Diversity & Fashion – Are we there yet? NYFW shows progress but we still have a long way to go
Rachel Comey SS17 via Vogue Runway

For an industry that serves such a broad scope of people, fashion sure has traditionally been quite a generic production. We are used to seeing a “certain type” walking down runways, starring in editorials and fronting magazine covers. Whether this archetype bothered us or not, the lack of variety was a noticeable gap in the industry.

Unfortunately fashion has historically flourished on a platform of exclusion so the barriers are so deep-rooted it almost seemed completely normal to see a show lineup consisting of one generic, european look.

Underrepresented markets have voiced their concerns in the past, but, thanks to the inevitable platform that the viral megaphone of social networks provide, their voices have been substantially amplified and thus, dutifully noted. 

The fashion industry is in a flux, currently journeying through a vastly and rapidly changing landscape, seeing alterations along each facet of the industry, from creation to presentation to retail. And as it tries to gain footing on new ground, it is cultivating new methods which in turn is cultivating new standards.

So in this chapter of change, there is more liberty to create a new paradigm in accordance to a new market as it tries to find out what works.  And that liberty is fundamental to a more encompassing, understanding industry, as liberty has historically always been the starting line for diversity.

Perhaps the most blatant attempt at ethnic inclusion, the CFDA highlighted guidelines for diverse casting  for the SS16 runways.

From WWD:

CFDA members have been advised “to encourage the industry to be inclusive of racial diversity when preparing casting of models for their company needs.”

Specific guidelines include requesting agencies to include models of color when casting, requesting models of color each season, and making a conscious effort to add diversity to the lineup.

“Our objective is to make a shift on how the model of color is viewed so it becomes natural to see them participating each season in a greater number than seasons past,” the e-mail read.

And, whether the CFDA was the specific influence or not, diversity seemed to be a consistent theme this fashion week. 

Skin color a central gripe among fashion enthusiasts who may have felt excluded or overlooked from the lack of people to whom they could relate, and thus its advancement was one that took precedence. Racial exclusion results in the deepest of tensions so it can often overshadow other groups who have also voiced similar grievances.

Models and it girls know no bounds, as ethnicity, pant size and lifestyle further diversify and accommodate a larger range of the relevant population. We can look at street-style stars, industry insiders and supermodels and find every type of human being present and accounted for. 

The plus-sized market has also had issues within the fashion market, especially within the retail sector, so finding a relatable persona on the runway may have seemed a distant fantasy. Yet NYFW SS16 seamlessly incorporated their voice and their image within their lineup.

Curvy silhouettes strutted beside the thin ones. Women of color found a comfortable and progressive percentage among their white counterparts. And fashion is proving to be a platform for all. Finally.

Diverse imagery seems to be taking hold
Brandon Maxwell SS17
Brandon Maxwell SS17

Designers even expanded this effort to include age diversity in addition to ethnic and size inclusion. And it was amazing.

Seemingly gone is the token format where you saw one brown girl in a sea of caucasian faces, simply to reach a lazy quota. One week into fashion month we saw shows that included a colorful range of skin tones, elevating minority groups to, at times, a majority presence.

Rachel Comey casted her friends as models and staged her show on a New York street, which conveyed an effortless, people to people, daily life norms. And what is ready-to-wear if not a daily life norm?

Christian Siriano and Tome seamlessly incorporated curvy models with thin.

Whoppi Goldberg closed the Opening Ceremony show.

Brandon Maxwell’s show was one of the most diverse runway productions we’ve seen.

But are we there yet?

Cultural concepts are some of the touchiest waters to try to tread because on one side of the very thin, nearly indistinguishable line, lies appreciation and on the other, it turns into appropriation. The first side embodies respectful homage and consideration of a group of people while the latter of the two results in a viral nightmare. Dare you even slip a pinky toe nail anywhere near this thin line, well, be prepared to become a trending topic. 

Unfortunately, survey says that this negative iteration of cultural representation made an appearance in New York last week alongside all of the otherwise encouraging progress.

Marc Jacobs put on a beautiful show of impeccable clothing and immaculate casting of the most sought-after models, all of whom dawned mile-high, pastel dreads.

It didn’t take long for the dreads to overshadow the rest of the show as allegations of cultural appropriation began to spread far and wide.

So was what Marc Jacobs did wrong?

