When LVMH and Kering bought several Maisons de Couture in the 90s, the relationship between these luxury European labels and celebrities changed forever. Actresses, singers, and other notable figures were not only endorsers, they became ambassadors.
According to marketing consultant Ramata Diallo, “an ambassador is someone who embodies the DNA and storytelling of one brand long term,” which is very different from one-time partnerships that she defines as “influencer marketing” (aiming to reach one specific community via a temporary alliance). Until the 2010s, spokespeople for fashion’s leading labels making “from $100,000 the contract to several millions” (Piazza) were almost exclusively white women. Today, on top of Jennifer Lawrence at Dior and Keira Knightley for Chanel, a circle of black celebrities has managed to reach the same long-term endorsements: Rihanna for Dior, Willow Smith, Whitney Peak and Yara Shahidi for Chanel, Zendaya for Valentino and Bulgari, Zoë Kravitz for Yves Saint Laurent, or Naomi Osaka for Louis Vuitton, among others.
These African American women are tasked with representing the luxury European savoir-faire of these labels all over the world, even though they have no direct connection to Europe. For Christelle Bakima, a communication manager and French Institute of Fashion (IFM) graduate, “Embodying Europe is not a part of the ambassador’s job description. Yes, they do have to allude to a certain kind of universal elegance, but they aren’t emissaries of France or Italy,” which explains why Willow Smith can be the face of Gabrielle Chanel’s Maison de couture even though she is a Black celebutante from LA.
For Ramata Diallo, the whole process of choosing an ambassador is inherently data-focused. “Choosing a celebrity who is international means reaching the whole world. Brands don’t have to choose a French person for the French market,” she says. “There are some American celebrities who are even more influential in France than local influencers.” In other words, when Valentino and Bulgari hire Zendaya, they trust the marketing reports.
According to Bakima, African American women benefit from American imperialism even though they’re Black: “Outside of the US, Black American women remain American first. They embody a kind of soft power and worldwide dominance. In Europe, within these luxury brands’ teams, there are a lot of Anglo-Saxons. When they wonder who’s the best Black celebrity to embody their company, the first ones to pop in their mind are American. When the team is made of white Europeans, the best version of blackness that conveys dream and beauty to them is the African American one. Not only thanks to the cultural power of the US but also because Afro-French cultures & beauty are either ignored or looked down on in France.”
Where are the international Afro-European celebrities?
In 2019, Rokhaya Diallo, a French columnist for The Washington Post and researcher from Georgetown University said to Slate that “France is the number one country in Europe in terms of black people and second in the world in terms of hip hop production. However, Black people are barely visible in France in the media. But things are changing.” She goes on to say, “Check out the phenomenal Aya Nakamura.”
The singer she mentions is known as the most-streamed French artist in the world thanks to hits like “Djadja.” With 2.8 million followers on Instagram, she is one of the most followed Black female celebrities in the country and has a global audience. She is also a dark-skinned woman from Mali (a former French colony in West Africa) who grew up in the working-class suburbs of Paris, in Aulnay-sous-Bois. In 2020, an ad for her upcoming album fronted the very chic building of Galeries Lafayette in the centre of Paris. She even privatised this luxury shopping centre to shoot the music video of her song “Fly” released in March 2021. However, none of the luxury brands sold inside the building have collaborated with Nakamura so far, despite her obvious global influence.
In fall 2019, the beauty brand MAC worked with the singer on a limited edition. Influencer and Estée Lauder ambassador Fatou N’Diaye, who goes by the handle @blackbeautybag, witnessed how tough it was to spread the word on the collection: “When PRs had to reach media outlets to promote the products, they were told ‘Aya Nakamura is too ghetto for us. It does not go down well.’ Unsurprisingly, when MAC works with Rihanna, Mary J. Blige or Nicki Minaj, it’s all good — because they are African American.”
“I feel closer to French actress Aïssa Maïga than Zendaya,” says @blackbeautybag. “But for these luxury brands, choosing [Zendaya] or Lupita Nyong’o is a better strategy. They will galvanise all the black communities over the world including the French one because they are known, loved, and Black people see themselves reflected in these African American celebrities.”
