First there was heroin chic. Then there was poverty chic. And now comes … migrant chic? It sounds too distasteful to contemplate.
Yet last week in Paris both Valentino and Junya Watanabe produced clearly African-influenced collections at a time when immigration from that continent as well as the neighboring Middle East has become the subject of controversy and existential self-questioning throughout Europe. Mr. Watanabe even held his show in the Museum of Immigration History in Paris.
Around the same time, Norbert Baksa, a photographer, posted pictures on Instagram of a shoot he had done featuring a model wearing luxury brands against the background of a Hungarian refugee camp.
All three fashion moments featured beautiful clothing. And all three came in for different kinds of criticism. Both Valentino and Watanabe were castigated for not using enough models of color, and the former was also taken to task for the naïveté of its show notes. Mr. Baksa sparked an even angrier response, accused of glamorizing and exploiting a global trauma.
We tend to toss around the words “fashion statement” the way we toss them on a T-shirt, but how much of a statement can fashion actually make? Increasingly, such efforts — or indeed, anything that seems to touch on a political or social issue — seem to end badly, exciting a flurry of outrage on social media (some of it legitimate, some less so) that itself becomes a story.
But what is the alternative: not to engage at all?
As images are shared over various platforms, decontextualized and without explanation but reaching ever more consumers with ever more diverse personal politics, this has becomes a pressing question for the industry, morally and commercially.
The risk of giving offense, and of motivations being misconstrued, is high. According to a conversation I had with the Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli before their show, they were trying to challenge their own notion of beauty with beauty from other cultures, to better understand both themselves and the world around them. Fair enough, though it probably would have been better if they hadn’t fallen into the knee-jerk trap of cornrowing their models’ hair.
The problem, said Stefano Tonchi, the editor of W, is that “images are encoded in one place for one purpose and decoded in an entirely different place, with different tools.” But while it is easy to castigate fashion for being tone-deaf, and climb on a politically correct high horse, it is possible that in the end the cause we may hurt is our own.
“Fashion isn’t really about clothes,” Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue, told me a few years ago when I interviewed her for the Financial Times. “It’s about life.” She was explaining her decision to publish an all-black-model issue in 2008, one featuring a photo shoot on a oil-strewn beach (after the BP disaster) in 2010, another dealing with domestic violence in 2014, and the outcries that followed. “We can’t always be writing about flowers and lace and aquamarine,” she said.
There is a long tradition in the industry of creating beautiful images of expensive finery by situating it in poverty-stricken areas. Recently Marie Claire and W showcased fashion shoots in Havana, the former in its September issue, with a model in Prada, Balmain and Givenchy posed against the backdrop of gritty street life. American Vogue took Kate Moss to Vietnam to photograph her in evening gowns in rice paddies in 1996.
Designers have likewise been using sartorial semiology as a transformative variable in collections, including Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1993 Hasidic show, Hussein Chalayan’s 1997 chador collection and John Galliano’s “homeless” Dior couture in 2000. Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett have always overtly used their work to express their convictions.
Was this a frivolous response to serious problems: cultural appropriation of the worst kind? Or was it an industry’s legitimate effort to deal with real-world problems in the context of its own skill sets? Possibly a bit of both. But each time, there was protest. And each time, the clothes moved the needle of understanding a little bit.
Often the best fashion is about transgression. It challenges convention. At its most basic level, that’s how we got women in pants and in miniskirts, all of which horrified plenty of viewers back in the day. It is uncomfortable. Think of Rick Owens’s human backpacks. It takes risks. Otherwise, as Mr. Tonchi said, “like any art form, it becomes propaganda.” Otherwise it risks irrelevance. Otherwise it’s just clothes.
The point of fashion is to reflect the world around it, a world often filled with ugliness and disharmony. Ask any museum curator why costume belongs in the institution, and the answer is that it is historical record: It reflects society at a given moment in time.
Indeed, according to Ms. Sozzani, fashion has the ability, and the responsibility, to use its role to highlight the issues; to force them into the public conversation. In this view, not acknowledging the income disparity that is today’s reality (to take one example) is even more bizarre than using a glossy magazine as a conduit to discussion. If a magazine editorial can drive that point home in a unspoken way, why not?
Fashion is often labeled escapism and, the theory goes, should provide that service to those who want to dream of gorgeousness rather than prejudice. In refusing to play that role, designers and photographers are often seen as overstepping their bounds. The assumption is that fashion can’t understand, or doesn’t understand, the implications of what it is doing.
This is exacerbated when we receive images without attached explanation. Because then it is up to us to decide whether to give the protagonist the benefit of the doubt, or to assume the worst. It’s possible that some designers are after a cheap shock and not a deeper comment. But it’s also worth examining our own rush to judgment and what lies at its core.
This is not to absolve designers and stylists and photographers (and critics) from culpability for their choices. All of us have to be aware of the new global reality in which we operate. Stakeholders need to be considered. Everybody needs to be held accountable for their own mistakes. But one of the benefits of a for-profit industry is that it can be.
Otherwise, what are we left with? A future lined in camel coats.
Not that there’s anything wrong with camels, you understand. That’s not what I meant at all …