Valentino's African Summer
On October the 6th, Valentino presented its spring/summer 2016 collection at Paris Fashion Week. Allegedly “inspired by Africa”, the show featured fringed dresses, “tribal” designs, and – yep, you guessed it – white women with cornrows in their hair walking down the runway. In a series of Instagrams from the fashion house following the show, they used words such as “primitive” to describe the garments, causing Twitter to explode. “Valentino's 'wild Africa' show aka cultural appropriation central” tweeted user @jenndtonic. “Oh, Valentino, what are you doing with the West African masks on your purse and everybody in cane rows?” agreed @akilamantado.
To compliment this, their latest photographic campaign is set in the Amboseli National park in Kenya. Photographed by Stephen McCurry, a professional best known for his travel photography (you might know him for his “Afghan Girl” portrait), it features models Alice Metza, Cameron Traiber, Greta Varlese, Kirin Dejonckheere and Tami Williams. Only one of these models is black and, as per the catwalk display, all models were styled with cornrows in their hair. McCurry has been quoted as saying to WWD that: “The idea of these pictures is to take the viewer on a journey. The clothes were inspired by African motifs, [so] to take the shoot to Africa and show how these things interact… this connection of the clothes, the models, the environment, the local people… I thought it was a great endeavour.”
That’s great and everything, but… what about the African women themselves? It’s all very well to create a collection based on Africa and inspired by Africa and themed “Africa”, but when there is no input, involvement, or collaboration with actual Africans, the whole thing falls a bit flat and begins to seem a little bit… colonialist. Take the photographs for example. McCurry has used the village of a Kenyan tribe, the Mesai, as the backdrop for his images. Many of the photographs feature the Mesai people in the background, whether they are dancing or simply sitting there. In the foreground stand the white, European models, wearing “African-inspired” garments, with black hairstyles in their white hair. They take up the entire frames of the images and are the centre of attention: the beauty of the Mesai village is secondary, used as a backdrop. The Mesai villagers are used as nothing more than props.
Then you have the words of the people behind the Valentino collection. After being criticised for their blatant cultural insensitivity, Maria Grazia Chiuri (creative director at Valentino), stated: “If I like something that is not part of my culture, but I like it, why can’t I use it?” Never mind the fact that numerous African people, whose culture it is that she is appropriating, have expressed their distaste. No, if she (a European white woman) likes another culture, why isn’t she allowed to commodify it for her own gains?
She should probably try being more specific, however. What part of African culture is it that she likes in particular? Africa is a continent consisting of 54 individual countries, each with their own culture and identity, so to narrow "Africa” down to the buzzwords “tribal” and “primitive” is beyond insulting – it is ignorant.