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How Fashion Erased the Politics of Streetwear

Earlier this month, designer Ulyana Sergeenko sent a note to blogger Miroslava Duma with the N-word on it, imitating the lyrics of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s 2011 hit, which Duma later posted on Instagram. The post revealed an ugly truth about the fashion industry. Even with all of its cries for diversity and inclusivity, it still rejects the very painful conversations about white supremacy within its inner circles. Ulyana Sergeenko and Miroslava Duma take all they want from Black culture, but I wonder if they’ll ever show up for Black lives.

This is not just an isolated case of ignorance, but rather an industry-wide push back to acknowledge fashion has a social and political responsibility beyond commerce. As an art form, fashion should and has, at its best, commented on contemporary issues. It did so after the election of Donald Trump when designers put their politics on the runway with Dior’s “The Future Is Female” t-shirts and Missoni’s pussy hats. But, fashion has failed to raise awareness about racism and privilege— in and outside the industry even when hoodies walk down the Paris runways.

Hip-hop culture dominated the fashion zeitgeist in 2017. From a Louis Vuitton and Supreme collaboration and Gucci’s support of Harlem designer Dapper Dan’s store reopening to Cardi B’s debut as a fashion darling and Marc Jacobs’s streetwear-inspired collection, the fashion industry finally welcomed Black culture. Or so it seemed.

In reality, the politics of hip-hop and Black culture were left out of the conversation and the players behind-the-scenes remained a homogeneous mass of white people.

Streetwear first came into fashion in the 80s and 90s when hip-hop made it a worldwide sensation thanks to artists like Nas, Tupac, P. Diddy, and LL Cool J and icons like Dapper Dan. Yet, for all hip-hop’s contributions to fashion, the industry has always rejected it, only choosing to give streetwear a try when it’s been trendy to be Black, a phenomenon Rikki Byrd defines as the temporality of blackness. “So often, blackness—and its gruesome history—can be rendered a garment that can easily be shed when a season no longer begs for its use,” she writes in her essay Black the Color We Wear.

In the early aughts, hip-hop had a similar impact on fashion. Remember camo pants, Juicy Couture tracksuits, velour ensembles, bucket hats, and hoop earrings? By the late 2000s, the trend died. The fashion industry looked elsewhere for inspiration and a fair share of white women swore they’d never imitate Jennifer Lopez’s look again. But, for the majority of people of color, hoop earrings and hoodies never went out of style because they are endemic to these communities, and were even before the industry decided to get down with the culture.

But, no matter how many designers claim to be inspired by hip-hop and accept sneakers, hoodies or hoop earrings on the runways, the industry will stay the same— racial slurs included— as long as its players behind-the-scenes don’t diversify. In an industry with a majority of white voices, a trend is just white acceptance, and luxury streetwear is no exception.

In 2017, 73 percent of the Business of Fashion 500— a list that highlights the people who mold the international fashion industry— was white. Only 14 percent was Asian, 4.87 percent was classified as other, and a staggering 4.68 percent is Black. The designers adopting streetwear are also white. There is Alessandro Michele from Gucci, who has been largely credited for making the Italian brand cool again; Kim Jones, who crafted the collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Supreme; Demna Gvasalia from Vetements, known for oversized hoodies and a lack of models of color; Marc Jacobs, who after cultural appropriation controversies in 2016 opted to craft a collection rooted in hip-hop culture; and Supreme’s founder James Jebbia, who has grown the brand to worldwide fame.

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 6.43.58 PM

The BoF 500 is an annual list by industry publication Business of Fashion that highlights the most influential people in the business. This year it included 535 people in the areas of design, retail, business, creatives, modeling, and entertainment. For a complete dataset, click here.  (Made with Infogram)

 

Their actions also depict a ferocious whitewashing of the culture. Vetements has been largely responsible for bringing streetwear to the Paris runways without including models of color in its shows. Louis Vuitton and Supreme partnered to create a logo mania collection for fall 2017 without the father of logomania, Dapper Dan. Last May, Gucci debuted its Resort 2018 collection, raising Internet eyebrows when Alessandro Michele showed a leather jacket with oversized sleeves that resembled Dapper Dan’s work. Michele never credited the Harlem designer. Only after a wave of Internet outrage did the Italian house respond, saying the jacket was an “homage.”

The outcry served its purpose. By early December, following the controversy, Gucci hung a billboard in Harlem announcing Dapper Dan and Alessandro Michele’s collaboration for the Italian brand’s tailoring service. The campaign stars Daniel Day himself in a gray, tailored suit. Alessandro Michele published a statement in the New York Times back in September, saying “I understand that I am putting my hands in a kind of very delicate playground, the black community. But I love the black community. I think they have a big voice in terms of fashion.”

This billboard and the acceptance of brands like Off-White, Y-Project and Pyer Moss signal a post-racial utopia, both in fashion and real life. But the struggles of thousands of people of color who still deal with racial ignorance from big power players like Miroslava Duma and Ulyana Sergeenko, make fashion’s latest embrace of Black culture wildly laughable. Without voices of color, the trend reads more like co-opting than a genuine attempt at inclusivity. What matters is the $1,100 Vetements hoodie or Kanye West’s cool lyrics, not the culture that created it.

The fashion industry is still blind to the social and racial codes associated with streetwear. Before we throw a hoodie on the runway, we should ask: who gets to wear streetwear without being discriminated against? And more importantly, who gets to shed the culture once it’s no longer in style?

By ignoring these conversations, the fashion industry is simply choosing when it’s convenient to be political, and when it comes to Black culture, it’s clear the industry only wants to wear it as a costume when it’s on the Paris runways or as cool as Kanye West’s verses.

 

 

 

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