In terms of short-term partnerships, a few exceptions exist. Balmain for instance has dressed singers Yseult and Imany for special occasions. Belgian singer Lous and the Yakuza was featured in a Louis Vuitton ad in 2020 as a model. British singer Jorja Smith was also appointed ambassador for Dior Beauty. “Every single couture brand has a social media team who knows us,” says N’Diaye, “but the luxury space is very exclusive. There’s a kind of passive-aggressive disdain and racism that we have to work with.”
For fashion consultant Ramata Diallo, no one wants to be the first to risk it — hence why we’re still waiting for more local Black women in the spotlight. “I think some people are trying to push,” she says. “When making ten suggestions for one ambassador’s contract, there might be one Black woman among these propositions. For many reasons, a smaller fanbase, for instance, she might be sacked first. It’s not always related to her complexion, there’s a huge financial risk when being the trailblazer.”
The Black woman’s body is not a blank canvas
According to Professor Maboula Soumahoro’s book Le triangle et l’hexagone, slavery and colonial times implemented “several processes of racialisation [that] impact everyone living in France, whether they take advantage of it or are diminished by it. However, only the dominating group receives the privilege of invisibility and normality.” (Soumahoro)
This hierarchy imprinted in our bodies also concerns the African Americans that Europeans seem to love so much. “Paris has always been fascinated with Black American artists, from Josephine Baker to jazz musicians and James Baldwin. It’s not new,” says Bakima. However, the fascination white French people would have for these Black artists was more of a fetish for exotic creatures.
This fetishization, as explained by Alice Pfeiffer in Je ne suis pas Parisienne, is a weapon used by white supremacy to look down on everything that’s non-white: “The role of the marginalized Black beauty is to reinforce white women’s status creating a visual contrast. Next to the dominating (nearly supremacists) canons, Black beauty is an exotic photographic negative.” (Pfeiffer)
Willow Smith, Zendaya and the others also have the privilege of being palatably Black for white women, meaning that if you’re white, you can still feel reflected in a Valentino ad with Zendaya. In a published article on Nothing But The Wax, semiologist and PhD candidate Audrey Bartis explains that for luxury brands, social desirability only works in one way: anyone can identify with a white body because white is neutral. She also writes that “The western elite who owns the cultural, economic, financial and political power gives a precise role to the people of colour they choose to put in the spotlight. They are the harmless black men and women: they are the dancing body, the athletic body, the fascinating body, the erotic body.” (Bartis)
The “right” kind of Black woman sells
For journalist Louis Pisano, celebrities like Zendaya and Rihanna are the “right” kind of Black women for luxury brands to hire as ambassadors: “Sometimes with the Asian market we hear of cases where brands completely eschew using black people in advertising because it doesn’t represent THE Western ideal that’s aspirational, white, and wealthy. Brands are very conscious of that and they hone it even more in to make sure they have the right kind of black person: the ‘right shade of black,’ moneyed, and well connected in the upper echelons of Italian high society — which is more palatable and acceptable in their eyes than their idea of a local Afro-Italian woman.”
The murder of George Floyd and the global outrage that followed in 2020 might have shaken things up in Milan too according to Louis Pisano. “For years I was calling out brands and specific PRs and making lists of all the black talent in Milan. And it’s only recently that Bulgari, Fendi, Gucci, Valentino and Versace started to work with local black women like Coco Rebecca from the Italian show “Summer Time” on Netflix. They also work with smaller black creatives in Milan now but they have yet worked with an African celebrity who is on the continent,” he says.
Whether brands see it as a marketing strategy or a chore, Ramata Diallo says they don’t have a choice but to make their pool of ambassadors more diverse: “If younger generations can’t identify with Chanel or other Maisons de couture in the future, they will die.
Bartis, Audrey. “Le corps noir dans les publicités des marques de luxe : avancées ou stratégies ?” Nothing But The Wax, 29 November 2019.
Pfeiffer, Alice. Je ne suis pas Parisienne. Stock, 2019.
Piazza, Jo. Celebrity, Inc.: How Famous People Make Money. Open Road Media, 2011.
Pierron, Séverine. “La vraie Parisienne est plus proche d’Aya Nakamura que d’Inès de la Fressange.” Slate, 4 April 2019.
Soumahoro, Maboula. Le Triangle et l’Hexagone. La Découverte, 2020.