Tuesday, July 15, 2008

high fashion, real progress and black beauty

earlier this spring when i heard about the july issue of vogue italia that would feature black models exclusively, something in me gushed with enthusiasm and more than a little hope. italian vogue has always used black models. it is said that they are driven more by creativity and art than commerce and it has a strong influence internationally. where they go, others follow. would that happen this time? or would this issue be an exotic one-off?

according to the editor franca sozzani, this move was inspired by many factors, most notably the rise of senator obama and the change that seems to be swirling in the air in america, and his smart, attractive and fashionably on-point wife michelle. but there was more. evidently when former agent/mother of kadeem hardison/legendary former 60's model bethann hardison held a 3 day forum on the lack of diversity in the fashion industry last fall, ms. sozzani took notice and was inspired enough to want to do something about it. by february, she and stephen meisel (the photographer behind madonna's book sex) were talking about the possibility of an all black issue and a short time later, they were off to the races.

there was a lot of speculation about this issue: who would be on the cover (that all important question); who would be prominently featured (and how); and most importantly, the impact of the statement that an all black issue from such an influential stylemaker would make on the rest of the fashion world. i looked forward with heady optimism to the rush of being able to open a world-class magazine and see an array of beautiful black women.

then for some strange reason, something in me began to sour on the idea of it, and the more i thought about it, the more unsure i became about its positive outcome.

the last time i was overwhelmed by one black model after another after another, it was when vicksburg mississippi native patrick kelly ruled the runways. remember him? i could glimpse so much of my black southern self in everything he did because he never apologized for who he was. he reveled in it. he ran around in overalls all the time. he gave away little pickaninny dolls -- symbolic of at all of his fashion events, so much so that they became his totem. he amassed a large collection of black dolls, actually. when he used white models, he put them in blackface and put their hair in plaits to make them look like some racially inverted version of topsy. and those mismatched buttons? he said he got that from his grandmother, who couldn't always find buttons that matched when it was time to mend his clothes when he was a child.

as the legend goes, mr. kelly's grandmother brought home a fashion magazine one day when he was 6 years old. when he asked why there were no african-american models in it, she told him that fashion designers didn't have time for black women. and so mr. kelly decided that someday he would do something about that. oh, boy did he ever.

when fashion designer willi smith of williwear -- brother of the infamous toukie smith -- died of pneumonia at 39 in 1987 that was a huge loss. when mr. kelly died of AIDS in 1990 at the age of 35 at the peak of his career, i knew that it was the end of an era. yes, other black designers would appear. but that flood of black models everywhere? not a chance.

with no patrick kelly at the helm to infuse his southern blackness everywhere, i had to acknowledge 3 things as i looked at the preliminary pictures of the july issue:
  1. when we as people of color are in control of our image -- when we photograph ourselves, design the clothes, style the shoots and make the pertinent choices (like who's going to be the model for this shoot?) -- those images are unlike the images that our counterparts would create of us. that led me to another thought...
  2. these are europeans creating and manipulating images of africans/african-americans/people of color -- not africans/african-americans/people of color making those images of themselves. if andre leon talley or bethann hardison had the opportunity to be a guest editor and create something like this, it would probably look a lot different than what vogue italia has done.
  3. exactly who worked on this issue? were there any african-american consultants/stylists/fashion designers involved? were any black people in high fashion a part of the decision-making process? were there any black consultants?

in the end, who is this really for, exactly? is this issue for the fashion world, to show them that black really is beautiful, that there are many black models available for work, that they are just as alluring as the blue-eyed blonde russians/eastern europeans? will it take more than one issue to pull that off -- or will over 150 pages of stunning photos make them see the light?

evidently so. vogue italia was all black but the paris couture show was all white -- and parading the same excuses of "supply and demand." so yes, its going to take more than one issue. but one thing is for sure: the conversation has begun.

oh -- and lest you think that it's just fashion and fashion doesn't matter, i leave you with this quote from Robin Givhan, a fashion writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator for The Washington Post:

“One of the things people need to understand and come to grips with is they’re in the business of defining beauty and selling beauty. Beauty is a form of currency and if the industry is in the business of defining what is beautiful, then it also is in the business of defining who is valuable and who is invisible.”

ps: check out the NYT slideshow here.

No comments: