Is there a “correct” way to be inspired by another culture?
At Paris Fashion Week, Valentino debut his 2016 spring collection. Here, Valentino was inspired by prints from the Kikuyu people located in Kenya, raffia palm – found in tropical areas of Africa, bone necklaces, and traditional Massai beading (Stansfield, n.p.). The collection came together with sheer fabric decorated with Kikuyu patterns, beading, feathers, fridge, and bone necklaces as accessories. While most fashion critics appreciated the intricate design of the clothing, the combination of design, accessories, and presentation received mixed reactions.
The seemingly most problematic parts of the fashion show were the designer’s commentary on the collection, the predominantly white models with cornrows, and the “tribal” music.
When the line is described as “primitive nature,” yet the inspiration for the line is still a part of some cultures today and is valued as an important part of some culture’s history, Valentino diminishes the culture to something unevolved. Then, in recreating the culture into high fashion, the brand is attempting to evolve it, even though it is not their culture to change. Further, the mainly white models suggest that the culture must become “white” to be “worthy” from the designer’s prospective.
When the collection is described as, “primitive, tribal, spiritual, yet regal,” Valentino unapologetically refers to all of Africa, assuming that the many countries and cultures within each country are the same. Further, it assumes that there is one “spiritual” belief across the continent of Africa. Finally, the line is “regal” which implicitly means that all of Africa is not regal. The designers believe it is their duty to connect the “primitive, tribal, spiritual” culture to something “regal,” which can only occur through a historically “white” medium such as high fashion.
The cornrows on white models mimic a historically black hairstyle. In today’s society, the depicted images of beauty are predominantly white women with straight or slightly curly hair. Further, black women who chose to style their hair in different ways often face discrimination for these choices. Giving white models cornrows inappropriately borrows from another culture and misses the opportunity to redefine beauty ideals.
The music choice for the fashion show capitalized on a stereotype of African cultures; the white models walked the runway to “tribal” music. The music, a display of stereotyped African music, is further generalized to all cultures within the continent of Africa. Then it is connected to a different idea of “African culture” – as depicted in the runway show – which people are influenced to believe is “better” – devaluing the previous culture.
All of that said, highly influential icons in high fashion, like Lisa Armstrong, the fashion direction at the Daily Telegraph called the show, “Valentino’s beautiful ode to Africa” – ignoring the problematic implications of the collection’s statement and the sentiment itself. This blatant disregard for cultural appropriation within fashion appears to the be norm, leading one to ask, how can high fashion borrow from other cultures without appropriating?
While there is no single answer to this question, Valentino’s 2016 spring collection provides several hints as to what not to do and, in turn, perhaps what to do. We would suggest that fashion is used as a tool to teach one culture about other cultures. When drawing inspiration from other cultures, knowledge must first be understood by the designer and then must be shared with the audience. In this way, designers should avoid generalizing a culture or relying on stereotypes, while paying homage to the culture. Further, fashion should be used as a way to challenge current beauty ideals and should promote diversity. Thus, different cultures can be used as inspiration for collections in a way that is appropriate and furthers people’s understanding and acceptance of other cultures.
Stansfield, Ted. “Valentino show inspired by ‘wild Africa’ sparks controversy.” Dazed. Oct.
2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
– Kate & Kenny