PFW: Valentino Under Fire for Show of "Cultural Appropriation"

Many critics and fashion industry insiders have been quick to praise Valentino creative directors, Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, for their Spring/Summer 2016 collection. The intricacies of their offerings for Spring are nothing short of noteworthy. As Lisa Armstrong wrote for The Telegraph: “The unparalleled light touch of [the Valentino] seamstresses turned [traditional Massai beading, feathers and Kikuyu textiles] into delicate embellishments with an unmistakably Italian embrace of the uxorious.” She continues: “Valentino is now one of perhaps five houses working today where the designer’s vision and the executed workmanship work in perfectly synchronized harmony. The results are breathtaking yet always wearable.” However, not everyone is pleased.

In fact, Valentino has landed itself in the center of a social media storm today after showcasing its Spring collection, with people crying of cultural appropriation, and racism in casting (according to reports, less than 10 black models were cast in the show). Per StyleCaster, “While most people seem to agree that, yes, the clothes are beautiful, there’s no arguing with the fact that the choice of models and the hairstyling shows a curious lack of judgment by the French fashion house.”

Our friends over at Fashionista were similarly unimpressed, writing first about the hair style: "As a traditional African style that's endured generations, this is problematic." As for the show as a whole, "Designers getting their inspiration from different cultures is certainly not a negative thing, but it's often the way it's presented that feels wrong. For instance, this collection featured 91 looks, but only 10 of them were worn by black models (and fewer then 10 were cast, as some of them walked twice)."

In terms of the looks that went down the runway, Alexander Fury wrote the following for The Independent: “A few elements - like the embroideries reminiscent of Maasai beadwork that harnessed lace dresses or decorated flat sandals - have been co-opted by European designers for decades: there was a great swathe of Yves Saint Laurent’s sixties work here, for instance. But a collaboration with the artist Alessandro Gaggio, creating high jewellery pieces in white terracotta wound up, unfortunately, resembling bone; elsewhere the willy-nilly mix of “tribal” elements felt facile, shallow, and uninformed.” Comparing the Valentino show to Junya Watanabe’s show on Saturday morning, “another that drew on decorative elements associated with Africa,” Fury writes: “[Watanabe’s show] felt fundamentally wrong. Valentino’s was a better collection, and the clothes more finely wrought, but it likewise sticks in your mind for all the wrong reasons.”

In her very positive review of the collection, Armstrong did, in fact, note the potential for cultural appropriation claims, but wrote it off, noting: “Some might bridle at what they see as cultural appropriation – mainly white models with cornrows and voodoo jewellery – and a few in the audience did. Most accepted it as cultural celebration.”

As for WWD, its critics do not seem quite so bothered, writing: “The immigration hook — Africa, specifically — was less a political statement than a convenient way to explore sources of rich visual and cultural context other than Rome, which has been their guiding creative light for a while, not to mention the subject and setting of July’s couture extravaganza … And they did so beautifully, crafting enough exquisite treatments to make a fashion lover’s head explode.”

Lastly, writing for Vogue, Sarah Mower suggests that any claims of cultural appropriate are surely off base here. Speaking to the designers after the show about the influx of refugees into southern Italy, Mower wrote: 

“We probably feel that the greatest privilege in doing our work is that fashion can give a message,” said Chiuri. “We think every person coming here is an individual, and we can show that we can improve ourselves by understanding other cultures.”

“The message,” added Piccioli, “is tolerance. And the beauty that comes out of cross-cultural expression.” On appearances, you would not necessarily guess at the very real and fraught situation running in the background of this serene and heartfelt Valentino collection, but the research, and the lengths the designers had gone to to educate themselves, resulted in some gorgeous fusions between Italian and African traditions.

Whether we can use casting to make and/or bolster an argument for intentional cultural appropriation, I’m not so sure. A nearly all-white runway is unfortunately a common theme in fashion. (It is worth noting and celebrating the fact that Karl Lagerfeld’s troop of Chanel girls did include a fairly diverse lineup.) Like Alexander Fury wrote in connection with any suggestions of foul play, “In Chiuri and Piccioli’s defense, it felt unintentional.” And chances are, it probably was.