Rounding out our final In the News Issue for 2021, we examine the complexities of tackling cultural beauty standards in imagemaking, barriers to diversity in the jewelry industry, and the extraordinary impact of fashion overproduction.
Design & Imagemaking
Earlier this month, Chinese photographer Chen Man sparked controversy with a photograph featured as part of Christian Dior’s ‘Art ‘n Dior’ event in Shanghai. The exhibition showcased the work of 12 artists’ reinterpretations of the Lady Dior handbag.
Chen Man, who grew up in Beijing and attended China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, is one of the country’s most famous fashion photographers – with her work gracing the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, and more, even being referenced in Chinese media as “China’s ‘Annie Leibowitz.’” But Chen’s impressive portfolio had little influence in shielding her from the harsh criticisms of state media. The ruling party’s flagship outlet, People’s Daily, commented, “This photo is too far off from reality, too far off from confident, elegant and graceful Asian women.” In an article entitled “Is This the Asian Woman in Dior’s Eyes?,” the state-run Beijing Daily described Chen’s image as depicting a woman with “spooky eyes, gloomy face, and Qing Dynasty-styled nail armour” and claimed, “The photographer is playing up to the brands, or the aesthetic tastes of the western world.” Meanwhile, China Women’s News, the official newspaper of the All-China Women’s Federation, exclaimed, “The ‘aesthetics’ of some photographers and some foreign brands are out of line!”
#ChenMan, deemed #China's "most expensive" fashion #photographer, apologized on her Weibo account on Tuesday for her controversial photography including some of her previous works slammed by social media as "uglifying Chinese." https://t.co/oi18b1ByCY pic.twitter.com/LG0SQEt67w— Shanghai Daily (@shanghaidaily) November 23, 2021
These scalding reviews were tempered by a more neutral perspective from the China Global Times (although also party-run). The newspaper noted that while some social media commenters were critical of the image for “pandering to Western stereotypes,” others actually “applauded the work for its departure from the fair skin and large eyes that are considered the typical standards of beauty in China.” Those in support of this alternative perspective argue that “they don’t think Chen’s work is a deliberate play into Western stereotypes, as the photos are images of ordinary Chinese women from the country’s various ethnic groups and thus reveal a comprehensive image of the people of the country. ‘There are beautiful models with big eyes and there are those without,’ said one netizen.” Both sides of the debate were also covered by Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, which pointed out that “while many social media users suggested that the photo contributed to stereotypes about Asian women, others praised Chen’s choice of showing a darker skinned and freckled model who defies typical beauty standards in China.” Another independent youth-oriented digital publication in China, Radii, took a more comprehensive approach in covering the debate, with a more detailed focus on social media commentary and noting Chen Man’s long history of promoting a more diverse perspective of Chinese beauty that diverges from traditional values. Writing for Radii, Lu Zhao observes that many online comments were, in fact, supportive of the image, translating one Weibo user as saying, “Self-confidence is beautiful. All Chinese models look good to me.” Another post highlighted by Zhao, on Twitter, suggested, “China’s mainstream beauty standards are narrow,” and that “Chinese people are not comfortable yet with postmodernism.”
This controversy highlights the complexities of imagemaking in a global landscape in which cultural perspectives are constantly shifting and evolving. Much of the criticism being levied against Chen Man’s work is reflective of long-held beliefs around aesthetic aspiration that are arguably rooted in internalized racism and colorism. Eurocentric beauty standards, cemented through centuries of colonialism and decades of misrepresentation in media, prioritize characteristics like fair skin and large eyes as the ideal. And yet, while Chen Man may have positive intentions in attempting to reject conventional Chinese beauty standards and uplift more diverse portrayals, Dior’s involvement complicates the impact of her work. The inclusion of the Dior handbag and the placement of the image within the context of a European fashion brand exhibition inevitably introduces the spectre of exoticism. Instead of functioning as a personal commentary on problematic aesthetic ideals, Man’s image is understood as Dior’s exoticized perception of China — as the original Beijing Daily article asked, “Is This the Asian Woman in Dior’s Eyes?”
The nuances of Chen Man’s work and its critical reception raise numerous questions for both brands and creators moving forward. As imagemakers of color around the world work to redefine beauty standards and reimagine aesthetic ideals, it is crucial to consider the contextual dynamics of brand partners and cross-cultural perspectives.
Business & Retail
Over the last year, we’ve seen many brands, retailers, and organizations across the fashion industry take steps towards addressing a systemic lack of diversity. The industry is well-known for its problematically exclusive nature, but a recent Business of Fashion article penned by Sheena Butler-Young delves into the difficulties specific to one category – jewelry. While similar steps have been taken to promote inclusivity – from the Natural Diamond Council (NDC) offering $1 million in financing to emerging designers, to Tiffany & Co featuring Beyoncé in its latest marketing campaign – progress has been especially slow in this category, which has unique barriers to change.
