With a recent appointment to Balenciaga and an invitation to show during haute couture week in Paris, Vetements Demma Gvasalia is very much having his day in the sun. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Gvasalia was asked to address issues related to race, a topic that has cast a shadow over some of his efforts since his decision to go with all white casts for both Vetements and Balenciaga’s autumn 2016 presentations.
According to the article:
“Well, I thought at a time when Donald Trump might be a President of the United States that I, a clothes maker, have to make political statement about ethnic diversity is funny,” says Gvasalia, not looking remotely tickled. “Our criteria for choosing models was purely based on the idea of diversity of character. We had very different types of girls but [stylist and model] Lotta [Volkova], who works with me, we come from this cultural background where [race] is not even an issue. We don’t even have that thing to think we have to be politically correct. I guess the criticism is justified but from my point of view it was the attitude of those girls that was important for me not the shade of their skin or their origin.”
On a positive note, it’s good that Guardian pushed Gvasalia on the question, just five years ago it probably wouldn’t have been brought up at all. In part that is because of the rise of social media, which in many ways has broken down fashion’s entry walls, once one of the most fiercely guarded and gated industries in the world.
What’s disappointing is to see the designer ascribe this push back to political correctness, ironically, a hazy form of protest often used by political conservatives (like Donald Trump) to dismiss minority efforts to create more equal playing fields. Graviel, however, surely isn’t aligning himself with Trump, presumably he’s implying that as a creative he is above the fray of race-based debates and simply doesn’t see color. He’s not the first within fashion to make that claim, the list of designers and casting agents who publicly shared a similar sentiment is long.
Inevitably, however, the people who claim not to see color (or gender or sexual orientation) are at the top of the food chain within the space that they occupy. Gvasalia is white; the dominant culture of Europe is white; he’s inside the most vaunted of fishbowls and doesn’t have to see color because it literally never impacts him. Someone who is not white simply doesn’t have that good fortune. In a hundred different ways (including runway shows), a person of color in Europe and America is told they exist outside of and don’t have as much access as white people. The biggest challenge though is not for the minority to understand his/her level of opportunity, it’s for the person in a position of power to find his way out of the fishbowl and peer back in.
The super tragedy occurs when designers become conveyors of race-tied class messages, upholding a long held tradition within fashion in which whiteness is used to denote luxury and exclusivity. Certainly, Gvasalia’s intent may have been innocent or even artistic, but the struggle is still too real for a global brand to be projecting Utopian views, especially for a label that proudly claims it’s inspired by the street aka working class people of color.
One final note about Trump, who Gvasalia presumably highlighted as an U.S. presidential candidate who presents a far more serious danger than his runway model choices. And yet, while certainly the United States has issue with racism, one could say that at least within fashion, the idea of “not seeing race” or worse yet, defending blackface tends to arise much more so from European labels and publications.
There is something to be said for what all Americans learned through the Civil War, but more importantly, the changes that came through the battle for civil rights in the ’60s, an activist movement lead by black Americans. Sadly, Trump represents the portion of the race, class, gender and sexual orientation war that is still not won, those who dispute the dream message of Martin Luther King, and his wish to have his children viewed by simply the content of their character. Europeans may believe racism is an American issue, but in many ways their ivory towers are far more unscathed than those of American’s.
We’re just not there yet, not even close, and for all of us, not just Gvasalia every day there is work to be done undoing some of the beliefs we hold closest to our heart.