It was recently fashion week. Which usually doesn’t coincide with my studies much except for the fact that much time gets wasted looking at backstage shots of long lashes and runway shows, but occasionally this nonacademic passion intersects with my academic interests. This semester I am taking a course on the cultural implications of development from Professor J.P. Singh. Thus far, our class discussions have always come back to the telling of cultural narratives about the “other” through our (western) perspective. This concept is one that I have been thinking about recently after watching L’Amour Fou, a film about the relationship and art of Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Bergé. At one point the film shows clips from YSL’s printemps-été 1967 collection that included heavy African influences. While YSL was born in Algeria and much of the inspiration for his work came during time spent at his home in Marrakech, the imperialistic nature of this collection made me think about how many major fashion houses, even today, incorporate a dominant perspective in utilizing African imagery into their work.
Today, African imagery is incredibly easy to find in the fashion world. The Bono and Ali Hewson campaign for Louis Vuitton (photographed by Leibovitz) demonstrates the ease with which the modern couple can take on the African plains – with their private jet, of course. Michael Kors Spring/Summer 2011 (of which the commentator on Style.com sardonically notes that “The show notes called it ‘Afriluxe,’ an unfortunate bit of marketing speak given the famine in Somalia.” The list of African references is seemingly endless including L.A.M.B., Spring 2011; Donna Karan, Spring 2012 which has Haitian influences, but the tribal undertones; Dolce & Gabanna, Spring 2005; Ralph Lauren, Spring 2009; et cetera.
The framework though which the western world makes assumptions about the cultural identities and influences that inform art and fashion are uncritical and lack understanding. I don’t find it wrong that collections are inspired by beauty in the world, even, and especially, beauty that is unfamiliar. I do think it is sad that we fetishize the global without regard for the lived experiences of the people who create the culture. Sure, these influences aren’t inherently oppressive, but the fantastical nature by which these cultures are approached makes it more difficult to reconcile our western ideas about the couture that comes out of their tragedy without acknowledging the pain that creates culture through lived experiences. The band The Fray recently made a comment about how “scars are sexy” which is particularly disconcerting considering that Isaac Slade spent in Rwanda before writing their latest album. The idea that pain is beautiful and dangerous and stimulating is the same that I detect when I think about these collections. Yes, pain and scars and tragedy do lead to beautiful but this trend in fashion is colonialism with pinking sheers. You cut up fabric, take the pieces that suit your collection and ignore the process that creates a culture incorporative of both the hardships and the joys. Which, if we are honest, are the most important components necessary for cultural understanding and neglecting the dialogues associated with the lived cultural experiences of the “other” we are failing to even attempt to understand the outputs associated with that culture.