In Issue 11 of In the News, we examine issues within the new Costume Institute exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, review the state of diversity in the fashion industry from the perspective of Black creatives, and consider critiques of Diet Prada’s role in call-out culture.
Design & Imagemaking
While the Met Gala spurred much drama and discussion, somewhat less attention has been paid to the exhibition at its center – “In America: A Lexicon of Fashion.” The show was designed with the intention to celebrate the diversity of perspectives in American design, and aimed to spotlight emerging young designers. But its success in doing so is debatable. In a recent feature for The Cut, Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz critically explores the exhibit’s curation of inclusivity, focusing on the experience of the only Indiginous designer to be included. Korina Emmerich is the Puyallup and Nisqually designer whose skirt and coat ensemble is presented in the exhibit as a sole representation of Indigenous fashion. Emmerich expresses that she was unaware that she would be the only Indigenous designer included and was “devastated” to learn this, noting, “I’m half-white and urban — I didn’t grow up on the reservation. I know I’m more palatable in situations like this. But there are people who have been doing couture for a lot longer than I have, celebrated elders in our community.”
Furthermore, Emmerich questioned the piece chosen by the curators to be featured, and its contextual placement in the exhibition. The wool ensemble was created as a form of protest, inspired by the wool blankets of Pendleton and the Hudson’s Bay Company, which are believed to have been a key factor in spreading deadly smallpox among Indigenous peoples. Her work reclaims the motifs of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which has a complex and problematic relationship with North American Indigenous people. The corporation played a part in exploiting Indigenous labor and taking on a fundamental role in claiming Native lands. Emmerich describes the Hudson’s Bay Company print as “a symbol of genocide and colonialism for Indigenous people.”
But when Emmerich requested that an artist’s statement be included to explain the contextual history and symbolism of her work, she faced tension and limitations. Instead of focusing on the complex issues embedded within the chosen ensemble, and perhaps building upon this theme by including more examples of Indigenous design with similar intentions, the curatorial team chose to place Emmerich’s piece alongside another ensemble incorporating the Hudson’s Bay print without any mention of the aspect of reclamation and protest. Essentially, this placement buries the criticality of Emmerich’s work by camouflaging it amongst aesthetically similar yet less controversial pieces. When the Costume Institute shared the other piece on Instagram without any historical context (caption: “This cape by André Walker will represent the qualities of warmth and comfort”), social media commentators responded with backlash (comment: “A symbol of genocide and colonialism, not warmth and comfort”).
The exhibition’s missteps in approaching the complex histories of marginalized communities in American culture and design are perhaps unsurprising considering that “the Costume Institute’s curatorial staff remains entirely white, and [Andrew] Bolton was not specific about the vetting process when asked how the exhibition’s ‘diverse range of designers’ were selected, telling The Cut that ‘we chose objects that celebrate the originality and creativity of established and emerging designers working in the United States.’” With an inevitably Eurocentric perspective of design, the result is a type of performative inclusivity that ticks off boxes on a checklist but neglects to delve into the uncomfortable truths and multilayered nuances that bring deeper understanding. Reflecting on the outcome of the exhibition, “Emmerich is troubled knowing that her piece, with its painful history, sits alone alongside those of designers like Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan, labels that have used Indigenous imagery in their advertising and Indigenous designs and motifs in their work.”
Business & Retail
Reviewing the state of diversity in the industry, Business of Fashion shines a light on the frustrations of Black creatives who feel that progress has stalled since last year’s push forward. Considering statistics from earlier this year, the article points out that The Fashion Spot’s diversity report found that at New York’s February 2021 fashion shows, 50.7% of models were BIPOC – a significant decrease from 57.1% from the shows that took place in September 2020.
And although there are more Black designers showing at Fashion Week than ever before, those in the industry believe it’s important to keep in mind that this is only a starting point and not the end goal. Many feel like diversity and inclusion is being treated like a trend or marketing tactic, rather than being approached from the need for systemic change. Brandice Daniel, founder of Harlem’s Fashion Row, notes, “This industry does not like things that are uncomfortable, so I’m not surprised that they’re ready to move on. But fashion needs to sit in this. It’s not time for us to move on. We’ve done that before and nothing has significantly changed. There have been commitments that have been made but we’re not sure if those commitments have been followed through.” For instance, one of the designers who showed at Harlem’s Fashion Row’s event, Shawn Pean of June79, explained that despite an “outpouring of praise” across media outlets, he’s received just one call from a department store interested in the collection and had not heard from any buyers in the week following his show. Like many other emerging designers on the cusp of success, he questions, “Is [this just] conversation, or is it real?”
Read more about diversity and inclusion being treated like a trend in Zari Alyssa Taylor’s essay discussing performative allyship.
Attain deeper knowledge on how the fashion industry can go beyond surface-level anti-racism work, as told by Tamu McPherson.
Learn more about the fashion industry’s responsibility to have lasting effects in their inclusivity efforts in “The Problem with All-Black Castings.”
Over the last decade, the rise of call-out culture has brought the once-niche concept of dress politics to the forefront, with terms like ‘cultural appropriation’ moving from the realms of academic into the mainstream. The Instagram account Diet Prada – with nearly 3 million followers – is often cited as one of the key leaders of this movement, simultaneously loved and hated for their sharp takes on fashion copycats and problematic ventures. Founded by Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler, the platform was one of the most confrontational and real-time voices in calling out and canceling Dolce & Gabbana when they released a racist advertisement in 2018 that mocked Chinese culture. Going beyond Diet Prada’s typical posts, the episode devolved into back-and-forth direct message chats sent from the account of the brand’s cofounder, Stefano Gabbana, which included many racist and hateful comments. The resulting negative publicity had a major detrimental impact on the brand and its image. Soon after, Dolce & Gabbana filed a lawsuit for defamation, claiming damages now totalling at nearly $700 million.
While the lawsuit has been pending for the past two years, an article published by Vanity Fair this month examines the controversy and how it may be influenced by evolving attitudes towards Diet Prada. Writer Maureen O’Connor points out that, once seen as underdogs in the industry, their call-outs have now “become a mainstream fear, fixation, and flash point” that is considered “so divisive that obvious allies sometimes hesitate to defend Liu and Schuyler.” She expresses her suspicions that “the mixed response to Diet Prada’s plight is also about how the fault lines of free speech, the media, and righteousness have shifted.” Once the ones doling out criticism, the platform now receives just as much criticism itself. While many agree that Dolce & Gabbana’s actions were racist, some may also agree with the brand’s argument that “Diet Prada’s appetite for the salacious may come at the expense of facts.” In an earlier article, published in August by Elle Canada, Randi Bergman questions, “Has the Time Come to Critique Diet Prada?” – observing that followers are becoming increasingly skeptical of the platform’s approach as they strive to push beyond ‘cancellation’ towards positive change and action. Quoted in this piece, Fashion and Race Database founder Kimberly Jenkins acknowledges that “[Call-out culture] is only powerful when you confront people with solutions or what they should’ve done and what they need to do now.”
This is a valuable perspective for Diet Prada to consider, particularly as their work has sometimes become increasingly careless and lacking in nuance over recent years. Yet while the platform would undoubtedly benefit from taking a more constructive and nuanced approach in their work, the issue of the Dolce & Gabbana lawsuit remains “outrageous,” as described by Diet Prada’s lawyer Susan Scafidi. In defense of their own work, the duo behind Diet Prada contend that “We were doing what we saw as the right thing and speaking out against racism, so for our business to be threatened, in a very real way, for that feels like a direct effect of the supremacist system we are ultimately speaking out against.”