This week, we review the Met Gala’s most significant statement looks, delve into why Balanciaga is being accused of cultural appropriation, and examine how fast fashion is intertwined with a major human rights crisis.

Design & Imagemaking

This past Monday marked fashion’s most extravagant event – the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit Gala. Centered around this year’s exhibition, “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion,” many people, like longtime New York Times critic Vanessa Friedman, predicted the Met Gala red carpet to feature a stream of exciting emerging American fashion designers. But alas, many of the most-photographed celebrities wore the designs of European luxury houses. This is likely a consequence of the way invitations to the Gala are dispersed. 

Typically, brands or designers sponsor the $275,000 tables or $35,000 tickets and then invite celebrities as their guests to model their designs. Thus, the red carpet ends up being a repetitive parade of the same well-financed names – Balenciaga, Dior, Saint Laurent, Versace, etc. The nature of the fundraising scheme inevitably means that smaller emerging designers are generally excluded from one of fashion’s most significant showcases. This problematically perpetuates issues of systemic inequity and racism in the industry. Young Black and POC designers are often underfunded compared to their white counterparts, and they are less likely to have the networking connections that might help them enter cultural spaces like the Met Gala.

In a followup piece for Refinery29, Venesa Coger highlights the conspicuous absence of Black American designers on Monday’s red carpet, with so many celebrities opting for designs by European houses. She laments the missed opportunity to platform creatives like “Claude Kameni, Kerby Jean-Raymond, and Telfar Clemens.” This is echoed by Booth Moore in WWD, who writes that “many of the young designers reweaving the fabric of American fashion could not afford to compete on the Met’s red carpet,” despite their works actually being featured inside the museum as part of the exhibition. Although being showcased in the museum is an honor, the celebrity-studded red carpet realistically offers a much greater opportunity for press, publicity, and business growth. Coger contends, “If there was ever a time for celebrities who have been speaking out about diversity and inclusion for the past year to push back against the status quo and demand what designers they work with, the Met Gala would have been the perfect time. The time to truly represent and show up for Black culture in fashion was yesterday, and it was a flop.” Certainly, if Billie Eilish managed to persuade Oscar de la Renta to terminate all fur sales as a condition for attending, couldn’t other celebrities have convinced their corporate sponsors to help spotlight emerging BIPOC design talent? Coger proposes that fashion’s gatekeepers should have actively worked to ensure better representation of Black American designers on the red carpet, and concludes that the only way to create real change is to demand that more Black people are “in the room in positions of power, not begging for a seat at a $275,000 table.”

Nevertheless, a few moments of optimism stood out on the red carpet. For instance, Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton took it upon himself to tackle the issue of emerging Black talent being excluded from the conversation. In an unprecedented move from a celebrity attendee, Hamilton sponsored his own six-figure table at the Gala and invited three young Black fashion designers to join him – in effect, literally building the table where he wanted to sit. Hamilton’s table included designers Kenneth Nicholson, Jason Rembert of Aliétte, and Edvin Thompson of Theophilio. In a post on Instagram, Hamilton states that his “goal is, and always will be, to open doors for young Black creatives.” This motivation stems from a recognition of how the challenges faced by these emerging designers parallel his own personal experiences.  As the first, and so far the only, Black driver to win the Formula 1 World Championship, Hamilton has been highly influential in paving the way and supporting people of color in this highly exclusive sports landscape. As he explained to Vogue, “I realized it’s very similar in the fashion industry. A lot of young brands and designers don’t have the same opportunities, so that’s what really set me off.”

Another inspiring moment came from Indigenous model Quannah Chasinghorse (pictured above), who wore a breathtaking ensemble that incorporated several turquoise and silver jewelry pieces reflecting her ties to the Navajo tribe. Speaking to Vogue, Chasinghorse explained that she feels “It’s extremely important to represent and bring authentic and true American culture to this year’s theme, as Native American culture has been appropriated and misrepresented in fashion so many times. Reclaiming our culture is key — we need to show the world that we are still here, and that the land that everyone occupies is stolen Native land.”