Well, not exactly. The problem does not simply simply lie in the usage of culturally foreign concepts.

The real agitation actually did not even occur on the actual catwalk. The fire was set by a match lit backstage. And then it was fanned by a post on Instagram later on. And then, as flames so naturally do, the backlash spread like wildfire.

The hairdresser responsible for the look, Guido Palau told Allure, “As with any hairstyle for a fashion show, we look at tons of references, so the look ends up being a result of many different inspirations and cultural references,” a list that included musician Boy George and Marilyn Manson, ’80s club kids, Japanese Harajuku girls, and ravers. “It’s never about just looking at one thing or one reference point—it’s a melting pot of ideas.”

When pointedly asked by The Cut if there were any odes to Rastafarianism, he answered, 
“No, not at all.”

Guido went on to describe the dreads: “The interesting thing about Marc is how he takes something so street and so raw, and because of the coloration of the hair and the makeup, it becomes a total look. 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.”

Even when directly asked about the “politics” of the hair, Guido said, “I don’t really think about that. I take inspiration from every culture. Style comes from clashing things. It’s always been there — if you’re creative, if you make food, music, and fashion, whatever, you’re inspired by everything. It’s not homogeneous. Different cultures mix all the time. You see it on the street. People don’t dress head-to-toe in just one way.”

So in every instance, Guido managed to skip over any direct homage to Rastafarianism and black culture, wherein dreadlocks have their historical roots.

Marc Jacobs also hopped on Guido’s pyromaniacal PR nightmare by posting an equally insensitive response:

“To all who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin color wearing their in any particular style of manner- funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair. I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see color or race-I see people. I’m sorry to read that so many people are so narrow minded… Love is the answer. Appreciation of all and inspiration from anywhere is a beautiful thing. Think about it.

Within the entire context of this exchange, the blatant opportunity, perhaps even the blatant hint, for a positive and inclusive message, was tainted by not only the complete blissful bypass, but also the condescending undertone of “Thank God fashion came along to sophisticate and validate this street look we never pay attention to.”

So let’s talk about cultural appropriation

As Essence explains, “Here is the problem: there’s a thin line between creativity and cultural appropriation. Celebrating another culture becomes problematic when the origin itself isn’t properly credited. That line was blatantly crossed when Jacobs’ lead stylist Guido failed to mention one person of color while explaining the inspiration behind the look. Again, not one.”

As a black woman, I am personally not a huge fan of the concept of “cultural appropriation.” Especially within a generation that seems so hypersensitive and ready to take offense as if it was a hobby. But the commentary provided by Guido and Jacobs comes off as nonchalant and condescending so it hits definitive chords of conflict. 

I believe the dreads still may be fine if the inspiration was exclusively drawn from rave and club culture. Surely anyone should have full rights to draw inspiration from whatever source they feel compelled by and to employ any hairstyle that suits their fancy. That is a given. But the venomous world of viral wildfire wants you to at least acknowledge the cultural roots of that fancy. So I don’t think it is the dreads that provoke the hot button as it is the mis-accreditation. 

Sure, I identify as black, but my identity is just as tightly and passionately woven with the arts. And within the arts, I know that inspiration quite often is aroused from the sharing of ideas, and ideas quite often are culturally founded or inspired. Like Jacobs and Guido mentioned, this is the beauty of art, the sharing and blending of ideas and cultures. But on one side of the very thin line, you positively engender cultural appreciation. But when your response still discredits the concerns that the masses have voiced, you may have hit a culturally insensitive dead end.

So what exactly turns cultural inspiration into cultural appropriation?

Is it strictly emotional moral conscious or are there tangible guidelines? Should we tiptoe across eggshells in preservation of feelings or steamroll ahead in the name of art?

In creative industries, which largely glean inspiration from culture, art and history, which is never remiss of ethnic diversity, does the problem result primarily from underrepresentation that turns homage into offensiveness? Or is it the intention, the attribution and the social commentary that taints cultural homage?

What would we be satisfied with? And what gives any one culture exclusivity to a look, when in reality there is so much diversity solely attributed within the context of individual preference and style? Where is the thin line that validates cultural usage? Art rarely pays attention to borders or rules and that’s what makes art art. It is unashamed and unapologetic but does that alone relieve it of its guilt?


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