menswear and the race debate

With Jourdan Copeland striding out for Burberry and shows that screamed ‘No to racism’, the autumn/winter 14 menswear season dived deep into the industry’s great divide and offered hope. Will the beats of tribal drums and long replayed words of dreams...

by Steve Salter
27 January 2014, 1:05pm

Morgan O'Donovan

Since its birth in 1980, i-D has forever showcased difference. Beyond everything else we seek and celebrate the most beautiful and bright, fun and free, talented and challenging, but this mood isn't the prevailing one in the industry. The choice of sun-kissed athletic jocks and babes, angular androgynous angels, club-land divas and devoted believers of every shape and colour, has been replaced by a set standard. Rather than go against the grain, the industry's runways have cultivated a beauty hegemony that sees a particular aesthetic dominate. The odd token nod to difference is occasionally given but it's a controlled quota, almost regulated to a one-in, one-out policy for minorities. Something has to change.  

'SRSLY?' 'Late much?' 'Happy this is happening but it's definitely a shame that it's only just happened now.' Just three flutters in the social storm of disbelief and relief that followed our recent interview with Jourdan Copeland and the tweet that introduced him as the first black male model to walk for Burberry. Long after the wave of civil rights change swept through the rest of society and thirty seven years since Beverly Johnson's smile lit up American Vogue, has all that much changed in fashion by 2014?

"For me, it's sad that a brand like Burberry, heralded for its innovation in every other way has only recently realised that their clothes might look good on black skin," creative director, designer and stylist Harris Elliott muses over email. "It's unbelievable, America has Barack Obama in his second term, and the fashion world is making noise because a brand uses a black model on its runway. It clearly shows that although fashion is ahead in its projections, it's still behind in many other ways." He has a point and he's far from alone.

"I'm not trying to sound like Martin Luther King and I'm not an activist trying to slay racism, but high fashion tends not to associate luxury with black people," Agi Mdumulla, one half of London's most dynamic design duo, Agi & Sam notes. Black models are all too often pigeonholed into the realms of sportswear and rarely let out. "The industry adage used to be, 'if you have a black cover model the sales would drop'. I think brands are slowly realising that they need to reflect diversity because the black wallet has got cash in it, and they are missing out on revenue streams if they alienate a buying percentage of their audience," Harris adds.

For me, Milan hasn't been that bad, but some black girls go there and they don't get booked at all, nothing. It's really awful. - Jourdan Dunn.

The tide might be turning but the shore of equality is a long way off yet. In recent months, a trio of the most recognised and successful black models of today and beyond, Chanel Iman, Jourdan Dunn and Naomi Campbell, have all voiced concern that the industry continues to disregard diversity. "New York and London are the best for sure. For me, Milan hasn't been that bad, but some black girls go there and they don't get booked at all, nothing. It's really awful," Jourdan Dunn confessed in a recent interview with i-D. Even if you're not on the FROW of Milan and Paris, it only takes a few clicks and scrolls on any top model ranking list to confirm the point.

Living and working in Milan, Umit Benan experienced abuse firsthand. "Because of my looks, namely my beard, I've experienced racism in the industry back in Milan," admits Umit. "My very first collection explored themes of racism. It was all about the beard and that you shouldn't judge people from the way they look." It was a theme he returned to for autumn/winter 14 in an emotionally and politically charged show. On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Umit celebrated Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to break the colour barrier of Major League Baseball. "His life story caught my attention four to five years ago and it was a catalyst for the collection and show," confirms Umit post show. "Who doesn't love and respect a man that changes the world? That's as deep as it goes. You change the future of people." Whilst capturing the classic essence of the legend's wardrobe and celebrating the hope that he represented, Umit expressed a reminder that change is still needed.

Now, there has been criticism aimed at Umit's methods; the show was opened by the words 'I have a dream' and closed with anti-racism banners, which have been described as "heavy handed". However, subtlety can be drowned in the spectacle. Delicate feeling is all too easily lost in the fanfare, especially when critics carefully tip toe around the eggshells of controversy, conflict and change. "All I wanted to do is create an aggressive awareness once again towards racism," he reflects. "I hope it helps some more people to see the world the way I see the world."

In a similarly personal show that included a call to action, Agi & Sam explored themes of difference between the developed and developing world, appropriation and exploitation, setting their sartorial story in Africa. With declarations of "Watu Nguva"- "People Power" in Swahili - the long hailed princes of print and promise, delivered an autumn/winter 14 season standout of a collection that didn't shirk or soften from its inspirations, including casting. "Their cast inspiration was East Africa and we didn't waver from that brief," confirms Harris Elliot, who was tasked with the challenge of finding the boys that matched the collection's needs.

"Most model agencies with black boys on their books, often only sign those with European features, so for Agi & Sam, I had to do an extensive street cast to get the look right," he adds. From sports clubs to supermarkets, churches to clubs, they cast the net wide. "We had to be aware and it was a case of asking anybody we saw, whether working in Lidl or out in a club," Agi reflects. "If I'm honest, the casting wasn't to be revolutionary, it was more to solidify our concept and idea. After the casting process began however, we did begin to realise the lack of ethnic diversity in model agencies," adds Agi. "You have to ask the question; is there this lack because brands do not want to diversify their casting, or are brands not able to diversify their casting because the agencies will not allow this? Either way it would be nice if people realised that clothes can look as good, if not better, on other ethnicities, instead of brands having the token two or three in their shows to be politically correct." Outside of the duo that have done so this season, few designers break that mould.

It was such a fuck-you to conventional beauty. - Rick Owens. 

"Riccardo Tisci has been influential in his approach and use of black models," Harris notes. Seeing beauty beyond parameters, Givenchy's Creative Director has always chosen to mix things up. Looking past the readily available class of conventionally captivating clones, the designer approaches the art of casting with an all searching eye and open armed mind, scouring the streets while travelling the world to find real characters in real situations and using them to convey a seductive vision. Rick Owens is another fearless showman. Uniting four sororities and bringing together forty dancers from all over the US to Paris for the first time, the casting process for Rick's spring/summer 14 womenswear choreographed sensory shake-up began with YouTube searches. "I was attracted to how gritty it was, it was such a fuck-you to conventional beauty," Rick told i-D backstage after the show. "They were saying, 'We're beautiful in our own way.'" Dressed in Owens' monochrome masters, the beauty set free is often unparalleled in its unconventionality. If only more designers dared to to be different. Actions speak louder than clothes, ultimately. Fashion by its very nature deals in fantasy, illusion and desire, so why doesn't it push itself beyond dull conformity? Rather than hold a vanity mirror to the world to a select few why not reflect and unite an all encompassing world of dreams?


Text Steve Salter
Photography Morgan O'Donovan

Chanel Iman
Jourdan Dunn
Rick Owens
Riccardo Tisci
Walter Van Beirendonck
agi & sam
autumn/winter 14 menswear
harris elliott
london collection: men
jourdan copeland
umit benan