Another Day, Another Monkey
Fashion Must Break Its Toxic Cycle of Anti-Black Offense and Apology: Here’s How it Can
by Kibwe Chase-Marshall
It’s a new year and the CFDA today offered what could at face-value appear to move the American design community toward more actionable change in regard to its diversity and inclusion challenges. The organization might be ready to sort through the tangled web of inequity that discrimination has woven throughout industry design studios, upper-management teams, and executive suites as February’s fashion week loom’s around the corner. It’s becoming glaringly apparent, that the fashion set won’t be permitted to drag their designer shoe-shod feet much longer about the ways in which race too often operates as an industry barrier-to-entry. Today’s CFDA report looks in the direction of these issues, but it may be doing so via a less than optimally focused lens; for an effort aimed at demystifying the operations of discrimination, it’s at best vague, at worst intentionally cryptic. What it’s certainly lacking is key data regarding the racial composition of the industry or the disclosure of a plan to gather it. In 2019, critics (this writer among them) won’t just be silently noting these inadequacies.
“Today’s CFDA report…[lacks] key data…or the disclosure of a plan to gather it. In 2019, critics (this writer among them) won’t just be silently noting these inadequacies.”
The digital age has resulted in a once disturbingly insular style community marketing itself as open to authentic critique. All fun and games when brands solicit comments regarding the fit of their new stretch-denim jeans; not so much when their comment boxes runneth over amid allegations of racism.
Public and media scrutiny of fashion’s gatekeepers is reaching a fever pitch as a result of 2018’s repeated big-fashion marketing catastrophes. The straw (or primate rather) that seems to have broken the proverbial camel’s (or Black consuming audience’s) back arrived in the form of a pair of monkeys realized as slickly fabricated keychains.
Less than a year since H&M’s “coolest monkey in the jungle” debacle, and within mere weeks of Dolce & Gabbana’s epic brand-fail in China, on the morning of December 14th we found ourselves back in a global comment box-facilitated mediation session, this time spurred by Prada’s creation of Gemini monkey keychains. Inarguably reminiscent of Sambo iconography, the trinkets — especially the one baring exaggerated red lips — are (wittingly or not) evocative of the sort of imagery created in order to posit people of African descent as more primal, resembling subhuman primates. It all leaves me wondering how many monkeys will it take to screw in fashion’s proverbial cultural awareness light bulb.
What few have questions about is the amount of visual research that most likely informed Prada’s development of their “Otto” and “Toto” monkey tchotchkes as part of a holiday-merch, kitche-blitz assortment of animal trinkets. Well-seasoned design industry vets will wisely assume that at least one floor-to-ceiling-height foam-core board was pinned full of vintage, Sambo monkey memorabilia, ultimately inspiring those (for some, nostalgically) exaggerated lips sported by the twin-monkey duo. It makes Jileen Liao, a Brooklyn footwear designer who travels to Italy regularly for product development and has visited the Fondazione Prada wonder, “you guys have a whole museum dedicated to art and culture…how the f — — did you f — — this up?”
This “monkey business” — Sambo/golliwog/Mami/lawn jockey/Blackamoor/Zwarte Piet imagery — is weighty stuff, directly tied to the systemic subjugation of endless people globally, That isn’t to say that it cannot be thoughtfully engaged for the intended purpose of reckoning with our collective histories; In the pop culture space, consider the deliberately disturbing beauty of Jay-Z’s 2017 The Story of OJ video, throughout which the Brooklyn-bred MC laments the equalizing effects of race-marginalization across all levels of Black socio-economic strata.
Designer Fred Mezidor — part of the second graduating class of Brown University and RISD’s rigorous dual-degree program — engaged similar imagery (as well as the golliwog-reclaiming legacy of Patrick Kelly) in his 2016 thesis collection. He offered, “Early in design school, I deliberately didn’t include Black imagery in projects so I wouldn’t be pigeonholed as too narrow in focus and ability. It’s a unique challenge I feel that Black design students face.” Growing tired of creating projects with which he lacked authentic connection, Mezidor decided to tackle the most disturbing of racialized iconography for his senior thesis project, printing out over one hundred images — from antebellum era through contemporary representations — that crudely caricature Black people’s narratives and humanity. There was potent intention in his work, negating any need for subsequent “I’m sorry if you were offended” mea culpas.
In contrast, The fashion industry’s cycle of “offense and apology” has shown no signs of letting up. Professor Kimberly Jenkins — who’s “Fashion and Race” course at Parsons incubated the eponymous exhibit — offers, “It’s all coming at us so quickly…all these incidents, just like police violence in the United States…[one can become] exhausted, fatigued.”
Reflect for a minute on the cultural context in which the Prada monkeys were conceived, ads an even more disturbing layer. Edward Buchanon, the designer behind the Milan-based, knit-luxe label Sansovino 6 and former co-creative director of Bottega Veneta — making him along with Oswald Boateng, Patrick Robinson, and Virgil Abloh members of the tiny club of Black designers tapped to helm European luxury houses — offered some perspective. “In Italy there are still racially insulting images that you will find on things like Moca sugar packets…I will often ask ‘is this acceptable?’” Adamantly, Jason Campbell who’s landmark piece for Business of Fashion questioned why Vogue Italia was siloing Black-related content shared, “The offenses have always been there, now we get these apologies afterward but we need more.”
