Japanese Designer Goes Full Rachel Dolezal at Paris’ Museum of Immigration

While we were busy celebrating a Supreme Court decision this week (we can’t make this up – CNN reported that a black and white flag held aloft by revellers in London was an ISIS flag. It turned out they mistook a graphic of dildos and buttplugs imprinted on the flag for Arabic; the original video of reportage has now been taken down), and Bree Newsome’s ascent up South Carolina’s statehouse flagpole to remove the state’s Confederate flag, a fashion show took place. Like most fashion shows, no black models were in evidence at Japanese designer Junya Watanabe’s show at the Museum of Immigration. In light of landmark decisions recognising equality, as well as the ongoing struggle to remove dehumanising symbols, why does something as inane as a runway full of white models matter?

Véronique Hyland was the first to describe the problem in NY Mag and reach out to the designer’s people for comment:

Japanese designer Junya Watanabe showed his men’s collection in Paris today, at the Museum of Immigration. The collection drew on African influences — including colorful Dutch wax fabrics and Masai-style layered necklaces — while managing to feature exactly zero black models. Much noted on social media was the hair — several white models appeared to wear dreadlock wigs. (Watanabe has done this before, as seen in his spring 2014 women’s collection.)

The space of the Museum of Immigration has its own problematic colonial history, contributing to this modern narrative of oogling otherness as the primary means of constructing one’s own subjectivity whilst deriding and erasing the other. Architect Albert Laprade famously collaborated with Léon Jaussely and Léon Bazin in building Palace of the Colonies, the Palais de la Porte Dorée for the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition in which zebras, snakes and other ethnological wonders were exhibited. The Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration is now housed within the Palace.

But no one really talked about the location, because the gigantic braids-and-dreads wigs worn by Watanabe’s models sort of blinded commenters on Twitter:

We’ve said the obvious before. But every fashion season (and every wedding season), it seems we need a reminder: appropriation of blackness in order to ooze cool is exploitative, plain and simple. Attempting to reproduce, imitate, or otherwise artificially signal black physical traits, or pile on prominent “tribal” jewellery that instantly associates white tourists with a trip to Maasai Mara or some mythical “Zululand” is a problem. Why? Because actual black people don’t get to mix and match their physical traits in order to show that they are culturally powerful on one day and abandon blackness the next; even more importantly, they have to grow up with the day to day and systematic oppression that those traits bring in worlds that are largely run on white supremacist principles. These are worlds that view anything to do with blackness (including braids and jewelry) as inferior.

But yes, we know, European and American people sometimes want to show that they like these nice, African things. What’s wrong with homage? As Chimene Suleyman noted so succinctly in Media Diversified year last, “What happens with appropriation is a suggestive scalping, a vogue bounty hanging from trendsetting bridle reins”. When there’s not even one black model on that runway, the exploitation and exoticism of “native” Africanness is made even more plain: we love your colourful garb, but we wouldn’t want you to be employed and present here. If you were, that would mean that this stuff isn’t really meant for us to take as we want. Also, if you were here, we wouldn’t really look good with braids and dreads.

Vogue.com tried to explain the lack of black models with this possibility:

…the decision to use only white models may have been in order to communicate a message about colonialism, some suggested, especially since the collection was created in collaboration with Vlisco. The Dutch company, which has supplied fabric to West and Central Africa since the mid-19th century, is considered instrumental in having shaped the region’s cultural identity, Style.com reports, with British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare using the company’s fabrics in his work to challenge Western colonial history.

Amazing how Shonibare’s brilliant questioning of “authenticity” and “native purity” could be derailed by a fashion writer, who explains here that his is a simple “commentary” on colonialism. But what exactly is the comment? Is it just that “colonialism exists”? And that when colonialism happens, black people disappear, and their cute stuff gets appropriated by those who colonised them?

And that wasn’t the end of the absurdity. NowFashion noted that the “patchworking” was vintage-true of Watanabe’s style, where the “[t]ypically Western fabrics competed for attention with wax prints, wools, with linens.” Ok, that’s so nice. But then we get the horrible emptiness we come to expect of fashion writing, which almost moves towards critiquing racism and sexism, but quickly giggles and then dismisses it away in cringe-worthy pseudo-theorising:

At first, it seemed as if the Ivy Leaguers had gone native in the Museum of Immigration, built in 1931 by Albert Laprade. Much like Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” Watanabe’s collection reflected on colonialism, and exploited the in-roads between preppy and native African culture. From last winter’s Sapeurs re-appropriating Western masculine codes to this season, the parallel felt natural…Much like the African man in his traditional outfit looking down onto an apparently preserved landscape, Watanabe usually reflects on oft-overlooked dignity. Here, it was delivered in the form of kikoy wraps and throws wrapped around the shoulders. “Look” said a blue crocodile on one. The designer pointed at the mutual fetishizing of foreign dress, and some would only look at the proffered necklaces.

Using this inane word, “reflection”, allows this writer to remove responsibility and accountability from Vampire Weekend vocalist Ezra Koenig and Japanese designer Watanabe. They get to travel physically and metaphorically through former colonial landscapes – and cherry-pick the pretty bits that others made. As Koenig said of his own efforts, he got to “think” about “aesthetic connections between preppy culture and the native cultures of places like Africa and India” (never mind that these are vast continental masses with innumberable “native cultures” which were neither as static nor as “native” as appropriation specialists want such people or their cultural products to be). This sort of “thinking” allows one to be a tourist of the colonial imaginary – and not present (historical or contemporary) reality; they don’t have to engage critically with what such symbolic appropriations have done to objectify the “native” as something to be subjugated, marginalised, and erased through genocide.

Watanabe, like many before him, has plunked some “native” goods on some white people. Those goods, once removed of power and history, are now safe being used as an homage, as long as the black people have been disappeared from the stage.

Also: anyone wanting to add that some Japanese, called B-Stylers, admiringly wear blackface, should read Nina Cornyetz’s “Fetishized Blackness: Hip Hop and Racial Desire in Contemporary Japan” in Social Text (1994).

Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. She is on the editorial board of Africa is a Country.

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