21 December 2016

In the world of Rei Kawakubo

Originally posted 15th December 2016 here.

Come 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will see to host the next Met Exhibition based on the theme of Rei Kawakubo, the founder and designer of beloved Japanese house, Comme des Garçons. The Met’s director and CEO, Thomas Campbell, summed up Kawakubo’s significance and emphasised her role in the changing industry by stating that ‘in blurring the art and fashion divide, Kawakubo asks us to think differently about clothing’, which is more or less one of the many reasons she has been chosen to be the second designer ever to be a subject of an exhibit at the Met.

As one of the original avant-garde names in the industry, described by film director John Waters, as a genius fashion dictator, Kawakubo seems to be seen more as a leader than a designer with her loyal worshippers and devotees. Among others in the industry, she’s also inspired the work of Karl Lagerfeld and Nicolas Ghesquère and has nurtured several designers including Junya Watanabe, who once worked under her mentorship with his own eponymous label, and overseeing the business side of Russian designer, Gosha Rubchinskiy’s label to see a 350% profit growth over the past year.

Most notably, as a Japanese woman, a minority who has continuously thrived with her role as a designer, a leader, a visionary and a female, Kawakubo’s presence alone shows great importance of balance for an industry that is 70% male dominated. By challenging ideas of normality of feminine/masculinity, past/present and even East/West, Kawakubo has been described by Andrew Bolton, a prominent name within the Met’s annual development, as one of the ‘most influential designers within the past forty years’.

Comme des Garçons S/S 1997
While it’s fantastic that the Met is looking to open up and unravel the long-running career of Kawakubo and her Comme Empire, it’s always been a fact within the industry that she was, and still never is, about the glamourous perks that comes along with being well known and respected. Rather, to those who worship her, she’s more of a mysterious deity that who has quietly ghosted in and out of the industry, season in and out without ever catching the spotlight. So rare of a presence in fact, that her philosophy tends to be misunderstood – therefore raising the question of whether or not it’s a play of a risk to dedicate an entire exhibit to her. (With all due respect, of course.)

Comme des Garçons in itself is a household name, known by many new and veteran in the industry, and sells, but is no way supposed to appeal to the mass. Since showing her first collection back in 1981 in Paris, industry buyers and press have become accustomed to Kawakubo’s radical take on what defines brand values. With a play and focus on textures, shapes, colours and the deconstruction of the norm of luxurywear and an androgynous genderless take on what it means to dress oneself. Think oversized dresses, frills, bows, Peter Pan collars, tartan, rips and tears, lack of shape, too much shape, lots of red, white and black – occasional colour, of course.

Admittedly due to the lack of exuberance and even colour that some of the shows have had, even Anna Wintour has not been seen at every show, but has stated as a member of the Met Gala board that she acknowledges and commends Rei Kawakubo for playing an important role in the changing landscape, despite not being able to fully comprehend her work. Kawakubo’s refusal to ever explain the meaning of her collection puts an air of secrecy that only a niche audience would understand, but tends to frustrate the public, which tend leads to discussion and (attempts at) understanding of her work. It seems that her silence has given her voice more resonance and presence than any other designer in fashion today.

With the previous themes at the Met (2015’s China through the looking glass and 2016’s Manus ex Machina) which, through a personal preference were utter failures to understand the meaning of fashion, one really wonders how Hollywood, and A-listers who will be invited to the annual gala in 2017, will represent and channel the ways of Kawakubo through their choices of clothing.

She is not one that many understand, and especially as a living, breathing individual, how can one person be a theme? Kawakubo and her empire is complicated, mindblowning, sometimes unsettling and controversial. On one hand, it’s finally high time for the industry to critically discuss contemporary themes that stem beyond fashion – race, sexuality (dynamics) and extend itself beyond just being an exhibit for notable designs. The Met Gala is notoriously known for being a fashion event that focuses solely on the gala itself; a night of saturated glamour and attendees who may (or may not) have understood the dress memo, and in the past has caused a handful of controversies that show that many attendees (and even members of the Met’s development team) failure to really understand the philosophy, the concept and the ethical meaning of theme (see: the 2015 Met Gala theme).

Comme des Garçons S/S 2012
So it’s obvious to many fans and non-fans of Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons that choosing her as the solo exhibition for 2017 is a big move - and the real challenge will be to see how celebrities can incorporate even the most dysfunctional pieces from Comme des Garçons to be wearable without diminishing it’s concept for audiences to enjoy. Kawakubo has built her career on thinking paradoxically from the rest, breaking the very idea of clothes to be wearable – no; she sees it as an artform in a unique sense.

