Whether you follow the catwalks of fashion week or not, it is likely you have seen images from last week’s Chanel show in Paris. Led by a bemused Karl Lagerfeld and loudspeaker armed Cara Delevingne, models paraded down the Grand Palais with an array of banners and slogans mimicking the tropes of a feminist rally. There was nothing inherently wrong with this charade. Part of me wanted to be glad of it: fashion embracing feminism, what’s not to celebrate? Sadly, the cynic within me is just rolling her eyes.
When I was younger I would rip images from magazines and position them across an A2 canvas which hung on my wall. Image after image of thin white females with expressionless faces, snapped from the catwalks of the season, became the decor for the wall behind my bedroom door. I would spend what little money I had (prior to the days of part time jobs) on the monthly issues of Vogue and Elle and carry those heavy, glossy, advertisement packed pages with me everywhere.
I could argue passionately about the relevance of fashion, even with those who shrug or mock at its value and dismiss it as shallow. Yet, I feel less willing to defend the industry engulfing it. An industry which celebrates the ‘artistic innovations’ of misogynistic men, cannot – regardless of how loudly we shout – fathom the idea of a woman being larger than a size 8, and seems ignorant to the messages of cultural appropriation.
Take Karl Lagerfeld, fashion’s unlikely front man for feminism (or so it would appear), a man all too willing to comment upon the attractiveness of high profile women. Whether it be the suggestion that Pippa Middleton hide her face and show only her backside, or – the now notorious – ‘Adele is a little too fat’, the German born designer is not perhaps the first man one would pick to lead a demonstration on female empowerment. I can think of a few ways this may have been improved…
Firstly, an industry truly perplexed or intrigued by the new wave of feminism (and not just for its marketing potential) may consider dumping Terry Richardson, the infamous photographer whose work, regularly in GQ and Vogue, follows a predictable formula: young women, bright lighting, pornographic poses and little, if any, clothing. It follows that brand of ironic, hipster sexism – you know it’s objectifying, but it’s so obvious you needn’t be offended: it’s art, it’s the expression of the female form… it’s bullshit.
What is more disconcerting than Richardson’s ‘artwork’ (which is celebrated by models such as Emily Ratajkowski and self-proclaimed ‘modern feminist’ Beyonce) is that the man himself has been accused on staggeringly multiple occasions of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct towards many young models whom he has worked with. Experiences including forced oral sex and requesting that a model remove her tampon for him to dip in his tea are among the most blood boiling of the alleged offences. Yet, this man still sells. Companies subsidise him, magazines collaborate with him, and Richardson – or Uncle Terry as he prefers his models to call him (this should really say it all) – continues to enjoy widespread endorsement.
Sites such as Jezebel have shown a rare solidarity with the women coming forward about Richardson and provided a platform with which they can have a voice. A voice: a thing rarely associated with the modelling profession. It would have been more refreshing to see the Chanel banners demanding trade unions for models, or accountable, regulated complaints procedures – measures which would prevent future women falling victim to exploitation.
Yet, misogyny is not the industry’s sole shortcoming. Feminism, in 2014, is and must be intersectional, taking race, class and sexuality into its understanding of equality. Perhaps the models strutting down the Grand Palais could have voiced their outrage that at New York Fashion week in 2013 82.7% of models were white. This is a decrease in diversity on the catwalk, as 2012 saw white Caucasians make up 79.9% (still an unrepresentative majority). Many high profile figures from Naomi Campbell to Jordan Dunn have, in recent years, joined the conversation challenging the white dominance of the industry. Yet, Lagerfeld’s feminist street protest last week once again only saw representation for white women. The message has, evidently, not been heard.
However, this lack of racial diversity has not prevented stylists and designers from mimicking other cultures. Whether it be Pharrell Williams wearing a Native American war bonnet on the cover of British Elle back in June, or the American Apparel ‘Afrika’ collection, there are all too many examples of Western companies hijacking elements of other (often more marginalised) cultures and turning them into nothing more than accessories or ‘must-haves’.
I’m not entirely disillusioned by the world I once aspired to work in. Designers such as Vivienne Westwood reaffirm my faith that enjoying style and fashion and holding a moral compass are not two incompatible ideas. There is nothing wrong with embracing Fashion Week and admiring the allure – even if you feel completely disconnected from it. But an awareness of the hypocrisies, offences and downright atrocities which do shame the industry’s shiny, flawless front should not be overlooked.
The Chanel show was entertaining, but a real activist stance on the catwalk would be more so.
This article originally appeared in Qmunicate magazine