And therein the problem lies: It would seem that at Prada the broader semiotic evocation of “big-lipped monkeys” was completely ignored as exec, after merchant, after designer gave these $550.00 stocking stuffers the thumbs up. But clearly, as of December, many in the broader public didn’t. They were triggered.
Consider the difference between viewing a Swastika on a Nazi uniform contextualized for educational purpose in a Schindler’s List-caliber, thoughtful processing of The Holocaust, and encountering a Swastika on your walk to work, spraypainted on a brick wall. Nearby teens found holding spray cans, asserting that they were just scrawling random lines don’t make the marks any less triggering for those who carry trauma.
On the afternoon of Thursday December 13th, an attorney that works for the Center for Civil Rights, Chinyere Eze was triggered in much the same way, igniting the internet in (understandably somewhat issue-conflated) cries of “Blackface” as a result of her social media post declaring the merch and window display highly offensive. By Friday morning, Prada was anxiously playing a last-minute game of yank-a-monkey, pulling Otto and Toto from digital platforms and lowering beige shades at stores in order to change out displays. In the wake of her snowballing post’s solicitation of Prada’s (initially tentative then later somewhat more comprehensive) apology and subsequent actions, by Saturday, Eze felt she had taken a vital stand. She shared with me, “I went to bed on Thursday feeling sad and powerless. Two days later I feel powerful. I’m glad that when I spoke out against injustice the world listened.” Thank goodness it did but sometimes calls-to-action go ignored for far too long.
A year ago, in January I embarked upon a journey to speak truth about the employment discrimination faced by Black fashion designers as we pursue opportunities within the industry’s mainstream studios. I was invited to publish an op-ed at The Business of Fashion and mounted a campaign for a 3-point plan aimed at increasing Black design talent’s equitable access to opportunity. Too many in the industry operate as though problems like this fix themselves.
But we know that they never do. Enfranchised “wrongs” don’t “right” themselves; one can’t trust those who most benefit from the inequity they have architected to dismantle it on their own volition. It is evidenced by the Acadamy of Motion Picture’s being moved to admit a far younger, more female, more queer, and more “of color” coterie of voting body members upon the tails of 2016’s #oscarsowhite outcry. Adding #TimesUp’s momentum to these demands that more diverse entertainment media be realized by more women and people of color in the producers’ offices, directors’ chairs, and writing rooms lead to initiatives like this year’s paid internship program aimed at those underrepresented in TV and film, embarked upon by Ava Duvarney and the city of Hollywood. Amanda, a Trinidad-born, London-bloomed stylist for retailer Farfetch insisted, “I feel at this point [fashion] needs to have like a director or a principle of diversity…it’s a vicious cycle…ostracizing of Black people…this is our reality,” adding that Black colleagues were too often excluded from consideration for the sort of plum industry opportunities that could be “life changing.”
“Enfranchised “wrongs” don’t “right” themselves; one can’t trust those who most benefit from the inequity they have architected to dismantle it on their own volition.”
Her words evidence exactly why industry interventions are imperative, as some fields outside of fashion have long been aware. In professional football, a virtual non-existence of Black coaches spurred the NFL’s creation of The Rooney Rule, a protocol which mandates that at least one racial/ethnic minority candidate be considered for any open coaching role. In the American legal sector, almost 50 top firms have joined in enacting The Mansfield Rule, a pledge to make sure that women and minorities comprise at least 30 percent of those considered for open leadership opportunities, lateral openings, and highly coveted equity partner promotions. Even creative professions have gotten in on the act with the broader, non-apparel-specific design community organization AIGA launching a census aimed at gaining knowledge about industry demographics.
Just what would this brand of effective industry intervention look like in fashion? It would certainly mean getting more Black creatives into design studios, the spaces that remain the entire industry’s aesthetic nuclei. We will need Black presence in these rooms, not solely at the intern or associate level but at the director and executive tiers. Until we give Black creatives a shot at meritocratically attaining the influence of a Phoebe, Raf, or a Miuccia (all of whom have had problematic histories of excluding models of color from the runways — Prada at one point for 15 years), I fear that the auxiliary sales teams, PR forces, and show production cohorts will continue to be glaringly void of Black presence.
It’s safe to say that this work of change would look an awful lot like the plan laid out in January’s #BreakSilenceBreakCeilings initiative proposal, granting greater transparency, bias mitigation training resources, and public/consumer awareness of brand participation to those with a stake in this conversation.
Let’s wake up and initiate the #TimesUp analogous moment that this industry desperately needs in regard to Anti-Blackness, instead of pacifying ourselves with panel discussions, tokenism, and stats quantifying upticks in the casting of models-of-color. Let’s quit pretending, roll up our sleeves, and do the real work of structuring a culture of equity…and let’s do it expeditiously. This is business, after all.
ADDITIONALLY, YOU SHOULD READ:
The Real Work:
Getting to the Heart of Fashion’s Black Professional Exclusion Problem
by Kibwe Chase-Marshall on Medium