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Shaena Henry

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Designers Bring Africa to Runways, Leave Models Behind

Posted: 10/21/2009 11:40 am

Alas, the spring 2010 fashion shows have come and gone, confirming that some things never change. Per usual, the runways were bursting with hungry, dejected-looking mostly white models. Unfortunately, I have become desensitized to these highly questionable standards of beauty and expect nothing more of the fashion industry. Instead, I am now puzzled by the numerous references to African and African-American cultures while the failure to acknowledge models of said backgrounds continues.

The amount of collections inspired by Africa over the past few seasons compared to the number of black models who actually walk in the shows is deplorable. In London, Paul Smith was so inspired by Gentlemen of Bakongo, a photograph collection of dapper Congolese men called sapeurs, that his entire spring 2010 womenswear collection was based on their style. It is interesting that style.com would describe the collection as "Artfully swagged dresses in checks and ikats, often with bras or bandeaus worn on the outside, looked like the sort of pieces a sapeur's date might wear" when only two models in the show looked anything like a sapeur's date.

Two weeks later, Marc Jacobs sent his girls down the runway in giant afro wigs for the spring 2010 Louis Vuitton show in Paris. Apparently, white models are better suited for the hairstyle symbolic of the civil rights and black pride movements of the 1960s because only four black models were included. This absurdity was just an extension of last spring's Vuitton show which featured African "tribal"- inspired jewelry, shoes adorned with collages of African masks, and three black models.

In an October 2008 New York Times article, Cathy Horyn wrote: "The number of collections inspired by African traditions may be a reflection of politics, as well as a demand to see more models of color on the runways." However, designers need to comply with the demand for more models of color rather than perpetually excluding them and using elements of their heritage as a substitute.

Sophie Theallet showed that this is possible in her debut collection in New York. The spring 2009 show, which was partly influenced by traditional North African dress, was presented by a cast of all black models. Antonio Marras also cited North Africa and ensured that models of color had a strong presence in his spring 2010 show for Kenzo. They walked the last eight looks of head scarves, jumpsuits, and oversize blouses in a radiant palette. And Tia Cibani said the spring 2008 Ports 1961 collection was based on "the spontaneous spirit of the East African women in the early 20th century." Nine black models were in that show.

Yet, other designers are slow to catch on to the basic rationale of using models that resemble those who influence their work. Three models of color were in the spring 2009 ready-to-wear Dior show where John Galliano put African fertility symbols on stilettos. And in Milan last month, a set of Pan-African colors-red, green, and gold- was awkwardly placed in the middle of a psychedelic Blumarine collection that included just two black models.

"It all goes back to Africa" is what Junya Watanabe said of his spring 2008 collection consisting of asymmetrical shapes and heavy draping, but Watanabe neglected models of color completely. It wasn't until the following spring that he managed to fit one black model in for another African-inspired collection of printed fabrics and head wraps.

If designers truly want to reference Africa, including black models would be more reverent than attempting to recreate what they see on their excursions or in coffee table books. The exclusive use of the Jablonskis and Pivovarovas to model African and African American themed collections is more than a simple oversight, but a mockery of those ethnic groups. And it trickles down to fashion editorials where editors and photographers prefer to paint a white model black rather than hire the real deal.

 
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