Yet in the fashion industry, despite years of debate, controversy and even vain attempts at trying to be more sensitively aware, disappoints again. It seems to have all gone down the drain again in the upcoming Vogue US issue, under the guise of the theme diversity – celebrating women of all colours and sizes. It actually sounds distasteful to even contemplate, considering in the past how fashion has been so politically and culturally … wrong – which it could have easily been avoided. It’s like people never learn.
In an issue that’s supposed to celebrate the diversity of the 21st century [American] woman, it seems like all the editors at the Condé Nast publication forwent the literal definition of diversity with their lack of brain thought – in 200 or so page, there’s a lack of diversity with the models on the cover. It’s likely that only 5% of models of colour make up the issue altogether. Maybe even less.
Vogue can give themselves a pat (sarcastic) on the back for featuring models who aren’t white, and who aren’t either Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid. It should be noted that as of March 2017, it is the first time ever, since the magazine’s more humble beginnings in 1892 to feature an Asian model. Vogue has had its sleuth of errors, and unapologetically they never seem to learn from it. It stems beyond the publication, with a partnership back in 2015, where Vogue teamed up with the Met Museum in New York for their annual gala. Many who were apart of the production team had already been put on pre-blast (and blast, and then post-blast) when ‘Chinese culture and tradition’ was poorly articulated into a theme for the Met Gala event. The end result of the theme, titled ‘Through the Looking Glass [of China]’, was an event that was nothing more than a night for many to be culturally insensitive and play the racist card. It was a nightmare.
So it’s actually not surprising, but still disappointing, when editorial scans featuring industry-renown model Karlie Kloss, surfaced the internet under the title Spirited Away (a possible homage to the great Spirited Away movie – deepest apologises to Studio Ghibli). Kloss is dressed as a traditional Japanese entertainer, or, commonly referred to as, a Geisha. This isn’t the first time that the Vogue enterprise has been questionable to their creative choices, with Vogue Japan dressing Miranda Kerr also in a Geisha concept back in 2015 – while yes, it may have been Vogue Japan, but remember that Anna Dello Russo is the creative head for the Japan editions, so, it’s still just as bad.
Kloss, a white model from Missouri, America, is styled as a Geisha as if it was some kind of dress up game, engaging in various poses that are supposed to somehow celebrate diversity… like walking around looking lost and ‘mystical’, as if it was a poor rendition of Lost in Translation. Upon seeing the images, it was noted that the imfamous industry set up had been used that involved a 1950s stereotyping of Japanese culture. A sumo wrestler, an individual holding great respect and honour in their competitive sport, is made to pose next to Kloss as a prop. The uneasy direction of the shoot showcases the Western world’s false representation and odd hyper-fixation of the ‘porcelain doll’ concept of what people think Japanese culture is. Orientalism, if you will, lumps together other Eastern cultures – the Japanese kimono, the Chinese qipao, the white makeup with the hair in chopsticks and so forth.
If a refresher is needed on the term of orientalism, it’s the ignorant lumping of multi-diverse cultures, traditions and people from East and South Asia, Middle East and Africa. Post-colonial sociologist, Edward Said stated in his book that orientalism, however, is not just lumping together various cultures, but is the Western world’s fixation and demeaning attitude towards ethnicities and cultures more ‘exotics’ and ‘bizarre’ than their own. Vogue seems to be the literal manifestation of this: extremely tone deaf with their understanding, or lack of, (or perhaps even actual idiocy of) cultural appropriation and even racial stereotyping.
The problem with cultural appropriation is that it takes without giving, there is no consideration at all. Any so-called ‘borrowed’ pieces of culture get turned into props, accessories, bits and pieces. Heritage, meaning and centuries worth of tradition gets stripped down into products and then sold into a capitalist industry in the name of luxury. Furthurmore, for the industry to easily throw around words like ‘ethnic’, or ‘oriental’, or even ‘tribal’ for the sake of aesthetic too, just goes to show how terrifyingly white-dominated and blindly privileged the industry is.
To add even more salt to the wound that’s already so deep in the industry, not only did Vogue not consider casting for an actual Japanese model, who could have rightfully been able depict the diversity of being a native individual; no Japanese assistants on location were credited. Additionally, while Kloss got a six-page spread in this unsettling editorial, models of colour (who were also on the front cover), Liu Wen and Imaan Hammam were given only one photo each in their editorials. To hell with it, Hammam had to share her shoot with another model. The false luring of diverse casting in the industry has to stop, the push of diversity has to become authentic, not just for show and so there can be an evading of criticism, which the industry is heavily in need of.
When put in the spotlight to comment on their errors, however, many in the industry at fault tend to defend themselves with intention to celebrate culture or classes of people being appropriated – and while this debate does get backlash, there are also those who seem to be fine with it, and this is why it continues to happen in the industry. Simply because there are people who don’t realise the long-term damage of appropriating, or those who just don’t care. The concern and debate of this op-ed is that diversity needs to be normalised – diversity and culture aren’t costumes, nor are they trends for designers to use season on and off for the fun of it. In order to be culturally sensitive and to do any theme justice, it requires the ability to take the time to understand the culture, and it feels like there was no sense of understanding at all in this diversity issue.
There could have been other alternatives to a photoshoot in Japan, especially when claiming to be an issue of celebrating the modern day woman. Perhaps casting an uprising native model who is making rounds at fashion week would have been great. Or teaming up a local stylist and photographer. Maybe even taking some runway pieces from worldly beloved designers like God Kawakubo or Issey Miyake. It wouldn’t even hurt to take a page out of the archives and reboot a classic Guy Bourdian photoshoot from 1974 with Sayoko Yamaguchi.
An interesting perspective to consider from this would be to not be angry with Kloss, because it’s her job as a model to take any and all jobs (for the sake of her reputation and agency), so the blame really must be extended to: the casting agency, the stylist, the photographer, basically anyone else who signed off on the job. With all good purposes to do damage control, Kloss even went as far as issuing an apology over social media for her lack of being culturally aware and engaging in the photoshoot. It would have been nice, if only, but she’d already apologised back in 2012 for donning a Native American headdress during a Victoria Secrets show. So, how sorry is she, really? For being called out or for really being apologetic for her lack in understanding?
While it’s not the best thing to look at it, one really must give blessings to know that Kloss didn’t have any pictures where she had chopsticks in her hair. She would have looked even more culturally insensitive and tacky as she already is looking in the editorial. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