In a very rare, albeit vague interview back in 2013, Kawakubo states that she doesn’t design clothes, she designs bodies – so it really be interesting to see the Met work out just how to orchestrate an exhibit and gala worthy to have even the madame herself appear at the event. (She’s known to be so secretive and private, not attending any after parties, do any interviews or editorials that even her own staff don’t ever see her.) Utimately, Kawaubo is a visionary that has always comes up with new ideas that shock and surprise, pushing boundaries of what can be accepted as fashion. She’s a God, in a sense with an unexpected goal.

Can the Met Gala capture everything that Kawakubo has done in her lifetime, and present it to be appeasing enough for the eyes of both pre-existing loyal followers and new? Would they be would to present avant-garde and everything that she stands for in an artistically formed light? Now that is to be food for thought as the countdown happens.

04 December 2016

We Need to Talk about Orientalism

Originally posted 4th December 2016 here.
Yves Saint Laurent F/W 2004 
Following the days of the annual Victoria’s Secret (VS) fashion show held in Paris on the 30th of November, pictures of the lingerie pieces and the accompanying clothing pieces/accessories surfaced that caught the attention of far and few.

Articles also came out captioned, VS being ‘accused of designing racist lingerie’ and ‘accused of cultural appropriation’ – interesting choice of word – accused, when it was clearly outright what the directors, designers and producers of the brand did in this year’s so-called sub theme of celebrating culture.  Creative director Sophia Neophitou literally described the season’s collection as taking something that’s naïve and homespun and turning it into something luxurious.

Break that statement down into something that’s traditional and historical (naïve), who have built a culture and identity (homespun) and elevating it from what it is, considerably primitive (in the context of the director’s intention), to make it more… well, luxurious.

Victoria's Secret Show 2016 
This coming from a business that, in the past has already had several cultural appropriation controversies with placing a model in a Native American headdress and sending her down the runway in lingerie, having waited years before allowing a model of colour to have her natural hair for an annual show and having to remove an extremely sexualised garment that was offensive to Japanese historical culture of Geisha tradition – one ponders just how many times a business can make the same mistake over and over without considering an ethical implication that extends far beyond consumerism and the industry itself.

This year, the show decided to go down the oriental theme – or rather the Western representation of an ideal Chinese fashion, market and culture. Simply watered down to be used as nimble accessories to hide the cultural appropriation that was being showcased through sexualisation and demeaning ‘homage’ to the culture.

Victoria's Secret Show 2016 
VS showcased their lack of understanding for China’s rich and important culture, with some suggesting that they were trying to play it off as little play costumes for models to strut down the runway in while trying to appeal to their new market. The dragon, that symbolises auspicious fate and luck, which was wrapped around the body of a model, or the tardy-done embroidery stuck onto the boots of another, which was an, and still remains, a historical art developed through the rise of the Chinese Silk Road some 5000 years ago. An honourable mention to the use of the colour red, which plays a huge role in cultural means of good fortune, luck and joy and a symbolic colour of all auspicious life (as reflection of blood being red).

To add insult to injury, VS also casted four Chinese models, along with a handful of other POC models, which, in a sense is great for the modelling industry to open up more opportunities for newcomers, but the question hangs of whether or not these models were used as scapegoats for the backlash that VS may have seen coming for their use of such theme. Though, it was fantastic to see them getting the limelight.

Dolce & Gabbana S/S 2015 
It’s disappointing to see over and over, not just at the VS brand, but the industry overall, that especially within the growing Asian (not just Chinese) market keeping the industry afloat, that there is a cinematic stereotype of a dragon lady with her hair sleeked back in a tight red sheath with a fan in hand. This ideal image is made with the false representation of a fantasy, created largely for Western consumption without making an effort to understand the historical ties to such cultures. It seems to be a repeat of the 2015 Met Gala where the theme was a very vague and dismissive try at understanding the traditions, symbolism and history behind China’s artistic past.

It seems that targeting the Asian market, with China and Japan being the two main countries with the most consumers in luxury purchases, is a key focus for any kind of business expansion. However many designers, VS and other, are not inspired by the real consumers within the region, but rather the infatuation and fantasy of what has been created by the West to gentrify the East – oriental.

Olympia Le-Tan S/S 2016 
Postcolonial sociologist (literary theorist, cultural critic and political activist) Edward Saïd states that this idea of ‘orientalism’ comes from the Western perception of the East, through the development of colonialism and power between political and social differences of Western civilisation and all that, that was not Western. His publication, Orientalism (1978) states that the problematic side of works of art and literature (and in this case, fashion) is relied on the racial stereotypes of what is deemed exotic, mystical or simply non-Western. This backward portrayal puts the very ideal of what is considered orientalism out of touch with what is reality in Asian and Middle-Eastern countries.