Finally, we must address the most polarizing look of Monday evening: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) dressed by Aurora James. The simple white gown emblazoned with the phrase “Tax The Rich” drew both cheers of support and heavy criticism on social media. Comment sections filled quickly, with many detractors claiming that the look was hypocritical and in poor taste considering the costs associated with attending the Met Gala. Many of these claims were factually inaccurate, since AOC was invited as a guest and did not personally pay for her seat. Others have argued that the stunt was shallow and performative without true substance, particularly in contrast to the protestors demonstrating just down the street. But while this critique may be valid in some regards, it fails to consider the alternative scenarios and overall impact. If AOC had chosen to wear a demure gown or declined the invitation altogether, she would have likely slipped by unnoticed, and the only contentious debates in mainstream media would be about which celebrities were best-dressed and the hidden meaning behind Frank Ocean’s robot baby. Instead, in the 24 hours after fashion’s most extravagant evening, the most viral topic of conversation revolved around taxation policy. Thus, a more nuanced reading acknowledges her success in utilizing an invitation to the Met Gala as a platform to provoke discourse via dress. In an essay for The Cut, Samhita Mukhopadhyay argues that although “there’s no question that there is a cringe factor when anyone makes a political statement on the red carpet…the point of the congresswoman’s stunt was to start a bigger conversation about money and power. And it worked.”

Design & Imagemaking

Also on our radar:

Another widely circulated Met Gala slogan – Cara Delevingne’s ‘Peg the Patriarchy’ vest by Dior – was actually copied without consent or credit from the work of queer Latinx sex educator Luna Matatas.

Before the Met Gala, it was NYFW, which kicked off with a presentation by Harlem’s Fashion Row and closed with Telfar’s announcement of launching TelfarTV.

A feature in The New York Times examines the progress, and lack thereof, relating to diversifying representation in fashion magazines over the past year.

Screenshot of the Men's Trompe-l'oeil Sweatpants on the Balenciaga website

Screenshot of the Men’s Trompe-L’oeil Sweatpants in Red on the Balenciaga website.

Dress Politics

Balenciaga’s Fall/Winter 2021 collection, recently released in stores, has drawn criticism for being culturally appropriative. The brand’s $1190 ‘Trompe-L’Oeil Sweatpants’ are designed with the faux appearance of exposed boxer shorts above the waistband of the pants. This creates the illusion of ‘sagging’ pants – at a very high price. Marquita Gammage, an associate professor of Africana Studies at California State University, Northridge, expressed to CNN Style that she was “disturbed” by the brand’s “exploitation of Black culture…delegitimizing Blacks experiences of injustices for capital gain.” Likewise, many commentators on social media have accused the brand of ‘gentrifying sagging,’ noting that Black men, in contrast, have been systematically targeted for donning this style of dress over the years: some cities and institutions have even passed legislation to criminalize ‘sagging.’ Gammage emphasizes how the style of sagging pants, which has roots in hip hop culture and Black communities, has “been used to criminalize Blacks, especially Black males as thugs and a threat to American society.”

Yahoo News reports that in Shreveport, Louisiana, for example, Black men “comprised 96% of the arrests from 2017 to June 2019 for wearing sagging pants.” This same ‘saggy pants ban,” which was passed in 2007, led to police chasing down and killing 31-year-old Anthony Childs in February 2019 while attempting to detain him for wearing his pants too low. It was only after the outrage following Childs’ tragic death that the “unconstitutional and discriminatory ordinance” was finally repealed. A similar law in Florida – also passed in 2007 – was only repealed in September 2020. Yet even in locations where ‘sagging’ may not be legally prohibited, Dr. Jonathan M. Square points out, “men who choose to wear sagging pants are policed socially and stereotyped as vagrants and criminals.”⁣ Considering how this “aesthetic has been weaponized against men of color” within the sociocultural context of systemic racism in America, it is quite clear to see why many people are offended by a European luxury fashion house’s blithe replication of the highly politicized style.

Balenciaga, meanwhile, seems committed to ignoring this context and, in a statement to CNN, refused to acknowledge the problematic nature of the design: “When asked about the controversy caused by Trompe-L’Oeil pants, Ludivine Pont, chief marketing officer for Balenciaga, told CNN via email ‘in many of our collections, we combine different wardrobe pieces into a single garment, such as denim jeans layered over tracksuit pants, cargo shorts merged with jeans and button-up shirts layered over t-shirts. These Trompe L’Oeil trousers were an extension of that vision.” This particular case study is a vivid example of why, when it comes to cultural appropriation, intention is irrelevant – impact is what matters. It is easy to understand why a European designer may have been unaware of the problematic context detailed above: in an Instagram-fuelled world, visual aesthetics are often viewed in a vacuum and divorced from meaning. But this is not an excuse for misappropriation. Rather, this underscores designers’ responsibility to take the time to more comprehensively research the historical and sociocultural contexts of their ‘inspiration.’

