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The Underlying Issue With That Epic Givenchy Show

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Photo: MCV Photo.
Baby hairs are always reappearing in fashion. We saw them last season at DKNY, and then in countless editorials afterward. They were shown this season at Adam Selman, and, again last night at Givenchy. Once, backstage, a hairstylist explained his use of the style: “It’s fun when the trends start in the street, and someone saw a Latin girl on the subway and decided that would be the look.” Easy, right? In our extremely fast-paced world, inspiration can come from anywhere, be it Tumblr or a street corner. Reimagining something in a different context is what makes an impact and brings shock value. 

This morning, many in the fashion flock were rejoicing over Givenchy’s showing, and rightfully so: Riccardo Tisci is nothing short of a brilliant designer. Vogue points out that Victoriana is a burgeoning trend this season. As the review explains, “It crystallized as a moment that can only be described as sublime at Givenchy.” The predominantly black collection was absolutely breathtaking — please see it in full, glorious detail on the runway. Textures were juxtaposed, sheer chiffons gave way to silk skirts, opulent furs layered over equally opulent velvets, and suiting with peplum was so ornate that it looked worthy of a couture showing. The face jewels and septum piercings only added to the allure. 

But, then, Vogue named the inspiration for this epic show: “‘Chola Victorian,’ [Tisci] declared backstage. ‘She’s the boss of the gang.’” 

The use of the word “chola” is complicated. For starters, the word is said to have an origin in the Aztecan word for “dog, mutt.” It was used to describe Mexican immigrants in a derogatory way, and was eventually reclaimed by gangs in the 1970s. The term has entered the mainstream, sure. But, that doesn’t mean people should use it as they see fit. 
In other words, it is cultural appropriation to use “chola” as an inspiration for a show, or a beauty look, and then largely ignore the women who've popularized the look you’re riffing. Hair is often a visual identifier of culture and background — and 40+ models who do not identify as Hispanic cannot be “cholas.” And, it’s not exactly “paying tribute” unless you include and celebrate the people you were inspired by. (To the best of this writer’s knowledge, Joan Smalls is the only Latina model who walked the Givenchy show last night.) 

Style.com, however, doesn’t seem to see a problem: “As an Italian, Tisci has always had a thing for Latin archetypes,” says the show review. “The California chola girl qualifies.” It’s not clear to us how, exactly, being Italian allows him this access. 

The hair was the most distinctly “chola” thing about the show, thanks to the use of baby hairs. This is a style that’s been labeled as "ghetto" and is most frequently seen — in real life — on Latina and Black women. Givenchy has Instagrammed several images from the show (backstage and detail shots), and hasn't featured a single woman of color — despite the fact that the runway casting was made up of around 20% non-white women. (The hair and makeup team was also largely white.) The message this sends, even though it is hopefully inadvertent, is that baby hairs can look “chic” on white girls, but are still “hood” on Latina and Black girls. There's a shock value in seeing these Victorian ensembles with something like baby hairs, and Tisci is playing to that idea. Please see this image, courtesy of Jezebel, for a proper illustration.

All of this is not to say that the "inspiration" came with bad intentions. Tisci's collections often come with references that represent a mix of influences — sometimes athletic (jerseys), sometimes popular culture (Bambi on sweatshirts), and a lot of times very gothic. His allegiances with Kanye West, Rihanna, Pharrell, Ciara, and countless others show that he is someone who understands hip-hop culture and its significance. This weekend, upon a visit to artist Kehinde Wiley’s exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, there was only one designer mentioned, among a series of portraits that showed clothing labels like G-Unit and Timberland: Tisci, who designed a couture gown for one of the paintings on display. In short, the guy gets it. But, this time, he missed the mark.
The point is, Givenchy is the show that inspires countless editorials and magazine pages. We will see this exact look — face jewels, baby hairs, and all — replicated countless times in advertising campaigns and photo shoots. When it’s taken out of the already flawed context of this runway presentation, it will almost undoubtedly be on a white model. The “interpretation” or “inspiration,” however good the intention, will be lost, and many women will continue to feel neglected or robbed of their cultural identities. 

Fashion and beauty can, at their best, be visual identifiers that allow us to communicate to others where we come from, how we grew up, and what we’d like to express about ourselves. As members of this industry, it is our duty to understand how sacred those things can be, and to show respect for them. But, until the industry can properly show that respect by including women who have consistently been rejected from this world because of the color of their skin or the texture of their hair, we cannot adequately pay tribute. It is the job of elite beauty professionals to demonstrate daily that what they do — what we write about — is not “just hair” or “just makeup.” It's time to start walking the walk. 
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