a recent push in online activism encouraging more diverse shows. For the Fall 2016 season, less than 25% of models were people of color, The Fashion Spot reported. During that season, Balenciaga, an influential name in fashion to say the least, only included one non-white model in their runway show.
The influencers behind the scenes don’t fare much better in terms of diversity. Designers, creative directors, and editors-in-chief of fashion magazines are overwhelmingly white. While publications like Teen Vogue are leading the push for diversity, most notably with the hiring of editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth, these instances are still the exception rather than the rule. The demographic makeup of those calling the shots in fashion do not mirror the increasingly diverse set of high fashion consumers. In order to take inspiration from non-white cultures in a tasteful and celebratory way, fashion houses first need to diversify their leadership and to amplify the voices of people of color in fashion.
Those who defend designers like Marc Jacobs and don’t see cultural appropriation as a problem usually ask how it is possible to take inspiration from the vibrant cultures all around us without offending. This kind of cultural appreciation is possible, but several steps need to be taken to get it right. Increasing diversity is the first step, both on and off the runway. It is necessary in the creative and design processes, so that there can be a variety of perspectives, a fresh set of eyes to catch overlooked details or careless handling of the fashions of other cultures, including those that may lead to insensitive artistic decisions. Further, a designer interested in taking inspiration from a culture that is not their own must learn about the significance behind the hairstyle, jewelry, or traditional dress they want to incorporate in their designs. In addition to avoiding cultural appropriation, a better understanding of the culture also allows for better designs and a more meaningful collection.
Photo from The Daily Front Row
Despite many missteps, some designers have actually gotten it right. One recent example is Zac Posen at his Fall 2016 show. The white designer, who enjoys mainstream success and frequent red carpet appearances, took inspiration from Princess Elizabeth of Toro, a Ugandan lawyer, politician, and model. In addition to being an “It girl” of her day, the princess was also the first East African woman to be admitted to the English Bar.
The collection incorporated different aspects of the princess’s life, riffing on vibrant prints and wrap silhouettes in addition to wool coats and suits. Here, Posen’s interpretation is not simply a generic, vague quotation of the styles of Ugandan women, but a specific, well-researched allusion to a woman of color in which his inspiration is also properly attributed. Posen also put on a runway show consisting entirely of non-white models, before posting the hashtag #blackmodelsmatter on his social media pages.
While Posen’s runway show demonstrated how white designers can nod to another culture without thoughtlessly appropriating it, what we need to see more of in the fashion industry are designers of color showcasing their point of view and celebrating their culture on their own terms. Just a week after Marc Jacobs’ pastel dreadlocks rocked the Internet, London-based designer Ashish Gupta put on a show that celebrated his Indian heritage with a “Western” twist that made it all his own.
Photo from CNN.com
The collection incorporated traditional Indian fabrics, embellishments, and jewelry while tying in Western silhouettes, such as T-shirts and A-line skirts. Male and female models wore extravagant headpieces, ankle bracelets, and dramatic nose rings. This melding of traditional Indian styles with a more Western style of dress was only possible through Gupta’s deep attachment to and knowledge of these cultures. Furthermore, the show was a celebration of multiculturalism in England in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and a resounding xenophobic sentiment in parts of the country. At the end of a noticeably diverse runway show, the designer appeared to the audience in a white T-shirt with the word “Immigrant” printed boldly on the front in black type.
Gupta’s collection is just one example of the beautiful and important art that is made when culture is celebrated and appreciated, not appropriated. The designer brought his unique knowledge, experiences, and perspectives to present something that felt fresh and meaningful. We lose out on this kind of art when people of color are underrepresented in the fashion industry. In order for cultural influences in high fashion to morph from appropriation into appreciation, the fashion industry must promote diversity on and off the runway, behind the camera, behind the sketchbooks, and in the boardrooms. Gaining inspiration from another culture is not a problem in and of itself; however, designers must put thought and care into how it is done, lest they repeat Marc Jacobs' mistake.