Fashion designers need mandatory African-American history classes
Fashion Institute of Technology won at racism, not fashion
There is a quote in “Stomp the Yard” that I’ll always remember while watching the 2007 film. Columbus Short’s character asked Brian White’s character, “I’ve already schooled you once … How many lessons you want to learn?” But the way he said it was more like, “Don’t ever make me have to repeat myself.” And that’s my current mood when it comes to the fashion industry. The traumatic experience from 25-year-old Amy Lefevre is just the latest example of the fashion (and retail) industry throwing a middle finger up to black people, and I’m having trouble even bothering to get mad. Nowadays I’m disgusted by needing to speak out against clueless fashion designers.
I’m not big on name-calling. That’s not really something I care to do. But how else do you describe a fashion designer, production company and an MFA fashion design chair who reportedly allowed anyone to ask an African-American model (Lefevre) to wear monkey ears and big red lips (from a sex shop) for a fashion show? How else do you explain away the models who actually wore this horrendous attire? Not only was it absolutely racist; it’s pathetic to think this was considered “fashion” or “creative.”
According to the New York Post, New York’s fashion week at Manhattan’s Pier59 Studios intended to showcase the work of 10 alumni from Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT)’s inaugural Master of Fine Arts class in fashion design. Directed by Jonathan Kyle Farmer (FIT professor and chair of the new MFA Fashion Design) and produced by Richard Thornn (creative director of British fashion production company NAMES LDN), this was an opportunity for 10 students to show off 90-plus looks of the “skill and craftsmanship of the designers and reflect the highly personal stories and histories embedded in their work.” And all I got from it was that maybe MFA graduates need to be required to take an African-American history class because clearly FIT grad Junkai Huang allegedly missed why asking a black woman to wear monkey ears and big red lips had racial overtones.
Huang and the fashion design department at this school are not the only alleged problem in the fashion industry. The bigger issue is that fashion designers keep having to learn the lesson the hard way — and none of their mentors, investors or instructors who seem to be equally insensible bother speaking up. Over and over again, fashion apparel companies get caught up in the same ignorance.
Gucci had to learn the hard way with the blackface sweater. Prada, not to be outdone, thought it could sneak by with monkey trinkets. H&M was under fire for putting a black boy in a “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” hoodie. All three well-known fashion apparel companies had to issue public apologies, and Prada paid a settlement to the New York City Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”). And there are still new fashion design students who are completely oblivious to these breaking news results?
The only resolution I can come to — because settling out of court, public apologies, apparel boycotts and journalists blasting these companies doesn’t seem to be enough — is to force companies to actually learn where they went wrong. A four-hour race sensitivity training course just isn’t going to cut it.
Lefevre’s refusal to wear the monkey ears and big lips should have been enough to make FIT staff and models pause and consider skipping these racist add-ons altogether. But somehow, someway, common decency just completely went over their heads. When Lefevre refused to wear them, the look was still worn by other models, who looked absolutely ridiculous. Please do not add these looks to your fashion portfolios.
But not only are the monkey ears and lips horrible; the clothes are, too. And that’s what makes it even worse. Call me naive. It’s too late to educate fashion designers and big-name companies who either refuse to diversify their staff or ignore the limited staff they do have. But for future designers, it couldn’t hurt universities to make minority history classes a requirement before MFA students graduate. If I had to take a physical education class to get a bachelor’s degree in English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t have to take a relevant class that can actually help them in their businesses later. After all, how many lessons do they need to learn? It seems like plenty.
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