Image: Adam Katz Sinding

Fashion is said to be one of the most immediate reflections of the culture at any given point in time, taking the temperature of the zeitgeist and turning out garments and accessories that capture and speak to it. This season, the front row, in a few cases, may have spoken even louder than the runway offerings. For instance, there, at the far end of the monstrously-long rainbow-hued front row of the Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2019 menswear show, easily the most anticipated event of the season, was Ian Connor.

Hours later, the young fashion insider – who within a few short years of entering into the fashion industry as a streetwear model and stylist, was collaborating with Kanye West, claiming Virgil Abloh as one of his closest allies, and being hailed as a visionary, “Kanye West’s New Style Muse,” per Vogue – could be spotted on the Instagram account of Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton’s new artistic director. Mr. Abloh posted an image depicting Connor perched in the front row, surrounded by Takashi Murakami x Louis Vuitton bags, to his highly-followed personal account just after the dust settled from his debut as the first-ever person of color to take a top role at the world’s most valuable luxury brand.

The New York Times’ Guy Trebay gave Connor a nod in his review of the Louis Vuitton show, writing, “Ian Connor, the tattooed Instagram phenom (@ianconnorsrevenge) whose self-assurance may out-scale even his million-strong Instagram following, scrolled through his phone feed, barely bothering to notice that Naomi Campbell had wandered in, clad in sneakers and leggings.”

No mention was made by the Times of the fact that Connor, the 25-year old fashion figure and frequent Kanye West camp affiliate, has been accused of sexual assault by 21 different women over the past two years. While Connor has denied the various rape and assault allegations waged by nearly two dozen young women of color, he has also, according to reports, actively harassed and threatened those who have opted to speak out against him.

If you were not abreast of Connor’s background, nothingwould have seemed to be awry when he was in attendance at the Louis Vuitton show or seen in the front row (and backstage) at Alyx’s Spring/Summer 2019 show days later, dressed in wares from the budding young brand of current Nike collaborator Matthew Williams, who also collaborated with Dior this season. Williams, as you may know, first found design fame when he launched Been Trill alongside fellow Kanye West co-horts Virgil Abloh, Heron Preston, Justin Saunders, and YWP, in 2012.

Save for his elaborate facewear (i.e., a bandana mask and Alyx headscarf), the same could be said of ASAP Bari, who was front and center at the Dior Homme and Alyx shows, posing for photos alongside Kanye West and rapper/former Christian Dior campaign star ASAP Rocky. After the fact, the 26-year old co-founder of  the A$AP Mob, born Jabari Shelton, was featured in an image on the official Alyx Instagram account.

However, like Connor, Shelton is a problematic associate for notable fashion brands thanks to his May 2018 arrest in London on two counts of sexual assault.

News broke last month that an investigation was underway after Shelton was tied to a video that is said to depict him sexually assaulting a woman in a hotel in London; he called the video “misleading” shortly after its release last July, and said that “comments about myself or anyone being detained or arrested are false.” However, according to a May 2018 statement from the London Metropolitan Police, “Detectives investigating an allegation of sexual assault at a Shoreditch hotel on 10 July 2017 have, in fact, charged [Shelton].”

But even before Shelton’s arrest in London last month, a lawsuit was filed late last year in Los Angeles County Superior Court by well known “legal guard dog” Marty Singer on behalf of an anonymous “Jane Doe” plaintiff, who claims that she was the victim of a “brazen and violent attack” by Shelton in July 2017, as witnessed by a third party, an unidentified man who accompanied Shelton. Jane Doe alleges that she was blocked into a hotel bathroom by Shelton who “sexually assaulted and battered” her, and at which time she alleges that she was “in fear for her life and that she would be the victim of a gang rape.”

In July, Nike confirmed that it had cut ties with Shelton ahead of the launch of a then-impending sneaker collaboration with his brand VLONE. But judging by recent front rows and Instagram stories, not all big-name brands or creatives can say that they have distanced themselves from these men, a fact that is both off-putting and (somewhat) strange, considering that fashion, an inherently consumer-facing industry, has gone to great lengths to appear at the forefront of the gender equality movement.

