Welcome to the first edition of In the News! This biweekly column will recap recent headlines in the fashion industry that intersect with issues of race. We’ll take a critical look towards current happenings and pull out the threads of connection to broader sociocultural and historical contexts.
We’d like to firstly take a moment to acknowledge the most pivotal news of the week: George Floyd’s murderer receiving three guilty court convictions. The outcome was a rare and historic moment – a hopeful signal of change in a country where, between the years of 2013-2019, only 0.3% of police killings led to a conviction. While we encourage pausing to recognize the impact of our collective action over the past year, it is important to realize there remains a great deal of work to be done. We can each play a role in continuing to advocate for change, as outlined in Deepa Iyer’s Social Change Ecosystem Map.
Here at The Fashion and Race Database, we believe in creating change through sharing knowledge, amplifying diverse perspectives, and challenging dominant narratives. As such, this week, our recap includes discussions of cultural appropriation in design practice, equitable representation in retail, the contradictions of sustainable fashion, expressions of religious identity, and the urgent plight of garment workers.
Design & Imagemaking
The May issue of Vogue magazine features National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman on the cover, draped in a Kente-inspired look by Louis Vuitton. In an Instagram post caption, cover stylist Gabriella Karefa-Johnson expressed gratitude for the design: “Thank you to Virgil Abloh for creating in his collection for Louis Vuitton a moment that speaks to how important cultural heritage is in the work that we do.” But for many people, the Vogue cover created a sense of discomfort, resurfacing criticisms of cultural appropriation that emerged when the Louis Vuitton collection was initially presented in January.
Featuring the design on the cover of a major publication brought a higher level of exposure, and with it, a higher level of scrutiny. In particular, the closeup image amplified the Louis Vuitton monogram emblazoned across the fabric, and it brought more recognition to the fact that the cloth was actually printed, rather than handwoven by craftspeople in Ghana, where the Kente tradition originates. These details, and more, were examined in a Clubhouse discussion last Sunday, led by designer and researcher Pierre Antoine Vettorello for The Fashion Historian Club. The speakers unpacked some of the deeper issues at play: Were Ghanian cultural leaders, who strictly oversee and protect the use of Kente designs through The Folklore Board, consulted for this major international project? Why was a monogrammed logo applied to such a sacred cloth? Why were Ghanian craftspeople not involved in the production process? If so, why were their stories and perspectives not amplified? Why did a luxury atelier produce what appears to be a printed semblance of the cloth, rather than investing and supporting the Ghanian tradition of weaving?
The complexities and nuances of this moment were thoughtfully explored by Nicolas Nhalungo for Industrie Africa, who asks, “In an attempt to create a platform for the marginalized, did Abloh, however unintentionally, take up a space that was not his own to do, or worse still, yield power to the oppressor?”
These questions highlight the underlying imbalance of equity and agency that is critical in discussing matters of appropriation vs. appreciation. They also ladder up to a larger overarching question that is unique to this specific moment: Does Virgil Abloh’s position as a Ghanaian-American designer change the dynamic of appropriation – or is it irrelevant, since the designs bear the name of a French luxury corporation? While the issue of cultural appropriation across cultures has been examined extensively in both journalism and academic discourse, the complexities that may arise when a powerful designer takes inspiration from their own culture are rarely brought up. Realistically, that’s partly because we’ve never before seen a person of color in power at the helm of a major European fashion house like Louis Vuitton. We’re in new territory, and there’s much to unpack. To begin, we’d recommend contemplating Deepsikha Chatterjee’s recent article, “Yours, mine, theirs or a new intercultural?”
Explore the transnational movements of design with Leslie Rabine’s book, The Global Circulation of African Fashion.
Learn more about dress and textiles across Africa from this archived exhibition on the subject.
Also on our radar:
After being accused of cultural appropriation, evening bag designer Judith Leiber has apologized and promised to stop production of a piece designed in the likeness of the Hindu deity Ganesh and featuring a leather lining that contradicts Hindu beliefs. Retailers like Harrods have pulled the bag from shelves; however, Leiber is still selling the item on her website.
NYC based streetwear brand Noah Clothing was called out for their “Racist Friend” t-shirt, which confused many followers. The brand deleted their Instagram post announcing the item and presumably no longer plans to sell this product.
Business & Retail
15 Percent Pledge founder and Brother Vellies designer Aurora James called out Target this month, after they announced plans to spend more than $2 billion on Black-owned businesses by 2025.
While the number may seem impressive at first glance, James seeks to emphasize that $2 billion over four years represents less than 1% the retail giant’s $92.4 billion annual revenue, and pointing out the lack of accountability in their promise: “We should not be applauding this. We deserve so much more than this.” James also claimed that Target’s social media announcement “heavily mirrored” the Pledge’s branding, “which signals a clear attempt to leverage the success of a Black-led movement, without putting in real work to support our community.” According to Business of Fashion, Target denies this claim, and maintains that the $2 billion commitment is “part of a larger strategy around racial equity.” Target has not joined the 15 Percent Pledge.
