A How-to Guide for Commenting on Racism on the Runway

Both Umit Benan and Walter Van Bierendonck sent bold, declarative statements to finish off their runway shows not too long ago in Paris. The message? Stop Racism. While this is a fine statement to make, the obviousness of the sentiment and the fervor in which it was presented by the acclaimed designers should raise a few questions ...

The fashion industry, awash with the well-educated and well-meaning, is no stranger to tackling important social causes. Neither is it a stranger to self-reflection. A good majority of the articles found in fashion magazines and websites come from an op-ed point-of-view, constantly evaluating and reevaluating the state of the industry and all peripheral matters. It’s this same introspection, combined with the inherent worldliness and influence of the fashion industry, that make designers’ wares and runway shows an excellent space for communicating a noteworthy message to the public. Indeed, this has been the case for years; see, for example, Marc Jacobs’ on-going skin cancer awareness campaign or Martin Margiela’s annual T-shirt to benefit AIDS research, among many, many others.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising when designers take to the stage (literally) to broadcast their message. That said, it’s left to fans, critics, and the general public to decide how that message fared, both in terms of the message itself (I think we’ve been sold on “no to racism” for a while, but it’s still good to be reminded) and the way in which it was delivered (for instance, were you wildly patronizing or were you respectful to the group that you sought to empower?)

Walter Van Bierendonck, a celebrated member of the Antwerp Six is no stranger to imbuing his collections with social commentary. Sometimes it’s the name of a collection, other times it’s a graphic on a T-shirt. Which is why, this past season, when he sent down two models in headdresses with “STOP RACISM” in giant lettering, audience members weren’t totally surprised. It is in the ethos of his brand and something his fans expect. He might have been targeting Chanel, as a few critics seem to think, the appropriation of Native American cultures (because of the headdresses, obviously), or just bigotry in general. Either way, the consensus thus far is that it didn’t detract from the show and was delivered with a fair amount of authenticity and care.

Umit Benan on the other hand, current #menswear god and former designer for Trussardi, delivered a decidedly more confusing message. He began by sending down a parade of all black models, dressed in wares inspired by baseball legend Jackie Robinson and finished the show carrying a banner that read “No to racism. For the love of the game." Unlike Van Bierendonck’s call to action in his shows, this appears to be a one-time dalliance for the Turkish designer, who has cast predominantly white models in his shows every other year. Which is fine, by the way.Models are meant to showcase the clothing, not serve as a medium for the designer’s racial preferences. As a sidenote, Walter Van Bierendonck cast an all black show in 2011.

What is problematic here is Benan’s generally patronizing and inauthentic attachment to the cause. (Of course, the “cause” we’re speaking of here is a civil rights issue from the 1940’s and 50’s. Because that’s when Jackie Robinson played.) Would you, if you truly believed in the message being delivered by Benan and Van Bierendonck (and we’re just assuming you do) need a parade of African-American models to communicate this? How does an intentionally monoracial cast do anything to communicate equality? While Benan’s message is fine and his heart appears to be in the right place, the way in which the designer beat the audience about the head with the message, and the general lack of subtlety (carrying a "No To Racism" banner instead of the traditional bow), was just too forced. Almost to the point that it seemed inappropriate, as Benan could appear to be piggybacking onto a noble cause solely to garner PR, and ultimately sales, for his collection. Umit Benan is, by all accounts, not a terrible person and those were almost certainly not his thoughts, but that is the fine line you walk when you stage a Jackie Robinson themed show to sell expensive clothing.

Raising awareness for social issues should always be encouraged, but of course that doesn’t mean every attempt is going to be a home run. Designers with a history of activism like Walter Van Bierendonck and Marc Jacobs; or Rick Owens, whose use of “stunt” casting last year - involving a step dance group who performed during the show - was an authentic, respectful celebration of the culture invited on stage, might serve as a template going forward for other designers who also want to use their powers for good.