Christian Dior, for instance, appointed Maria Grazia Chiuri as its first female creative director in 2016; in the wake, it has been offering up pricey feminist-inspired t-shirts with some of the proceeds going to the Clara Lionel Foundation, which was founded by Dior ambassador, Rihanna, and helps fund education, health and emergency response programs across the globe. After launching EllesVMH, a gender diversity-centric initiative in 2009, Dior’s parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton made headlines earlier this year when it announced that it would join a new French task force on gender equality created by French President Emmanuel Macron.

In doing so, LVMH – which had formerly signed on to the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles in 2013 –  was the first French luxury group to announce its alliance with the task force.

Still yet, last year, LVMH joined with rival conglomerate Kering to establish a charter for the well-being of models that has been implemented across their rosters of brands. In a joint statement released before the start of the Spring/Summer 2018 womenswear shows, they said, “Respecting the dignity of every man and woman is at the heart of both group’s values. Having always cared for the well-being of models, LVMH and Kering feel that they have a specific responsibility, as leaders in the industry, to go one step further with their brands.”

The momentum that these initiatives has helped to create has been furthered by smaller brands, which have joined the conversation, using their oft highly-followed social media platforms (and their seasonal runways) to raise awareness about gender equality and sexual assault (among other social issues), and no shortage have taken to donating funds, often from the proceeds of their collections, to the #MeToo legal defense fund, as well as other charitable foundations to further their social/political views.

Yet, there is a very real risk at play, at least in theory, when brands put #MeToo-marred individuals in their front rows and in Instagram-endorsements; these seemingly relatively small acts stand to undo the greater progress that has been made, just as they stand to tell a far less optimistic tale as to fashion’s stance on women.

However, there has not been any significant pushback – or damage – from a bottom-line and/or share price (for the publicly traded companies at issue) perspective. Consumers are still buying from these brands, and stockholders are not altering their positions in any significant way because accused serial rapists or statutory rapists are being invited to runway shows. With that in mind, it is clear why these entities have been slow to make change.

It will take consumers looking past the hype and novelty associated with these brands and in-demand creatives – and voting with their wallets by opting not to buy from them – for fashion to really wake up. Although, one of the sad parts is that there is little indication that such a thing will happen or that rabid menswear/streetwear fans are actually affected by such narratives.

This is something that Bernie Gross, the founder of streetwear + sneaker retailer Extra Butter, touched upon late last year in speaking to GQ about the potential for fall-out in terms of sneaker brands’ entanglements with Donald Trump. According to Gross, “Our consumer is pretty superficial. They’re driven by hype.” And in this vein exists – or better yet, enables – a pack of individuals who are still, thanks to their socially unconscious fanbase, completely marketable and seemingly unscathed by what would otherwise amount to substantial (and downright deal-breaking) repetitional harm.

In this way, maybe fashion – and its creatives/influencers of choice – really is reflecting the zeitgeist after all, a status quo dominated, at least in the upper-most echelons, by men, and one in which women are not always afforded the right to be taken seriously, believed, or respected when they speak out about sexual assault at the hands of powerful, well-connected men.

Reps for Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and Alyx have not responded to a request for comment.

UPDATE (June 4, 2018): In attendance at the Miu Miu show was Roman Polanski, who has been tied to claims of statutory rape, and also at Dior Homme, architect Peter Marino, who was recently stripped of his Merit Award in interior design from the American Institute of Architects New York due to his involvement as a defendant in two separate harassment/discrimination lawsuits.

UPDATE (August 13, 2018): Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office declined to pursue sexual assault charges against Shelton related to an alleged November 2017 incident. The development comes after the “Jane Doe” informed the D.A. that she no longer wanted to pursue a criminal case. The case in the UK is still underway with a trial set to begin on January 2019.

UPDATE (January 5, 2019): According to the Evening Standard, Shelton pleaded guilty to one count of sexual assault. Judge Zoe Smith sentenced Shelton to a £4,000 fine. He will also have to pay his victim £2,500 compensation as well as £2,500 costs to the court. Sentencing him, she said he had shown a “very unpleasant attitude” towards women.