This week, H&M launched their latest designer collaboration, celebrating Earth Day in partnership with Lemlem (launching May 6 in the US). Founded in 2007 by designer, model, and UN ambassador Liya Kebede, Lemlem is a sustainable and ethical fashion brand dedicated to supporting artisans in her native Ethiopia. H&M has committed to donating $100,000 to Kebede’s Lemlem Foundation, which helps provide healthcare and education for female artisans – but their product collaboration won’t involve any of the craftspeople who are central to Lemlem’s brand mission.
As reported in Vogue, “After deciding that the shipping of fabrics back and forth between Ethiopia and H&M’s factories would pose major carbon footprint issues and that the quantity of stock would overwhelm Lemlem’s weavers, Kebede agreed to create a line of effortless daywear in the spirit of Lemlem’s archive, but made in China and Bangladesh.” Although the line will utilize sustainably sourced organic cotton and linen, and recycled polyester, the lack of artisanal involvement raises questions. It’s logical that Lemlem’s manufacturing processes, developed for the purposes of a small eco-conscious brand, would not be scalable to H&M’s requirements. But this very fact highlights the problematic nature of fast fashion as inherently unsustainable.
Also on our radar:
A recent industry report by the British Retail Consortium found that, “Fewer than 10 percent of chief executive officers in retail are women, while fewer than 6 percent of executive committees have Black or ethnic minority representation.”
Geopolitical issues intersect with fashion as major brands attempt to balance human rights concerns with global trade: “H&M, Nike, Adidas, Burberry, Calvin Klein, Converse and Uniqlo came under attack over their stance against sourcing cotton from China’s Xinjiang region.”
The French Senate recently passed an amendment seeking to ban women under the age of eighteen from donning the traditional Muslim hijab. Although experts do not believe the measure will become law, the move by the conservative right in France has “triggered international outrage on social media.” Muslim influencers and activists like Rawdah Mohamed have helped lead the #handsoffmyhijab campaign, sharing their stories and garnering worldwide support.
Writer and activist Hoda Katebi further expands on the issue in an essay for Vogue, explaining that, “The hijab, women’s bodies, and fashion at large have long been battlegrounds for political power, colonization, and state control, from Iran to the U.S.” In this piece, she makes the point that banning hijabs is just as problematic as mandating them, since “in both cases, women’s bodies are being politicized and exploited as a means of control.”
The Islamophobic attitudes of the anti-hijab movement in France are not a recent development, but the surfacing of long held prejudices. Consider the propaganda poster seen here on the right, from the 1850s during the French colonial era in Algeria, and learn more about the history behind it on the database.
Consider nuanced interpretations with the essay, “Wrapped in Meaning: Modest Fashion as a Feminist Strategy”.
Listen to a podcast contextualizing the politics of the hijab.
Also on our radar:
Michel Gaubert, a DJ and longtime fixture of the fashion industry, was called out for anti-Asian racism after posting photos of a dinner party with guests donning offensive masks. The incident drew criticism from Asian fashion influencers including Diet Prada, Bryan Yambao, and Susanna Lau. Please note, our next issue will delve deeper into issues related to Asian representation and anti-Asian racism across the fashion industry.
Garment workers in Myanmar are facing a humanitarian crisis in their pro-democracy fight against the recent military coup. These mostly female workers have played a leading role in organizing protests, to which the military has responded with the massacre of hundreds of workers.
These garments workers are calling for brands that manufacture in the region – including H&M, Mango, Primark, and Zara – to step up and stand with them: “We want international brands to push suppliers to stand with workers. Many workers have fled to rural areas…Workers need support; they need medical, food and financial support — with some workers not even receiving their salaries from the last two months.” Most companies have not taken clear action, often releasing statements of support for the workers but continuing to place new orders with factories. Remake, a non-profit organization featured in our Directory, has helped publicize the plight of these garment workers and encourages donations to the Myanmar Strike Fund by APALA (Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance).
Listen to a podcast by Business of Fashion amplifying the impact of Covid-19 on garment workers, “Choosing Between Lives and Livelihood.”
Support the Garment Workers Center, a leading workers rights organization.
Also on our radar:
The California state senate voted in favor of a landmark SB62 Garment Workers Protection Act, which holds brands accountable for the treatment of garment workers. The GWPA has made it through 2 votes and will need to go through a total of 9 votes to pass. Supporters across the US and internationally are encouraged to sign the PayUp Fashion petition in favor of GWPA.