There is no such thing as an original idea; we’ve all heard the saying. It’s the fairly downbeat theory that any newfangled messaging marketers may put in front of you is just a rehashing of somebody else's. And nowhere does it ring more true than in the fashion industry. The departures of Raf Simons from Dior and Alber Elbaz from Lanvin are poignant reminders of the constant pressure to create collections — collections that are critically acclaimed and commercially successful. But as I perused this season’s offerings, it seemed that some designers thought it an opportune moment to borrow not from couturiers past, but from entire cultures. Collections were inspired by continents and countries and presented with none of their people, which in this day and age, is just not okay. Complete with cornrowed hair and masai beading, Valentino’s spring/summer 2016 offering was described in Vogue by its designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli as a message in “tolerance and the beauty that comes out of cross-cultural expression” — and yet, only eight of the 90 looks showcased were on women of color. On the company's twitter, the collection was described as “primitive, tribal, spiritual yet regal.” The “yet regal” comment is particularly hard to stomach. And in its subsequent critiques, fashion journalists threw glowing reviews of the “Africa-themed” collection, ignoring the fact that Africa is a continent with many different traditions, cultures, and styles. So “Africa-themed” means what, exactly?
Japanese designer Junya Watanabe, a legend in the fashion world, intertwined kente and batik fabrics (which are traditionally found in West Africa) and displayed his latest collection on an all-white cast of models, decorated with the traditional scarring of the Karamojong people of Uganda. Ironically, it was shown at Paris’ National Museum of Immigration History. This collection, too, was prefaced by a SS16 menswear offering that included (again, you guessed it) an all-white cast in masai beads, battle shields, spears, and fake dreadlocks. One Twitter user wondered if this was Watanabe's Rachel Dolezal collection. And while we can laugh for a moment, we have to ask: How did these designs make it down the runway without someone flagging their potential to offend? Is it a case of what the designer says goes? Or, more soberingly, does fashion just not want to face its own ignorance? Designers have long taken inspiration from cultures and communities outside their own. In 2011, Hermès debuted a limited-edition collection of silk saris designed in collaboration with Sunita Kumar, a Kolkata-based designer; Alexander McQueen's fall/winter 2008 show was inspired by Indian costume and royalty, and John Galliano's collections for Dior were filled with cross-cultural references. All three stick out in recent memory as examples of when fashion designers have paid homage to countries that they love. It’s a fine line, because if we’re constantly being mindful of appropriation and political correctness, it’s true that we may miss out on beautiful ideas and on an overarching message of unity that fashion actually has the power to send. But too often, fashion is not mindful at all, taking other people’s stories without giving them a chance to tell them. Instead of using beading, fringing, and fabrics that reference a country, why don't fashion houses collaborate with people from there, even send production of their garments straight to the source? Because of cost, mostly — but the price tags these garments end up with seem hefty enough to make anything possible. It's 2015. With the click of a button, I can be transported around the world to learn about clothes and cultures far away from my London bedroom. I can see the lands and seas of people completely different from myself. I can even communicate with them, share ideas, and learn from them. That is a beautiful thing, and something I would never want to eradicate. Why? Because it brings the world closer together. It’s something my parents weren’t lucky enough to be afforded when they were younger, and it’s our generation’s exposure to and empathy for others across the globe that will, I believe, make the world a better place. But the truth remains that as much as I can Google someone else's experience, I won't have walked in that person’s shoes, nor will I have known her struggles or circumstances. So no matter how much I enjoy learning about it, how accurately could I possibly portray it? For designers to churn out $10,000 dresses with the idealistic notion that the global populace is on the whole understanding and tolerant is a bit rich, when those very designs pull from nations where that amount of money could feed entire communities.
The fact is that women of color make up only 21% of the models in the four major fashion weeks. What the industry needs is representation, not tokenism, by prominent players — not just those of color, like Bethann Hardison and Edward Enninful, who tirelessly fight for the cause. Racism in the industry must be fought just as hard by white editors, writers, designers, casting directors, photographers, and modeling agents. The most frustrating fact, though, is that this discussion is not new — and we can't let it get old until the industry as a whole moves forward. The thing I love most about fashion is its potential for transformation; with the simple step into a store, you can come out as someone completely different. In a Saint Laurent tux and killer heels, I am a power executive whose daily commute is walking from the curb to the car; in a floor-length satin gown, I channel 1940s Rita Hayworth glamour. Indeed, fashion remains one of the simplest ways to feel good, to feel different, and to feel like someone else — rather, to feel like a different version of oneself. In life, there are constants and there are variables. One of my constants is that I am Black; another is that I will be proud of that regardless of how those around me feel, but that doesn't mean I don't wish for a little warmer welcome in the fashion industry. And that speaks to the variables: I can’t control how people feel about people of color or how blackness is perceived. Fashion’s way of whitewashing cultures will hold us back until it begins to understand the subliminal messages it conveys every time women of color are left out of a runway line-up, and aren't represented in the pages of magazines or catered to appropriately in the beauty aisle. What's so sad about all this is that fashion’s influence permeates through much more than just the industry. We live in an age when a model, designer, or editor can be a celebrity and, more importantly, a force for change. Fashion must shake itself of its ignorant slumber and fully realize its collective reach, and act more responsibly when it comes to race and cultural appropriation. And as participants in this industry — consumers or creators of it — the choice is ours: wake up or keep dreaming?