High fashion has a long-standing history of embracing the style and culture of the Western world. The majority of the world’s high profile designers are European and white, with a few younger generation exceptions like Alexander Wang, Virgil Abloh, and Olivier Rousteing. So, inevitably, most fashion collections follow Western patterns and motifs.
As the luxury market expands throughout the rest of the world, fashion houses have begun to create collections inspired by more diverse backgrounds. What is debatable, however, is whether or not these pieces are creations of sincere admiration for the new diversity introduced in the market or are feigned attempts to lure a powerful, potential consumer base.
Dolce and Gabbana recently went under fire for releasing an advertisement in Shanghai blatantly mocking Chinese culture and forcing Italian stigmas on their audience. The advertisement, entitled “Eating with Chopsticks,” instructed a Chinese model wearing a Dolce and Gabbana dress how to eat pizza, pasta, and a cannoli with “small stick-like things”, otherwise known as chopsticks. The ad was voiced by a man with a condescending tone jeering the model for being unfamiliar with the foods and being unable to eat them. Their Asian audience was appalled that the fashion house thought this would be an appropriate way to appeal to a Chinese audience. Shortly after removing the ad, private messages between Stefano Gabbana and Michaela Tranova, an established fashion blogger, that contained racist remarks made by Gabbana were exposed -- resulting in a major loss of of Dolce and Gabbana’s wealthy and previously loyal Asian market.
Although not every brand has received as much backlash as Dolce and Gabbana, other fashion houses often try to include foreign styles to attract a different market or to create a “unique”/ exotic collection. Fashion powerhouse, Gucci, who is known for taking stylistic risks, recently released a Chinese New Year Collection for the Year of the Pig. The collection includes numerous of their staple bags and shoes adorned with a badge of a pig, paying homage to the Asian celebration. While at first, the collection seemed like a culturally appreciative gesture, the majority of the models were Caucasian, and the title “Chinese New Year” excluded every other Asian country that celebrates the holiday. What’s more, instead of using the traditional Chinese representation of the pig, Gucci used the Three Little Pigs to headline their campaign. If the designs featured timeless Gucci pieces with accurate representation of Asian models and culture, the collection could have been a landmark in terms of cultural diversity in high fashion, but like Dolce and Gabbana, Gucci is forcing Western influence on to a well-established Eastern culture.
Similarly, Saint Laurent released a collection of “Western” pieces at the same time as Gucci’s Chinese New Year collection featuring bandanas, destroyed denim pieces, and embroidered shirts that are reminiscent of frontiersmen in southwest America. Items like the “Lavallière Tie in Wool Etamine with YSL Bandana Print” and the “Cropped and Tied Western-Style Shirt” allude to their inspiration but don’t make any attempt to represent the population. Like many other fashion brands, Hispanic and Native American people are underrepresented in fashion campaigns as well as within the high fashion clientele demographic.So even though Saint Laurent seems to have created pieces out of admiration for Southwest culture, the lack of recognition of the minority culture the company used for inspiration perpetuates the issue of marginalization.
Social media and the internet have helped expose these distasteful fashion choices to the general public. In addition, large news outlets like The Washington Post and the New York Times frequently report these marketing blunders drastically decrease the sales of high fashion brands. To combat this, Gucci is one of the first companies to hire Diversity and Inclusion Directors. As they expressed on their Instagram account, they are looking for executives who will “develop and execute Gucci’s diversity and inclusion strategy to ensure the vision is effectively deployed globally.” While the designers’ lack of awareness is concerning, at least it seems they are learning from the media backlash to prevent similar gaffes from recurring.
The fact that high fashion houses are beginning to acknowledge foreign cultures is a major stepping stone in the development of fashion representing all cultures. Although past attempts at blending cultures have often leaned on the side of appropriation rather than appreciation, as cultural influences become more pervasive, more ethnically diverse designers will be able to gain recognition in the spotlight and on the runway. With luck, their collections will be instrumental in a future of high fashion genuinely appreciative of the cultures they are representing.