The Face of Luxury: Valentino & the Maasai?

I’ve been pondering Steve McCurry’s shoot for Valentino’s Spring 2016 collection. Utilizing an ancient tribe and their homeland as rich in history and culture as the Maasai as a backdrop to sell the opulent luxury of Valentino feels backwards and naively arrogant. (Which is strange considering Mr. McCurry’s body of remarkably respectful work).

In many ways the campaign is a beautiful celebration of the Maasai and the savannah of Kenya, but to me, it also borders on the exploitative.

I’ve worked with brands like PUMA doing photoshoots in such sacred areas. However, PUMA and its parent company, Kering, committed millions of dollars over the years to sustainable job creation and conservation in rural Kenyan communities through a remarkable organization, Wildlife Works. The resulting images from PUMA’s work have been used to highlight the positive impacts possible when a company commits to long-term sustainability throughout their supply chain. The images also inspired consumers and other corporations to take meaningful action. I’m curious to know what, if any, commitments Valentino has made to supporting these impoverished areas… Areas that are vital to our global community due to their threatened ecosystems and wildlife, in addition to a the deep cultural perspective they offer the world.

Many ancient tribes, like the Maasai are losing their cultural heritage as more members leave to pursue a version of the “western dream,” or modernize their tribe to survive. Some of them now see white tourists and (potentially) opportunistic companies, (i.e. Valentino) as their way to leverage the “notion” of their cultural to create an income.

I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, but I do think it’s important to create and maintain a certain level of awareness around the sacredness of these cultures. Honoring the Maasai’s centuries of history appropriately and being careful not to reduce them to a token exhibit for westerners, I feel, is critical to authentic continuation of the Maasai and indigenous tribes everywhere. Rather, what’s left of them should be supported and treated as an essential part of our global heritage.

Like all cultures, things change overtime… Now, more rapidly then ever, modernization is taking place in ancient existences as modern ideals and technologies bleed and crash into them. I just wonder how much of that progression is truly beneficial vs. an imposed view of what “progress” is.

But hey, we all have to feed our families, (basic human needs us 1–2%’ers never have to worry about) and that fact has even made me sympathetic to poachers who murder elephants and redeem their tusks to escape poverty.

So, in no way am I suggesting the Maasai tribe is wrong for allowing Valentino onto their sacred land to flaunt their newest collection… I just think such “luxurious” images deserve a second, deeper look. How does this really make us feel?

Above: Me acting like a monkey with the Maasai between Tsavo East and Tsavo West Parks in Kenya in 2012, in contrast to STEVE MCCURRY for Valentino’s ad. Clearly, my blue steel is on point, (call me, Valentino;)
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