Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2019 | 8 minutes (2,349 words)
Rufus: Models help people. They make them feel good about themselves.
Meekus: They also show them how to dress cool and wear their hair in interesting ways.
Zoolander: I guess so.
The schadenfreude was swift and it was sharp the moment the Met Gala announced this year’s theme: camp. “do you ever wake up in the middle of the night because you remembered the met ball is camp themed this year and so many celebrities are going to have to explain what they think camp is,” tweeted New Yorker fashion columnist Rachel Syme. The idea that the fashion industry, infamously out of touch, was not only bypassing urgent matters of the present to focus on the past, but that the past it chose is defined by its indefinability — Susan Sontag’s attempt, “Notes on Camp,” is a series of contradictions for a reason — was too delicious. We were all Divine, in drag, crouching next to that puli, waiting for that shit. And when Lady Gaga and Celine Dion showed up vamping their souls out, it was the perfect symbol of fashion’s near-constant missing of the mark even when it is the mark. Because camp, a lurid pink flourish on the margins of society, is at its core the opposite of what fashion has become: a sanitized institution that sets itself apart from the mess of our reality. “Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp,” wrote Sontag, “what is merely decorative, safe, in a word, chic.”
The stars who seemed to intrinsically understand camp, from Danai Gurira to Natasha Lyonne, are familiar with the fringes of Hollywood. And it was a surprise to no one when Billy Porter — who made his name in Kinky Boots — arrived like the second coming of Tutankhamun, in head-to-toe gold, carried by a coterie of beefcakes. This is the man whose name few knew three months ago, whose style alone threw him to the top of the red carpet, above the old A-listers in the likes of Chanel and Valentino. Like Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, he is fashion precisely because he poses outside of it. Established fashion these days is a place where tradition trumps trendiness, and the biggest couturiers seem to be moving backward rather than forward. Prada, Gucci, Burberry, and Dolce & Gabbana, among others, have lately made missteps so basic it has become clear that being clueless is not the exception but the rule. “Fashion is old-fashioned,” says Van Dyk Lewis, who has worked as a designer and teaches fashion at Cornell University. “The clothes might be cool, but actually the sentiment of fashion in our moment isn’t.”
Let’s assume that in the fashion industry there are more than, I don’t know, two eyes looking at everything. So let’s just suppose, hypothetically, that someone at Prada drew a flagrantly racist Sambo- or Golliwog-esque — choose your own offense! — figure. Someone looked at that and said, “Yeah, that looks good. No problem with that.” Then that petit pot de gaucherie was passed on to the manufacturer. That manufacturer looked at its black body and giant red lips and said, “Faux OUI!” Now a fully formed symbol of historic racial oppression is floating around the Prada offices, various eyes of various employees landing on it, and maybe a non-white intern or super-low-rung assistant sees it and thinks, “Holy shit, that is some old-timey racism,” but who’s going to listen? So off it goes to marketing, who think, “Cute!” and come up with an appropriately cute concept, about a group of mysterious creatures that are part biological, part technological, (part slave), all Prada. Then it’s shipped off to stores around the world and some good-looking underpaid white sales clerk who’d rather be auditioning displays it in their store window without thinking anything of it. Then a civil rights attorney who has just visited the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture walks by, stops, enters and asks the good looking underpaid white sales clerk if they realize that they are surrounded by blackface. And she is told that actually a black employee had previously complained about something like that — but he doesn’t work there anymore.
