When I walked into a parking garage under the Whole Foods in Toronto's Yorkville Village to watch Mikhael Kale debut his latest collection, it wasn’t a surprise that one visibly Black model was the “other” amidst a runway full of her white peers. That (still) happens all the time. But when the models landed on their platforms (the show started as traditional runway show but turned into more of a tableau style of performance art), popped their hips, and settled into their poses, I registered that every woman had their hair braided into cornrows. Yes, even the white ones.
Here’s the part in the story when I, as a Black woman in media, have to decide whether or not I’m going to let something like this get to me. “This” meaning the blatant cultural appropriation of taking a hairstyle that Black women all over the world have been mocked for or told that they are “unprofessional” for wearing and using it on white models to sell clothes. I have to decide whether I’m just going to shake it off or if I’m going to use my time and energy to call it out. I decided on the latter.
The conversation about whether or not white women wearing cornrows is cultural appropriation has been going on for years. The Kardashians seem to bring it back up annually. When Kylie Jenner wore her hair in cornrows in 2015, it sparked a debate, but it also was the catalyst for a slew of tone-deaf pieces about the “new hair trend” the Kardashians had started. Cornrows were even rebranded as “boxer braids” to give the Kardashians and Jenners credit for something that belongs to Black culture. Some people would call the Kardashians’ adoption of Black culture appreciation over appropriation, but I wouldn’t. If you adopt the culture of a marginalized group without a) giving them credit and b) using your privilege to uplift, promote, and compensate that culture, you are straight up stealing from them for your own gain.
As Teen Vogue fashion features editor Jessica Andrews, quoted by Mic, put it: “Black hairstyles are now considered 'cool.' Black people? Not so much." Exactly. If Kale loved the look of cornrows so much that he thought it was the best hairstyle to pair with his designs, he could have hired Black models to rock the hair and the clothes.
When I spoke to Toronto-based designer Hayley Elsaesser about her passionate plea for change in the Canadian fashion industry, she brought up Kale’s show unprompted. Elsaesser makes a point to cast diverse models in her shows and says she’s turned down a white model’s request to wear her hair in boxer braids because she didn’t want to “capitalize” on Black culture. For Elsaesser, seeing Kale’s choice to put white models in cornrows was disappointing.
“There are Black models who aren’t booked because they have cornrows time and time again,” she says. “So, the fact that you’re having models with cornrows who aren’t Black women doesn’t make sense to me. This is the time to give Black women the spotlight. If that’s the hairstyle you’re doing, use Black women in your show.”
At this point, when it seems like someone in the fashion industry gets called out every fashion week for doing something appropriative (Gucci, Valentino, Marc Jacobs, the list goes on), you would think Kale would know better, too. Amandla Stenberg’s viral video called “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows” came out almost four years ago. Ignorance should never be an excuse, but now more than ever, it isn't.
White models wearing their hair in cornrows at Toronto Fashion Week is even more frustrating because we know the industry (Canada included) has a diversity problem. Representation on runways slowly seems to be getting better, but until Black models are equally represented, and until Black women can go to work without having their managers force them to quit over their braids, our hairstyles are not here to help you feel edgy or cool. Our culture doesn’t exist for your street cred.
Refinery29 has reached out to Mikhael Kale for comment and will update the piece if and when he responds.