I almost can’t believe that I’m writing this in the year of our Lord 2019, but then again stuff like this shouldn’t be a surprise anymore.
Balmain closed Couture Week in Paris on January 23 with Creative Director Oliver Rousteing’s first-ever couture collection. The show was supposed to be a big one for obvious reasons: it was Rousteing’s first couture collection, it was the week closer and it was Balmain’s first couture showing in 16 years. However, it ended up being the talk of the industry for something no one expected: the beauty look.
Rousteing’s Spring/Summer 2019 vision was one in complete black and white apparently as models were covered in either ghost white or pitch black makeup depending on their skin tone. The odd beauty look, which was done by Val Garland, was immediately called out by many on social media as black face (and white face).
Of course there were also those who argued that the makeup couldn’t have been rooted in racism because Rousteing is partially Black himself and there was white face involved as well. It should be pointed out, though, that Rousteing was raised by adopted white parents and doesn’t identify as a particular race, but as “human.” I will also add that I don’t believe the beauty look was rooted in malicious racism either. I believe it was rooted in tone-deafness, which is almost just as bad in this age of information.
A simple search into black face would reveal its ugly history in minstrel shows. White actors dressed in black face perpetuated stereotypes as a means of entertainment and justifying racism for years and when Black actors were finally given opportunities to work they were forced to don the same black face.
To present a beauty look even reminiscent of this is irresponsible and offensive, but it seems that such avoidable irresponsible and offensive occurrences keep happening in the fashion industry. H&M’s “coolest monkey in the jungle” hoodie and Prada’s monkey figurines last year are also examples of the kind of tone-deafness major brands keep finding themselves under fire for.
That fire, though, has brought these brands a lot of press and to some people all press is good press. There’s a running theory on social media that brands are only pretending to be ignorant in order to create controversy and garner attention. This creates a dilemma, do we ignore these instances and not reward brands with the influxes in views that go along with a scandal or continue to call them out?
To me, the answer will always be call them out. Unacceptable is unacceptable and we can’t accept it because we think we know the motive. Ignoring racist imagery would be encouraging it. If we ignore black face from Balmain it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll see it elsewhere soon.
The reality is that the closing show of Couture Week, or any fashion show, is just too big of a platform to display ignorance. Brands have a responsibility to understand the images they’re putting into the world. Doing the necessary research (and thinking) is not too much ask.
Be the zeitgeist.