I imagine some variation of the above events led to the dissemination of those blackface Katy Perry shoes, that blackface sweater by Gucci, that noose hoodie by Burberry, and that Asian ad by Dolce & Gabbana — the model is mocked for attempting to eat Italian food with chopsticks — not to mention that Interview magazine cover with Kylie Jenner in a wheelchair. By the way, all of these brands were founded by white men, except the one founded by a white woman. As Ben Barry, chair of equity, diversity and inclusion at Ryerson’s School of Fashion, tells me, “We do not have diverse bodies, voices, and lived experiences designing our clothes and making business and creative decisions.” And forget that myth that Europeans are more sophisticated — Gucci’s president and CEO Marco Bizzarri claimed he hadn’t even heard of blackface even though it dates back to his country’s silent film era. I would have thought that at least a pair of older gay designers like D&G would be somewhat sensitive to persecution. But, no, says Barry, gay men in fashion tend to be white and “likely they are unaware of the ways in which whiteness as an unmarked dominant identity structures how they see the world.”
It almost seems like it was better when fashion, in all its bias, was reserved for the elite. But then the 1960s came along, couture became more accessible, and suddenly its ignorance was splayed out for everyone to see. “The people who really control the fashion industry — you know, the Annas of this world — do not call this sort of thing out,” says Lewis. “It should be front page news in Vogue.” Instead it’s trending on social media and fashion is struggling to respond. In January, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and PVH (the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger) released the Insider/Outsider report on inclusion and diversity in the U.S. fashion industry. “Motivation at the individual level that aligns with the organizational business case is a path toward sustainable change,” reads the conclusion. “By taking a critical look at their company culture, leaders will be able to assess the best ways to navigate within the corporate structure.” (I don’t understand either). More than anything else, this high-profile ass-covering represents the industry’s failure to acknowledge its limitations, couching it in buzzwords without offering a clear solution beyond vague initiatives. The report did however state that while visible inclusion — diversity on runways and in magazines — had improved, the opportunities at the top — fashion heads, CEOs, editors — had not. Here’s something clearer: Of the 495 members of the CFDA, 17 identify as black.
“The kinds of ‘obvious errors’ that should have been caught require persons with authority and power in these organizations to have the cultural awareness and lived experience that enables them to call them out,” says Kenya Wiley, the founder and CEO of Fashion Innovation Alliance, a consultancy firm focusing on inclusion in retail. In layman’s terms: You might not want André Leon Talley to be the only name you can come up with when discussing fashion power players who are not white, thin, straight, and from privileged backgrounds. “The biggest leap of faith was Edward Enninful becoming editor of British Vogue,” Leon Talley told The New York Times last year. “That was an extraordinary thing.” He also mentioned Virgil Abloh, who Louis Vuitton named as its first black men’s artistic director, only the third to lead a luxury fashion house in France. Though their appointments have been described as revolutionary, both of these men adhered to the system that was in place. Abloh, for instance, pre-LV defined his first commercial brand, Off-White, as “the gray area between black and white.” And though Enninful was already the fashion director of i-D at 18, he patiently waited almost three decades to become an editor in chief, his first editor’s letter offering a glimpse at his diplomacy. “Fashion is a conversation, the continual dialogue between you, the Vogue reader, and the times we live in,” Enninful wrote, “fusing fashion with art, politics and society.”
The rule seems to be that if you play nice, you can be included. Pyer Moss founder Kerby Jean-Raymond — he dressed Lena Waithe in a suit with Black Drag Queens Invented Camp emblazoned across the back for the Met Gala — does not. He has been infamously outspoken ever since he screened a film responding to the deaths of Eric Garner and Sean Bell before his 2016 Spring/Summer New York Fashion Week show, which lost him his six biggest accounts and almost his company. This was only four years ago, remember. Before that (and, understandably, in retrospect) Jean-Raymond was so “scared of the space” in fashion that he had remained apolitical. “It was very Anglo, elitist, prejudiced,” he told Vogue Business in January. “I didn’t feel like there was a place for me in fashion, so I never spoke up.” That a black designer could feel like an outsider in the American fashion industry is counterintuitive when you consider Nielsen’s report last year that African Americans spent $1.2 trillion annually (that includes beauty products). “Our research shows that Black consumer choices have a ‘cool factor’ that has created a halo effect, influencing not just consumers of color but the mainstream as well,” senior VP at Nielsen, Cheryl Grace, said at the time, adding, “products and marketing that appeal to diverse consumers is, indeed, paying off handsomely.”