Dress Politics

Also on our radar:

Brandy Melville, the trendy Italy-based teen retailer, has come under fire for alleged issues including racism and sexual exploitation.

Labor Issues

In prior issues, we have discussed the ongoing controversy over alleged forced labor within the cotton production industry in Xinjiang, China. A recent feature by Sofi Thanhauser in Vox delves even deeper into the history of cotton production in the Xinjiang region and emphasizes the connections between fast fashion consumption in the U.S. and the human rights crisis faced by Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Thanhauser points out that “the US has gobbled up far more Chinese garments and textiles than any other nation every year since 2006. Between 2002 and 2020, China was by far the largest source of garment imports into the US.” Our compulsive shopping habits have fueled the fast fashion industry, and the fast fashion industry relies almost entirely upon low cost clothing production based in China.

China is the world’s largest producer of cotton, and Xinjiang is the biggest cotton-producing region within China. Prior to 2020, an estimated 1.5 billion garments made with Xinjiang cotton entered the US market annually. But over the past year, both the U.S. government and human rights organizations around the world have maintained that cotton fields and manufacturing facilities in Xinjiang are staffed via an internment camp system built by the Chinese government and targeting the Uyghur ethnic minority group. The system is believed to involve sterilization and forced labor to an extent that the U.S. State department has classified these actions as genocide and yet, Thanhauser writes, “they are actions that have also been a boon to industry.” Repressive policies against the Uyghur people began being implemented by the Chinese government as early as 2016 and evidence of the internment system began being exposed between 2018-2020. This timeline “dovetailed with a desire to keep garment production in China after labor costs there grew uncompetitive with those in places like Vietnam or Bangladesh.” And as American consumers continued to demand large quantities of cheap, fast fashion, “garments stitched by imprisoned Uyghurs were quietly entering the American wardrobe through myriad avenues — much of it, it would soon be revealed, made from cotton harvested by enslaved people.” Brands whose products have been traced back to suspicions of forced labor in Xinjiang include Gap, Nike, Adidas, Skechers, Target, Walmart, Amazon, Zara, Muji, and Uniqlo, among others. Yet even once these suspicions were confirmed with increasing evidence of human rights violations, and international outcry grew, “it was clear that the effort to remove cotton harvested by forced labor from the market was squarely at odds with the imperative to produce ever-cheaper clothing.”

Image of a cotton field.

Image by Trisha Downing licenced under Unsplash.

While companies that are directly accused of being linked to Xinjiang cotton are quick to claim lack of awareness, Thanhauser argues that “corporations didn’t end up sourcing garments from Xinjiang internment camps by accident.” It is highly likely that a brand may be technically unable to confirm whether or not its products involve materials produced via forced labor. Most brands are not directly involved in the sourcing of raw materials, like cotton – the reality of contemporary supply chains is incredibly complex and extremely opaque. But, Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, contends that “brands actively seek out countries that don’t enforce their labor laws,” by emphasizing price pressure that is otherwise impossible to meet. It is almost inevitable that most mass apparel brands continue to utilize cotton that – in some way – involves forced slave labor in Xinjiang. 

Unfortunately, as Thanhauser points out, this is generally unsurprising when we consider the broader history of cotton production: “There is no global cotton trade outside of brutal colonial or neocolonial relations of power. Cheap cotton has been morally compromised for several hundred years. The history of European imperialism, industrialization, and cotton are so intertwined as to be nearly identical.” And while American consumers may not actively want to support cotton produced via slave labor, our ignorance to these complex issues and our continued demand for large quantities of cheap clothing means that we are inextricably entangled within this web: “US corporations have played a central role in creating the situation in Xinjiang today, and consumers have been their unwitting accomplices.”

Workers are seen in a garment factory

Image by Rio Lecatompessy licenced under Unsplash.

Labor Issues

Also on our radar:

In California, the Garment Worker Protection Act passed the State Legislature last week. It will soon return to the Senate for final vote of approval before being sent to the Governor to be signed into action.

Several Australian fashion labels have joined forces to urge the Prime Minister to increase the intake of refugees from Afghanistan – “pledging the sector will help the new migrants with training and employment.”