Race, Gender, Fashion

The fashion world has always been a very problematic space. From it’s lack of appreciation for minority models, to it’s encouragment of horribly decadent beauty and image standards, there has always been something to fix in the fashion world as it relates to larger social justice issues. In an era of “problematic faves” as they’ve come to be known, I’ve had to come to terms with some of my own heroes, role models, and influences?—?especially the white ones. It already feels weird, admittedly, as a black man to have idols and large influences who happen to be white men, and it’s something that I like to check myself on in a recurring manner to make sure that I’m not being whitewashed. Perhaps a bit parnoid of me, true, but it is the time we’re living in.

But, I digress. Few fashion designers have been able to navigate this sea of problematic tendencies, classism, and racism with the same level of finesse as Raf Simons and Rick Owens. If you know me, then you know I love what these two men represent, and that I am a die hard fan of their work. But, I’ll let their work convince you of their genius this time, and not just my one sided commentary (which will also be present, naturally). This year, for his Spring/Summer ’17 collection, Raf Simons collaborated with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, showcasing the famous photographers works that documented the gay scene in the 70’s and 80’s.

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Raf Simons is no stranger to the gay community, as he has a male partner as of now, but it is the sheer core of his work that is important to note. Raf has always been about the challenging of menswear conventions—what it is, and what it could be. He once stated that he appreciates the freedom of womenswear, how loose, multifaceted and imaginative the world of womenswear can be in contrast to menswear. In his work for Dior and Jil Sander, Raf envisioned a new idea of femininity?—?one that was free-flowing and modern, encapsulating the personality of the powerful and wonderful women of today. On the other hand, men’s fashion has become bland and reiterative solely because the industry refuses to let go of outdated gender norms. Each season’s looks feel the same, conveying the same 1970’s-80’s concepts of “tough” men with weirdly scented colognes doing manly things like, I don’t know, hunting, drinking whiskey, disrespectfully catcalling women.

Raf combats this foundationally in the work for his namesake label, and there has been no garment more iconic in his fight against gender norms than the piece in his latest collection utilizing the Mapplethorpe photo of a man’s erect penis printed on the rear of a jacket. Raf Simons is one of the unsung heroes of the LGBTQ+ community, if I am qualified to say so. As a straight man, I cannot speak for them, but I must say that I am impressed with what Raf is bringing to the table. Rick Owens, too, has done some interesting work in the realm of gender as it relates to fashion, most famously his Fall/Winter 2015 “SPHINX” collection where models walked the runway with porthole-esque openings in the crotches of the model’s garments. However, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. As a white man, Rick Owens has done some pretty cool things when it comes to breaking racial boundaries in the fashion world.

Admittedly, I don’t see as many black or other minority model’s in many of his shows, but his spring 2014 collection was one that was extremely remarkable, for it’s nearly all-black cast of plis-sized” models who, instead of gracefully strolling the runway with pale skin and heels, as per usual, stomped through their step-show performance with grimaces and scowls on their face. This was, to understate it, an unsual fashion show of sorts, and a particularly subversive ones. Often times, major fashion labels claim to be making these poignant statements against x-social justice issue, but attempt to do so with an all white or mostly white group of skinny, conventionally pretty women. What Rick Owens did in 2014 was showcase a different facet of femininity and womahood. Not all women are these delicate, pale flowers, and nor should they all be. It’s refreshing to see a (white) designer take race and body diversity seriously, and I am eager to see more of this specific type of commentary in Rick Owens’s future work.

Fashion can be an honestly very annoying field to be interested in—particularly as a black person, and particularly for women. There are a host of problems that one assumes and must add to their Challenge list when entering this field, but designers like Raf and Rick are making it easier to upend the outdated conventions of the 1-percenters of fashion, and inject it with a new, more inclusive vigor through work like this, and I look forward to it being continued in the near future and beyond.