It’s paying off for the economy, but not necessarily for creators of color. You wouldn’t be entirely off the mark for thinking cultural appropriation is trendy, considering how often major fashion brands steal from indie designers, many of them marginalized. Even Abloh has been accused of pilfering from lesser known Haitian-American designer Michelle Elie. “Big fashion brands rip off small ones all the time,” wrote Chavie Lieber in Vox last year. “The most prolific offenders being fast-fashion companies, whose entire business model revolves around copying trends and bringing them to market quickly.” Four-decade-old copyright laws mean that the industry still treats fashion as a manufacturing rather than a design field, which means intellectual property is not really protected. Last year Mexican-American designer Brenda Equihua noticed that French label Marine Serre was catwalking some clothes that were very similar to her Latin-inspired designs. “This is not a trend. This is not hype,” she wrote on Instagram. “People’s lives are involved. Our cutters, sewers, mentors, patternmakers, our friends, and our community.”
Then there was Gucci, which appeared to copy Harlem haberdasher Dapper Dan (they called it “homage”), then followed it up by collaborating with him. That was a surprise. This was the same fashion house that, in the aftermath of the sweater controversy, worried about stifling the creativity of its white designer with censorship. Rather than responding to its myopic mistake by opening up its field of view, Gucci put auteur blinders on. “I think success as a fashion designer has been based on this concept of isolated brilliance and creativity,” explains Ben Barry. So you’ve got this one guy, Alessandro Michele, the guy who put Harry Styles in a blouse for the Met Gala and called it a day, who is expected to single-handedly make the brand every season. “Because there’s so much pressure for the designer to create,” says Barry, “we’ve seen this really stealing of culture, aesthetics, and practices rather than recognizing what are the opportunities for collaboration, for sharing power, for sharing credit, for sharing profit.” (I’ll give Gucci Jared Leto’s dismembered head, though.)
It’s supposed to be a major mic drop moment, that scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where Meryl Streep’s Anna Wintour knock-off eviscerates Anne Hathaway for dismissing high fashion, pointing out how her “lumpy blue sweater” has trickled down from the catwalk through the culture into her closet, stripping her of any agency, giving all the power to couture. Instead it is a scenery-chewing reminder of fashion’s responsibility and how carelessly it is wielded. “I ultimately think fashion designers and other people in the industry don’t understand their power,” says Lewis. He explains that the original function of design was “to improve humankind’s lot on the planet” and questions how a black creature with big red lips is on trend with a growing return to sustainable fashion. “If we’re going to have sustainability,” he says, “it’s got to be for everybody.”
While there has been something of an awakening in the fashion industry, which has resulted in a slew of diversity initiatives and scholarships and mentorships for young designers, not to mention Rihanna’s just-announced appointment as the first woman (and first woman of color) to create an original brand for LVMH, the change has been slow. As Women’s Wear Daily recently reminded us, only 11 percent of the general counsels at Fortune 500 companies, i.e., the people responsible for flagging bias, are minorities. While Lewis doesn’t believe celebrities should be handed clothing lines — he thinks designers should be as professionalized as architects, considering their influence — Barry thinks the solution lies elsewhere. That is, in education, including a curriculum with more diverse fashion history and socially conscious design frameworks, and the outreach and nurturing of designers from all kinds of backgrounds in order to build the confidence they require to claim a seat among the high fashion counsel. “This is where true racial equity is tested,” says Fashion Innovation Alliance’s Kenya Wiley. “Not just in head counts of models and interns, but in every level of the organization.” This is also where you get a cult film from 1975 starring Diana Ross behind the ropes of the Met Gala. As the Mahogany theme song goes (which Billy Porter could have very well been humming under his gold-dusted breath), “When you look behind you / There’s no open doors / What are you hoping for? / Do you know?”
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.