Take that into consideration of the industry now, where majority of big houses are under Western management. With the addition of 1920s-40s Asian film culture still being used in cinema as a norm, or the bare minimal of trying to understand what culture is – given examples of Asian women being watered down to the ‘innocent female doll’ or ‘supreme dragon lady’ in a sexualised qipao or kimono, it’s no wonder no one seems to understand why this false stereotype is such a big deal.

The use of cultural symbolism merely for aesthetic and to sell is certainly not going to resonate with the Asian, and especially Chinese market if it shows a lack of understanding for elaborately rich cultures with complex histories. As Asia becomes a growing market for the industry to stay afloat, the industry can no longer rely on their Western fantasy of what they want their consumers to be. The misinterpretation and perception of a garment being anything but tone-deaf would mean implications beyond just economic downfall, but also political and social discourse.

07 October 2016

Where to draw the line in fashion – appreciation or appropriation?

Valentino S/S 2016 Campaign via valentino.com
Celebrities, fashion designers and even people in your neighbourhood take on the codes of cultures – but how does one objectively define the boundary between cultural appreciation and appropriation when the answer is so grey and big names in the industry are dismissing it?

The very concept of creativity is to be inspired, to sample and then to refine into something new – artists from all walks of life start their humble beginnings by using pre-existing objects and nothings around them to be inspired, and with fashion designers, there’s absolutely no doubt that one must be inspired by everything and nothing to come up with a collection of eye-catching clothes. Culture is one of the many inspirations that designers come too when they need new ideas, and of course it can be done well – but the industry itself is known for being conversational and outrageous, so the fact that fashion has blurred the boundaries of cultural appreciation and appropriation is no newsflash. The industry is well known for its elitist and exploitative nature, from workers to the individuals outside of the industry who feel that their heritage and culture have been used for capitalism in an inappropriate manner. From magazine editorials to runways to even phrases of an ‘African-inspired collection’, many are slamming several designers, and the industry itself for being uneducated and too narrow-minded about the complications of appropriation.

Valentino S/S 2016 via vogue.com
Valentino is one of the many names in the industry who have received backlash for their appropriation of their African-inspired collection from their Spring/Summer 2016 collection - this isn't the first time either. The clothing, which was inspired, respectively of course, by the traditional African dress, was not so much the issue – rather it was the use of the cornrow braids styled into the hair of models who – wait for it, were predominantly white. Not one model of colour on the runway. To add fuel to the fire, Valentino continued to anger the online social media by putting forth a campaign for that very collection that again, using white models, had them in cornrows, posing in Africa surrounded by local villagers. There was debate that the campaign itself surpassed appropriation into clear racism of white superiority.

Designers like London-based KTZ, have also been blasted with backlash for using sacred symbolism from Inuit culture in their Winter/Fall 2016 collection – where a number of garments had patterns based on the traditional designs without consent. Salome Awa, a Nunavut native, had gone ahead with a complaint letter addressing the issue of appropriation to the brand and after apologising, the collection was pulled off retailers. Some names in the industry have argued that fashion is about bringing individuals together with a sense of style, and that by ‘mixing’ together cultures with traditional attire, hairstyles, music and even mannerism, that the industry and society will become better adjusted to cultural diversity. After all, the industry with its mass diversity from insiders to consumers outside (with Asia leading the way for consumerism in the luxury area), isn’t it best as for a melting pot of cultures?

KTZ F/W 2016 via vogue.com / Inuit symbolism via Kerian Oudshoorn
The damage of cultural appropriation is rather hard to comprehend when one doesn’t have an understanding of white supremacy – historical black hairstyles (cornrows, twists, locs) have always, and admittedly still are stigmatised and deemed unprofessional by many businesses with many individuals losing jobs because of their hair. It becomes an eye-twitching moment to then see a white celebrity figure (See: Lena Dunham) wearing cornrows, suddenly turn the once-dismissed hairstyle into a trend that pulls away at centuries of black history. 

