As NYFW enters its third act, a group of insiders break away to occupy a different stage. Parsons in conjunction with diversity advocating designer, Becca McCharen of Chromat, presents as part of their Nth Degree Series a panel discussion on the topic ‘Fashion, Culture and Justice; A NYFW Dialogue.’ Not only did they feel it was imperative to hold it during fashion week but it poignantly coincides with the anniversary of 9/11. Before a young and diverse audience of curious minds, Elaine Welteroth, editor in chief of Teen Vogue, wearing Dries Van Noten’s Fall white boots and an Afro that recalls Mahogany era Diana Ross (‘It’s the biggest it’s ever been!”); Aurora James, designer and founder of Brother Vellies; runway hairstylist Amy Farid; photographer Anastasia Garcia, and moderator and Parsons professor, Kim Jenkins, launch a much-needed conversation.
Welteroth, who is of mixed race but grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, begins by revealing an early failure to embrace her cultural identity when she had her heart set on a certain doll but, upon opening the package, her heart sank and she rejected the doll. Her mother had bought her the black one. The white doll was clearly presented as the superior, an early sign that the power of imagery already had her in its thrall. When she joined Conde Nast, headlines blared ‘First black beauty director’ and she explains, ‘my race steps into the room before I do.’ From this she now takes her power.
Coachella and a Festival of Ignorance
The marketing of festival looks has become a huge fashion moneymaker, but cornrows and feathered headdresses seem to be the headlining act each summer. Amy Farid, a Native American, explains that the correct word to use is ‘regalia’, not ‘costume’ which she still hears to her dismay, and the headresses are ‘war bonnets’ which are earned in her culture where the eagle feather is viewed as sacred. “Do your research,” she says. “Google it. There’s no excuse.”
At 38, Farid admits she is still so unused to seeing her culture represented correctly in media that upon catching a glimpse of an image from a now-famous Teen Vogue shoot entitled ‘Cultural Appreciation’ which featured a model with eagle feather in hair, she assumed the worst. Upon closer inspection, she discovered that Welteroth had ‘streetcast' a native model and the realization brought her to tears. This was also, interjects Welteroth, the first time a beauty story went viral, becoming ‘a Twitter moment.’
Before you drag, do your research
Farid’s anecdote leads to an interesting discussion on the problematic nature of our headline driven culture. “I cannot afford to be misunderstood,” says Welteroth. “I am here to represent.” But she recounts how her well-meaning efforts put her in the line of fire. After a visit to Rwanda, she appeared in the office with her hair in Senegalese twists. Colleagues’ reactions so took her aback that it inspired her to organize a photoshoot featuring a brown-skinned girl, like herself, with braids. One Twitter user took the imagery out of context, and the online outrage traveled like a bush fire all the way to the Daily Mail which published headlines slamming the magazine for its anti-black stance. The matter was only put to rest when the model herself tweeted, “”For the record, if anyone cares…I’m half black and half French.” But the implication remained that the model, and therefore Welteroth, was not black enough to wear braids. “Nuance does not translate very well on social media” she cautions, “Before you retweet, drag, call out, do your research.”
Colorism and Throwing Shade
The idea of beauty as activism is one to which all five panelists are committed, but the issue is so much more than just black and white. Is your hair natural enough, your eyes dark enough, your body plus-size enough, your beauty pure? are questions that permeate society. Garcia who is Hispanic but refers to herself as ‘white presenting’ cannot count the number of times she has been told she doesn’t look Spanish, but each time she feels the sting of it. But as a plus-size female she is “cognizant of representing all diversity, bodies and race because it’s intersectional. As an imagemaker I don’t want to create imagery to damage people the way I have been damaged.’
Beyond self identifying, human identify
Aurora James, whose mother was adopted, grew up in Canada believing she was half-Trinidadian until her mother took a dna test which revealed she was half-Inuit, half-Irish. James was blindsided, but her mother asked, “And what does it matter?” Although she denies possessing strong cultural identification, she knew early on that she didn’t feel better about herself looking through fashion magazines nor did she feel empowered by their imagery. On a trip to Africa in her 20s, she was surprised by how the natives undervalued their traditional crafted shoes, more interested in footwear that Kanye or Beyonce would wear. James, who saw the beauty in their artisanal shoe, assured them “But Kanye would wear this.” Eventually he did, and she gains empowerment from the knowledge that she helps local craftspeople appreciate and make a living from their own artistry and highly values their creative input in her business.
Marc Jacobs and the Glare of White Privilege
To audible groans an image of an Isabel Marant blouse appears on screen next to one of Oaxacan natives in their indigenous dress from which the designer plagiarized the garment and reportedly sought to copyright it. But the above quote by Marc Jacobs, who has come under regular fire for cultural appropriation, ignites the conversation. “It’s just so whiny,” says Farid. “Get over yourself.” James remarks thoughtfully, “I’m a literal person so when I look at that quote, I think cross-pollination suggests a tangible exchange. Equality involves those people getting something out of it too. What he’s talking about is stealing.” Welteroth notes the glaring white privilege behind his remarks, and says, “The world hasn’t made you face the discriminations others have faced, but you can research it and understand someone else’s plight.” She turns to the other panelists, and says, “He has the power. We should feel incentivized to reach out him, even by personal message, because he can speak to the masses. We need allies. We must be able to sit at the table with people we disagree with, provide a safe space, hear them out, and then share our experiences.”
Graduating from being woke
According to Welteroth, we need to find a new word for ‘woke.’ If her white father is using it, she jokes, that’s a sign we need to retire it for something else. I leave wondering if the word no longer applies because we have progressed to the next level, whatever that’s to be called. What next for this solutions-hungry, open and galvanized, new generation of fashion creators who see the power of activism through the vehicle of an industry once considered frivolous? They are already on the march, led by some impressive pioneers.
By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
All images author’s own.