Vivienne Westwood is hawking a new line of clothing, handbags, and shoes in her “Ethical Africa Fashion Collection”. Vivienne’s attempt to remain relevant by connecting her designs with charity is an old, if problematic trend – remember Gap and the “Red” campaign, with Christy Turlington et al, posing in sweatshop clothes intended to donate profits to AIDS charities? The hugely frontloaded campaign, on which up to $100 million was spent on marketing (Gap alone spent $7.8 million of its $58 million outlay on Red during 2006’s fourth quarter, according to Nielsen Media Research’s Nielsen Adviews), may have only raised “$18 million” by 2007 (see Advertising Age).
In any case, launching fancy clothes at this time of the year is nothing new: it’s fall, and it’s one of the two seasons of the year during which designers offer variations (usually on the same tired themes) to luxury-goods buyers and the wanna-be-seen crowd. And in these lean years, it is luxury goods that keep on being profitable: the world’s multi-millionaires and billionaires are careful to display and one-up than ever, using their (and their wives, daughters, and mistress’ bodies) as corkboards on which to hang the proof of their enduring net worth and untouchability. Other poor sods lose house and job to fluctuations in the market, and manufacturers of goods intended for the middle class struggled to remain profitable; but when Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen’s designer brand The Row debuted their crocodile skin bags, including a glazed black backpack that starts at $39,000, at Barneys – only to see it fly off the shelves by pre-order, much like salt, sugar, cooking oil, and rice did during the leaner years of Kaunda’s rule in Zambia.
But Westwood’s clothing look sloppily designed (and not because they are cut to look artfully slouchy) and … dare I say it … dirty. True: when they are not attending galas where Bono is making a spectacle of himself, Fashionistas with 40 big ones to spend on a bag like to be transported to Africa. Westwood is simply joining a long tradition, where the luxury goods-buyer’s desire to be seen as ‘doing good’ for the 99% (especially the bulk end of the 99%), is connected to consumption. So one can continue to purchase (and thus exercise the power that separates one from those who have little agency in this world order), while feeling less of a responsibility to face the intrinsic, structural inequalities that maintain this order. But will this rare species feel an urge to wear any of Westwood’s horrible assemblage?
The bags in this collection are handmade in Nairobi, and made using recycled materials by “marginalized communities of women” in support of International Trade Center Ethical fashion Program of the United Nations. But what that means in terms of profit sharing, we don’t know. Most likely, there’s no profit sharing – just a good feeling from paying a tiny fraction of the mega-margin of profit to the “marginalized women”.
In the photoshoot to ‘celebrate’ her ethical line, she plonks a series of female models (Elsie Njeri, Ajana, and Sonnietta Thomas) – and a very pale, bug-eyed man in a series of highwater trousers that make him look even more like he just escaped from rehab – in the ‘informal settlements’ of Kibera. (The Fashion Notebook has a full set.) The results are predictable: the models – via signals of health, height, beauty, and of course, the outrage of costumery – look alien. Their difference is beamed out to the potential buyer. So not to worry, ethical fashion consumer: you won’t be mistaken for an African slum dweller, though you port costuming put together by them, and though the clothing does look a bit sloppy.
Plonking herself down in the dust selling her wares, or faux-carrying a plastic water bucket of water in Kibera (in carefully posed shots), Vivienne doesn’t question the questionability of her presence there. In these photographs, it is the residents of Kibera who look alienated in their own home landscape.