Black models from an array of nationalities and ethnicities, with Afros, braids, dreadlocks, and in hijabs, walked the runway to a backdrop of vocals from an entirely black gospel choir singing the words of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the founder of rock’n’roll. The Pyer Moss SS20 show in Brooklyn was a celebration of “minority” – albeit a reminder of black erasure – and it all played out in front of one of the most diverse audiences New York fashion week has ever seen. But as refreshing as Kerby Jean-Raymond’s effort to include, understand, represent, and empower is, it isn’t one being matched by some major fashion brands.
A lack of awareness and knowledge surrounding minority groups has led to huge blunders by some of the world’s biggest names in fashion. Last December, Prada came under fire for a range of keychains and figurines in its Pradamalia collection. The characters featured black faces and exaggerated red lips resembling blackface, the theatrical makeup used predominantly in the 19th century by non-black actors to caricature black people in dehumanizing ways.
There were also complaints that the figures were reminiscent of those in The Story of Little Black Sambo, a popular 19th-century children’s book featuring racist stereotypes. And in January this year, Gucci caused outrage when it released a black balaclava polo neck sweater with bright red lips that fit over the mouth, again resembling blackface. Both fashion houses quickly released statements of apology and removed the offending items from retail. At the time, Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault explained that Gucci’s parent company had teams in place who reviewed products for the Asian market but had nothing similar to review the sensitivity of products when it comes to black people. But these Asian-market reviewers also dropped the ball in May when a headpiece from the same collection, named the “Indy Full Turban,” went on sale, raising concerns of cultural misappropriation among a number of high-profile Sikhs. One tweeted, “The Sikh turban is not a hot new accessory for white models but an article of faith for practicing Sikhs.” The collection had also taken a social media roasting for its use of hijabs worn by white models. Gucci went on to hire a diversity chief as part of a program of steps to tackle the blunders. Burberry, Chanel, and Prada have also instated similar positions.
“I believe that it all boils down to one thing: the lack of a deep understanding of the customer segment some of these brands are targeting,” says Ghizlan Guenez, founder and CEO of modest fashion online retailer The Modist. The company’s team of 60, between Dubai and London, includes more than 25 nationalities, a mix of faiths, and a 70/30 split of women/men. “If brands are trying to drive real change, they must be authentic about that and start with their DNA. Is diversity a true value that they care for? How diverse is their team in terms of race, nationality, and gender?”
This is a notion that Melanie Elturk, CEO of Haute Hijab and a thought leader on modest fashion, agrees with. “All it would have taken in these cases was one person on the team to say, ‘This feels a little inappropriate,’” she explains. “Diversity within the team is the most important thing that brands can do and it needs to be at every level. On top of that, staff have to feel as though they work in an environment where they can voice their opinions comfortably without penalty. Maybe at Gucci, somebody did think something, but didn’t feel like they could speak up.”
Speak up is exactly what Elturk did when, earlier this year, Banana Republic launched a collection of hijabs with a campaign lacking in cultural sensitivity. The models showcasing the hijabs were dressed in short-sleeved tops, one even wearing a skirt with a slit to the top of her thigh. Elturk called out the brand on social media and Banana Republic responded by editing the offending pictures. “They were trying to do the right thing; there was some goodwill there,” says Elturk. “They used a hijabi model and the fact they sell hijabs at all speaks volumes about the efforts in inclusivity. But it could have been executed better. If they had called it a head wrap, that would have been different as it takes out the religious connotation. A model with a slit up to her thigh in a ‘hijab’ is an inappropriate depiction of what the hijab is.”
Cultural profiling is something stylist and modest fashion advocate Marwa Biltagi has been a victim of on numerous occasions. “People either think I am a refugee or an immigrant from the Middle East trying to stay in their country, or they think I am from the Gulf region and have big bucks to spend, so they follow me around the store,” she shares. “It comes down to a lack of education, misrepresentation in the media, and companies not training their staff in the correct way to serve the customer. I think there is a serious lack of individuals working in fashion that come from diverse communities. It’s not just about the sales clerk – this goes all the way up the hierarchy to the CEOs.”
Cultural appropriation is, unfortunately, the norm in the fashion industry, considers Hoda Katebi, author of Tehran Streetstyle and voice of political fashion blog JooJoo Azad. “Earlier iterations include Marc Jacobs’ SS17 runway show using dreadlocks on white models. It makes relevant, permissible, commonplace, and even ‘cool’ the hairstyles, traditional patterns, and motifs of historically oppressed people only after they have been expressed on white bodies or made by white people.”
It seems when it comes to catering for and representing minorities, it comes easier to those brands where diversity has always been at the core because at their helm, is someone from a minority group. Brands such as Chromat, Prabal Gurung, Savage X Fenty, and Christian Siriano all hosted shows in New York in September that celebrated diversity both on the runway and on the front row.
How to change the way the bigger Western brands treat minorities? “I think bringing in individuals from diverse backgrounds is key in understanding the nuances of their communities,” says Biltagi. “Hire them, partner with them, give them brand deals, invite them to your shows, and let them be mentors.” Elturk believes that learning from mistakes is key. “The liberal left has gone a little too far in expecting every brand and individual to understand the nuances of every culture, all the time; but it’s important for these big brands to learn and be better next time. They need to recognize the bias and stereotypes that are part of our human nature and actively work against them, which will come from training staff both in the boardroom and in the retail space.”
Originally published in the October 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia
Photos: Getty Images, Indigital.tv
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