Dear Fashion Designers,
I used to look at picture books before I learned how to read words and of those picture books my favorite kind had been magazines. Big, thick, glossy-paged magazines that overwhelmed any onlooker. Magazines full of models, beauty products, samples, but most importantly- clothes. Outfit inspiration. Trend. Style. And the names of the designers behind them. I memorized brand names and their pronunciations like the names of my own friends. Jimmy Choo, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Fendi, Versace, and Gucci- just to name a few.
While growing up, my obsession continued. The older I became, the more I invested myself. But by the time I had reached age 13, I realized that none of the models looked like me. There was a huge disconnect between myself and something that I loved dearly. I had thick eyebrows, tan skin, black unruly hair whereas the models all had fair skin, light hair and blue/green eyes. Their cheeks were hollow bones and had bodies to match. None of the designers had names from a South Asian background like myself. As much as I loved them, my physical appearance, cultural limitations and ethnicity deemed me different. I wanted nothing more than to fit in. I yearned to be able to afford clothes that the models wore, be able to slip on brand name after brand name. But not if it cost me my identity.
Fast forward eight years and what do I see strutting down the catwalk for Marc Jacobs Fall SS18? The same model with hollow cheeks and fair skin but this time, in a turban. A turban, which can also be called a headscarf, hijab, head-covering, or just about anything depending on an individual’s religious or cultural background, and is commonly known to identify a Muslim woman.
I saw a version of my religion taken out of context and put onto the safety of the catwalk as a fashion statement. I saw Marc Jacobs receive praise and accreditation for his new collection, positive publicity and sales. I saw a white male designer receive praise for something that Muslim women wear on the streets while fearing for their lives. We have all heard Trump’s comments on Muslims, we’ve all heard him threaten Muslim individuals with deportation and infringing surveillance watch- why aren’t you speaking up then? This is a horrific case of cultural appropriation and it is hardly being talked about because cultural appropriation takes place in fashion All. The. Time. And it is on your shoulders, designers, because frankly- you should know better. As established and well-known designers you hold a privilege above all others. Models wear what you put them in, bloggers explain trends that your collections set. You have the power to make a statement and the ability to include diversity without stealing from another culture.
And yet, you choose not to. Why? While some may say it’s for promotional or publicity reasons. I think there is an additional explanation. Some of you are ignorant and unbothered to address what’s going on in the world around them simply because it does not affect you as an individual. You- designers, celebrities and socialites are of the highest paid amongst our population. Politics have little to no effect on your personal lives. Your social and financial status ranks you too great an asset to threaten your safety. Take a look at what Marc Jacobs posted the previous Fashion Week season, when there was outcry over him dressing his models in multi-color dreads on the runway.
His apology stumbled and did not address the extent to which Black individuals have suffered because of the perception around their physical appearances. Nor did it address his contribution to the fire. Instead, his apology took a platonic stance, trying to maintain peace after he received backlash.
In general, over the past few seasons, thicker brows have become “in,” modest styles of clothing dominate more revealing pieces and there are designers of varying backgrounds beginning to step into the spotlight. While many people may still not know of designers like Naeem Khan or Zuhair Murrad, there is representation taking place. Beyond these two designers lay a scope of small business owners, designers and trendsetters who have yet to be acknowledged. However, the change has not only taken place for designers to represent their own backgrounds and heritage. Features like the aforementioned are also being used by designers who do not understand the context and societal need for the clothing to be represented by the right people and mannerism. This allows for you, designers, to pluck what you like and remove the meaning behind what makes the piece what it is. In the example mentioned before, it was the turban.
It is not shocking that the increase in designers doing this leads to celebrities following suit. Some of the most influential and well-known individuals like Kylie Jenner have also partaken in decreasing the cultural value or symbolism of a style or clothing. She has posed multiple times for Instagram photos while wearing a durag or cornrow braids in her hair; both styles stemming from African culture. Her sister, Kendall Jenner, has also been widely criticized for her role in a retracted Pepsi commercial where she is seen leading a group of people of color at a protest and achieving “peace” by handing the officer a can of Pepsi. The failure to understand the significance of what she took part in and the ultimate meaning of that commercial speaks to how systematic issues of racism truly are and how little is being done about it.
So please, engage in diversity and build a bridge between the gap that is between mainstream media and minority cultures, but don’t step on the cultures and use them for your own gain without acknowledging its cultural and historical significance. If you are inspired, if you want to assimilate something, tie its history in. Stand up for the minorities whose culture you are drawing from. Use your platform to make an actual difference that will give fashion even more meaning than it already has.