Is Wokeness In Fashion Just Another Illusion?

Is fashion going through something like a #MeToo movement? Judging by the number of Instagram Stories denouncing style influencer and entrepreneur Miroslava Duma and designer Ulyana Sergeenko’s flippant use of the n-word last week, it certainly seemed like we were ready for one. Photographer Tamu McPherson and fashion editor Shiona Turini expressed disappointment in their street style peers on their Instagram Stories, and outspoken fashion personalities like blogger Nicolette Mason and stylist Rachael Wang reminded their Instagram followers that incidental racism is indicative of a web of institutional racism. There was even a petition that called for Business of Fashion to remove Miroslava Duma from its BoF 500 list of the most influential fashion professionals. “In light of Ulyana’s soggy apology, I keep thinking about what if there was a #metoo moment in fashion where we all began releasing stories of racial harassment?” tweeted writer Marjon Carlos.

A screengrab from Miroslava Duma's Instagram Stories.

But after the 24-hour Stories expired, it became clear that the moment had little momentum. While Duma and Sergeenko were shamed out of finishing the couture-week circuit and Duma was removed from the board of children’s retailer The Tot, the repercussions failed to extend beyond just these two women. Instead of instigating a movement that exposed how deep racial discrimination runs in the industry, the incident caved in on itself. We took down two Gallianos; we did not dismantle a system of Weinsteins.

What is perhaps most frustrating is that the fact that racism exists in the fashion industry — sometimes in blatant, obvious, almost laughably tone-deaf ways — is no surprise to anyone, especially for the people who these slurs are directed. That two wealthy, white, Russian oligarchs would believe that anything — including the n-word — is available for their pleasure is, sadly, par for the course.

That said, the incident and reaction to it revealed an increasingly antagonistic paradox about the fashion industry—that it likes to see itself as eternally woke, but it’s also an establishment that is undeniably elitist. In other words, fashion is a bastion for tolerance, and fashion is also exclusionary. It is true that the industry has been among the most vocal industries to openly celebrate their LGBTQ creatives and their communities of color. But it is also true that if everyone is fashionable, then no one actually is. In this same dichotomy, $710 feminist T-shirts can become a runway trend and Instagram catnip, but 67% of women, at least stateside, can’t fit into its largest size.

This has also meant that for decades, “inclusion” has largely looked like only welcoming the thin, photogenic, and magnetic folks from these marginalized communities into the fold. Creating a universe on the runway and in advertisements that reflects the diversity of the world as beautiful, glamorous, and prestigious is crucial. Representation is key to social change. Seeing arbiters of culture and beauty deem non-dominant cultures as beautiful is essential. But, fashion’s Achilles heel is that we’ve seem to stop just short of real reckoning beyond simple representation and charity. Why does fashion demand boldness when it comes to style, but shirk from bold changes in thinking, behaving, and communicating?

Today, it’s clear that wokeness is at odds with exclusivity. This presents a problem for those like Duma and Sergeenko who profit from their perch. Like how designers have been trained to pick and choose inspiration like toppings in a salad, they’ve also been trained to treat inclusivity as something “cool” to promote — Sergeenko believed using the n-word was a way to be “as cool as these guys who sing it.” While I find it difficult to believe that Sergeenko or Duma used the word in a malicious way (like one of their fan’s post that sprung up in their defense), their wokeness is skin-deep. The cost of projecting public wokeness while enjoying institutional exclusivity may be hypocritical, but it’s not difficult to do. In the day following the controversy ignited over Duma’s photo of the n-word, a transphobic 2012 video came to light in which she talked about how fashion influencer Bryanboy and model Andreja Pejic were dangerous role models for young boys. That video inspired the second Instagram apology of two days in which Duma said: “I have committed myself to a journey of personal growth, where ignorance has been replaced by acceptance, and discrimination by inclusion.” If the language reads as thoughtful, it was probably because it was most likely written by a fleet of PR experts.

Courtesy of Rachael Wang.
A screengrab from Rachael Wang's Instagram Stories (@rachaelwangstudio).

Duma also says something in the original video that reveals a lot about the ideology of the fashion elite: “I think a certain kind of refined culture is needed here,” she muses. She may have been talking about the perceived inelegance of gender-bending, but that sentiment can be applied to nearly everything in Duma’s world. Refinement is a set of gestures and a rarified presentation to express superiority and good taste. Though the definition of what is refined changes over time, the process is the same: Get the gestures and presentation down, and you’re considered “in” with the fashion establishment. That is as true in 2012 as it was in 1912. And, it’s definitely still true today.

So, what happens when wokeness — inclusivity, diversity, cultural sensitivity — is also considered good taste? Duma’s Instagram apology demonstrates she has the rudimentary vocabulary to express “wokeness,” even if their private lives may be unwoke. Some people have rationalized Duma and Sergeenko’s gaffe by pointing at the fact that they are from Russia, a country where Black citizens make up less than 0.02% of the population. But as many others have pointed out, they travel, operate global brands, and benefit from Western consumers. So, even though they are miles away from America both geographically and culturally, Duma and Sergeenko were able to give the illusion of American “wokeness” by ticking certain checkboxes.

Consider this: Had Duma and Sergeenko not used the n-word last week, we may have believed them to be some of the good ones. Sergeenko’s diverse couture week casting has won her accolades. Duma’s Buro 247 has published many articles celebrating celebrating plus-size fashion, advocating for inclusivity, supporting the Women’s March, and — ironically — calling out private displays of racism. That is a far cry from the private statements she gave in 2012, and it might have been evidence that she’s become “woke” in the days since. Except, of course, they didn’t understand what might be one of the simplest lessons in cultural sensitivity: White people do not get to use the n-word, even out of affection.

Courtesy of Nicolette Mason.
A screengrab from Nicolette Mason's Instagram Stories (@nicolettemason).

But most of these stories are indistinguishable from those on most publications that rely on aggregation and reblogging. Understanding that, it’s hard then to be surprised that the outrage machine against Duma and Sergeenko replicates that system, with people screen-grabbing, reposting, and re-sharing the same feelings of anger and disappointment. At best, this educates those who may use the n-word that it is not okay to. At worst, it creates a false sense of accomplishment— that you’ve actually done something to change things, without having done much at all.

There’s something to be said about why the fashion industry has largely relied on the ephemeral Instagram Stories to express strong personal opinions instead of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or other more permanent platforms. One could reason that it’s because opinions are ugly and “mess up” a feed. But how can we demand permanent change, if our demands are impermanent?

It is a skill of the fashion industry that we are incredibly adroit at parroting the shape, look, and feel of anything, and make it seem attractive and desirable. That goes as much for wokeness as it does for runway trends. But unlike trends, the point of wokeness is not just that you’re merely dressed in it. It’s what you do with it once you’re awake.

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