There’s more to it too – from bindis to the 'watered down Chinese-kimino' (which has been purposely worded wrong to bring a sense of the uncomfortable) to even the native headdress piece, all of which hold significant value to their respective cultures, it becomes unsettling and even upsetting to see white supremacy at it’s worst to adopt parts of oppressed and minority cultures while actual individuals of said cultures are being demonised. Beyond the industry, the annual holiday of Halloween brings to more fuel of cultural appropriation, where professor Belk (1990) states that 'halloween is seen as a holiday was focuses on the power of inversion - it's about turning the social norm into something that is not the norm.' It's fine, of course to dress up as celebrities or public figures because it's the social norm to see the humour in it, but when you're trying to dismantle a culture for the sake of this holiday - especially a culture that is presently (or in the past) experiencing oppression on one way or another, there is no inversion, it's simply reinforcing current power structures.  One of the most infamous 'costumes' (I use this term with as much respect as possible because it is not a costume, it is a culture) would be the Native American headdress. One too many times has capitalism seen the purchase and wear of the sacred headdress - built from individualised eagle feathers and even using colours and Navajo-inspied prints on the clothing. There is no knowledge, no rights and no meaning, as every piece of sacred clothing is a sense of an important culture and tradition - and interestingly enough, it's actually illegal within the United States 'to offer or display, or even sell any goods in a manner that falsely suggests that it is Indian produced, or inspired by (a tribe).' (If you're interested, Urban Outfitters were sued by a Navajo nation.) While the halloween pieces may not go as far as claiming truth from a tribe, it does peel away at centuries of traditions and culture, which additionally adds onto the discrimination that so many Native-American individuals and communities experience and turning it into a costume that holds no value.

Blackfeet and Blackfoot couple via traditionalnativehealing.com / Native American Headpiece via globerove.com

The issue of cultural appropriation will never come to a conclusion because it’s an issue that will always have answers floating in the grey zone – perhaps the best way to see it is that cultural appreciation comes down to the simple recognition of and respect for culture that inspires said acts of the arts. At the end of the day though, it comes down to one’s social privilege to prioritise the respect of a culture – cultural appreciation is more than just a fashion accessory for a music festival, and it definitely brings more to light in the industry motto of ‘expressing yourself through clothes.’

A Turning Point in the Industry

via vogue.com 
Fashion month is one of the busiest and most stressful months in the yearly calendar of the frivolous industry – for veterans of the industry, it’s the same old with presentations of collections with masses of attention and media, while for smaller and fresh faces in the industry, it can occasionally be difficult to get the foot through the door, making it all too easy to miss out on new talent revolutionising the industry.

However during NYFW, one designer had taken the industry, critics and fans by storm by becoming the first Muslim designer to have an all hijab-incorporated collection inspired by her hometown of Jakarta. With 48 beautiful and ethereal looks donning the runway for media, fans and insiders to see, Anniesa Haisbuan created history by becoming the first Indonesian designer to show at New York, earning a standing ovation at the end.

via vogue.com
While only one year into business, Haisbuan states that she wanted to use her designs to introduce and educate people both inside and outside of the industry to the ‘different and diverse parts of Indonesia’. Using printing techniques of ethnic mosaics and bold signature colours of gold, green and peach, Hasibuan has worked towards a vision to showcase the beauty of her country and beautifying the Muslim tradition with silhouettes and embellished pieces.

Following the policy ban of the burkini in France, this notion of the hijab being apart of the industry is a significant moment that brings progress and diversity into a once all-white and exclusive industry. Amidst the anti-Muslim rhetoric of socio-political conditions, Hasibuan has described her collection as a way to show the world that there is no slowing down. Previously, I had written about how Cannes Mayor David Lisnard claimed that the burqa-swimpieces were “the symbol of Islamic extremism.” He’s also stated that since France is currently the target of many terrorist attacks, beachwear that displays religious affiliation is liable in creating public doubt and disorder. Haisbuan's revolutionising collection is a massive step in the industry for less secularism within and outside - this defies consumerism and delves deeper into acceptance and understanding of culture and a changing norm within society.

via vogue.com
While bigger names such as H&M and Dolce & Gabbana have run down the same line with hijab-incorporated campaigns through the lenses of Casuasian creative heads, Hasibuan has shown that the power and voice of the industry expresses identity and value, as well as break down the misconception and stereotypes that tend to sit with those who choose to adorn the hijab for their faith. As the hijab is introduced more into mainstream Western culture through the means of the industry, one can only hope that it will become less of a foreign piece of clothing and replaced with cultural awareness and understanding.

At a time where what a Muslim woman chooses to wear is causing much unnecessary debate, Hasibuan’s collection is a historic moment into diversifying the industry even more. Conclusively, while the show was able to show the beauty and functionality of the hijab, the diverse casting of models also aims to prove that the industry is moving at a gradual pace to model diversity and racism.