Butler-Young points out that the supply chain and retail market for “demi-fine and fine jewelry — pieces using precious metals and gems, priced anywhere from around $100 to millions of dollars — is relationship-oriented,” with connections often spanning generations, making it “difficult for any newcomer to break in.” This is particularly problematic for Black designers, who rarely have even tangential access to these networks, and who are less likely to have access to the funds or financing necessary to buy precious stones. Further, many major stores buy fine jewelry from designers on consignment, forcing them to cover the upfront costs for the privilege of shelf space as they wait for them to be sold – or returned to them. David Kellie, CEO of the Natural Diamond Council, observes, “It’s a chicken and egg” type of situation preventing Black designers from getting their brands off the ground. While a similar scenario is indeed present in fashion, the higher cost of entry into the jewelry space creates an even tighter bottleneck for diversity.
And while the NDC’s emerging designer fund may help support some talented emerging designers, “such programs can’t fix the industry’s structural issues.” In July 2020, New York-based jewelry designer Angely Martinez penned an open letter, which received dozens of signatures, calling for shifts like “increased retail shelf space for jewelry brands owned by Black and indigenous people and people of color, and for more paid apprenticeships, scholarships, and grants.” Another emerging designer, Malyia McNaughton, founded the Black in Jewelry Coalition, hoping to push for change in the industry, noting “A lot of what we were seeing [after George Floyd] was performative and it was unfortunate because Black designers are not a trend or a fad. We want to be here for the long haul.”
Yet with young consumers’ demands for more inclusivity, the behind-the-scenes reality of the industry is increasingly at odds with the marketing efforts from major brands and retailers, like Tiffany. Jewelry industry veteran Rosena Sammi notes, “Rushing to put a Black model in an ad campaign…if it doesn’t reflect the diversity in the corporate leadership team behind that campaign, doesn’t have the sort of value that it should,” she said. “There needs to be a shift in attitudes.” As shoppers become increasingly cognizant of the discrepancy between the lack of representation behind-the-scenes compared to front-of-lens, brands and retailers in this space will be forced to reckon with the systemic lack of diversity at every level of their businesses.
In Marjon Carlos’s article, an initiative highlighting the boundless potential of African artists and creatives is explored.
The historical and cultural importance of Black culture and talent is presented in Jonquil Lawrence’s article.
Watch Khadija Mbowe’s video to gain more insight into performative diversity.
Also on our radar:
Sustainability & Labor Issues
While our last issue of In The News focused on the problematics of inequitable representation at the COP26 conference, our On The Radar section spotlighted a photo essay from Al Jazeera examining how fast fashion uses Chile’s Atacama desert as a clothing dumping ground. Over the past couple of weeks, images from this photo essay have gone viral on social media, shared by sustainable fashion brands and influencers. The horrifying visuals have a visceral impact, emphasizing the extremes of overproduction that we’ve reached. The Al Jazeera piece notes that over 59,000 tons of fast fashion clothing, leftover from being unsold in Europe and the US, arrive in Chile each year. At least 39,000 tons of this clothing cannot be resold, and is instead dumped in the desert. The situation in Atacama is once again illustrative of the asymmetric impact of fast fashion with the demand for overconsumption coming primarily from Western nations, but the detrimental environmental impact faced overwhelmingly by people of color in the Global South. The issue of overproduction, as depicted in these images, circles back to COP26, where business leaders convened in an apparent effort to make change.
In a recap by The New York Times, Vanessa Friedman highlights one of the key positive outcomes of the conference as the emergence of the term, “degrowth: meaning to make less product.” Friedman notes that, while the negative environmental impact of fast fashion has been well-known for a long time, the response was generally “to urge consumers to ‘buy less!’ and ‘wear longer!’” – but, finally, “it seems that brands have owned up to their role in the problem.” Halide Algöz, Chief Sustainability Officer at Ralph Lauren, revealed that the brand has “secretly” been exploring the option of degrowth, or more specifically, “financial growth through degrowth of resources.” Through new sustainability-focused initiatives, the company is working towards a restructuring of its business model by finding ways to increase profit margin while making less stuff, “largely by maximizing its understanding of sell-through.” In its recent experiment, Algoz reported that the brand was able to successfully reduce its amount of wasted product. While still a niche case study, the example of a major fashion titan taking the initiative to reduce production is one of the most promising steps away from fast fashion that we’ve seen so far from the industry.
Also on our radar:
The textile industry in Ethiopia – one of Africa’s largest – will be affected by the country’s removal from the US African Growth and Opportunity Act with new sanctions placed as a consequence of human rights violations related to its war in Tigran.