Let’s Get Lost: Racism in the Fashion Industry

Last week a colleague forwarded me a link to an article on refinery29.com regarding a recent shoot for Interview Magazine featuring model Daria Werbowy, shot by Mikael Jansson. The story itself has caused a fair amount of controversy regarding alleged racist undertones within the shoot.

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Personally, I think this shoot is one of, if not the most evocative fashion story I have seen all year. The lighting, poses, clothing and colour all contribute to an overall ambience which I find simply captivating. You can almost taste the salty tang of sweat, the earthy and metallic grease and engine oil, the cold bottled beer and the acrid, lingering smoke.

As a big fan of dancehall music and dingy, sweaty yet atmospheric clubs in general, I cannot envision a more perfect setting to hear one of my favourite genres of music. All of the models, not just Daria, look beautiful, and while there is the faintest nuance of menace in the air, that is thanks mainly to the setting; it certainly, to my eyes anyway, does not reinforce any negative stereotypes of black people.

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However, this is where the allegations come pouring in. According to its many detractors, it places black models in the shoot merely as ‘props’, dressing them in ‘tough’ leather and knits, while placing Daria in ‘ethereal’ and ‘angel-like’ gowns.

Looking at these images as objectively as possible, I’m still not entirely sure of the validity of this statement. I mean sure, Daria is the main focus of many of the images – although not all, it is important to note – but I think that the images would be just as strong without her in them at all; the shoot is about capturing an atmosphere, a moment in time in some faraway place that many of us Western Europeans will never experience.

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It is antithetic escapism in a way; instead of providing something typically beautiful and aspirational, it does the opposite and shows us a world of vice, sleaze and depravity, which, due to its obvious id-based appeal, is just as alluring.

The fact remains that clubs like this do exist; from grimy dancehall venues in the backstreets of Kingston to basement dubstep clubs in East London, the ‘dive’, as many of these places are known, represents a coming-together of people for one thing – a love of music. All the pretentious trappings of so-called nightlife – dress codes, expensive cocktails, and condescending attitudes – are forgotten; the venues aren’t pretty but they are brimming with energy, both sonic and sexual. In my opinion, that is what this shoot conveys perfectly.

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Of course, this isn’t the first time in recent months that the fashion industry has been accused of racism. Last year, the October 2009 issue of Vogue featured a shoot – shot by Steven Klein, styled by Carine Roitfeld – in which model Lara Stone was depicted covered in brown paint, in a move dubbed by many as ‘contemporary blackface’. The outrage over this shoot is, in my opinion, fairly justified.

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Although I am a big fan of Steven Klein, it is surprising that anyone would allow this kind of photoshoot to go ahead. While I don’t think that a depiction of ‘neo-minstrels’ was necessarily the aim of the shoot, it was nonetheless a naive move by those in charge, and actually detracts a lot of attention from the other images in the shoot, which are otherwise very cool indeed.

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I guess your outlook on this whole debate depends on your views on what is considered racist. Personally, with regard to the Daria Werbowy shoot, I think that most of the outrage has been generated by whites who think it is up to them to dictate what people from other ethnic backgrounds find offensive. Sure, there are black people who will find it offensive but there are also plenty who don’t (Kiah, the colleague who forwarded the images to me, is Jamaican and loves them) which wouldn’t be the case if the images depicted were overtly offensive.

Another big factor is the way in which fashion chooses to politicise itself. Many people speak of fashion as being very politically and socially motivated, something which I don’t agree with at all. Any kind of political or social commentary embued within a collection that I’ve seen has been very trite and contrived at best; certainly nothing that has made me want to make any rash lifestyle changes.

Fashion makes itself political because people that design want it to be taken seriously as an art, which it is not. It may be conceptual, but fashion design is a craft, not an art. Clothing, in my opinion, cannot express any kind of political statement; it can express an opinion, an outlook on life – look to the Dadaist, make-do-and-mend aesthetic of punk, or the often prison-related fashions present in hiphop style – but when it comes to fashion, the only real politicisation comes through depiction in a context, through mediums such as photography or film.

It is only when clothing is placed within a context that it is given meaning; the ‘Guide to Successful Living’ campaign started by Diesel in 1992 is, to me, one of the most satirical and provocative advertising campaigns ever made, and marks a true milestone in terms of the politicisation of fashion advertising.

When you consider that there are so many actual examples of racism and persecution in the world that continue to cause pain and suffering to people all over the world, getting worked up over a perceived slight in a magazine editorial seems, to me at least, to be fairly out of perspective. Let’s concentrate on fixing some of the other evils in the world before blaming fashion for all of the world’s problems, shall we?

James

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