Fashion Critics Aren't Mad At This "African-Themed" Show (But They Should Be)

Photo: MCV Photo.
So, about Junya Watanabe's men's show in Paris: What do you even say when presented with a parade of white male models wearing dreadlocks, cornrows, African textiles, layers of Masai collars, necklaces festooned with bones — oh, and sometimes they're holding spears? I cringed, I laughed, I thought of the field day Twitter would have with this mess.

And, sure enough, they did: The Cut provided a sampling of the prevailing reactions, with people naming this the "Rachel Dolezal collection" and calling out the perversity of using Africa as your point of influence while employing no Black models.
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Photo: MCV Photo.
That fact, combined with multiple looks that incorporated African accessories, hairstyles, and fabrics atop safari-style clothing, led some to believe that this collection was meant to comment on colonialism. NowFashion implied that the cultural exchange between the Western world and Africa was a two-way street, citing the "mutual fetishizing of foreign dress," and likened it to Vampire Weekend's preppy-meets-Soweto vibe. WWD called the collection "transporting" and "exotic." Style.com's Tim Blanks seemed to like it, but warned that Watanabe's "pallid Europeans in patchworked Africana might spark some knee-jerk negativism."
Photo: MCV Photo.
Blanks is a critic I usually enjoy reading, but his use of linguistic subterfuge here doesn't fly. Every good conservative knows that to cast anger or debate over racism as "knee-jerk" is to brand it as rash, foolish. Never mind that concerns about racism are worthy of discussion, and evidence of it should evoke a gut response (because, you know, it's kind of a matter of people's humanity). Besides, to brand that same debate as "negativism" is to shut down a valid conversation about meaning. A fashion critic's stock in trade is analyzing symbols and what they mean — so one has to wonder why, in this instance, Blanks seems so invested in encouraging us not to think.
Photo: MCV Photo.
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Despite the justifications, I don't believe for a second that this show intended to present some sort of nuanced commentary on colonialism. I think it is colonialism: a spree through African culture where the Westerner emerges more beautiful and with cooler accessories, but with no greater ability to see or hear the people who created them.

I reached out to Junya Watanabe representatives for comment but have not heard back as of this writing. If I had, I'm not sure it would change much. The designer's intent is not, in the end, the issue here. At issue is the impact of yet another set of images implying that Africa's cultural products are equally up for grabs in the endgame of making non-African people more beautiful, interesting, desirable. That idea will always be offensive to some. To others, anything that threatens white ownership of the culture of people of color is the offensive thing — a "negativity" to be avoided at all costs. Relax, they say. It's just a fashion show, after all.
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