Valentino designers Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri showcased an Africa-inspired collection in Paris this week. The only issue? The show featured predominately all-white models strutting down the runway wearing cornrows, which unsurprisingly led to outrage on social media.
That’s very cute of #Valentino to pay homage to the African culture for the new collection, but ummm…where were the african models?
— Patrice Hall (@PatriceStylist) October 6, 2015
“African themed”…….like the continent? With more than 50 countries? Please tell us more Valentino -_- https://t.co/YFVHYWQ37P
— Roxy Ware (@xanattack16) October 6, 2015
Certainly not the first designers to feature a mostly white runway or be accused of cultural appropriation, it is baffling that a designer would present an African collection with few models of color. For an expert’s take on the issue, we consulted Professor Susan Scafidi, founder and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham and author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law.
“Valentino is being heavily criticized for a show inspired by Africa that used mostly white models with braided hair,” says Scafidi. “Crossing the line from cultural appreciation to cultural appropriation is often a matter of copying too literally. At Valentino, the African-inspired looks, the braids, and even the predominantly white casting might have gone unremarked separately, but to many observers the combination seemed uncomfortably close to a 21st-century couture version of performers wearing blackface.”
If Valentino had used mostly black models or a completely different hairstyle, would there still be as much controversy? According to Scafidi, a less literal interpretation would have been less likely to raise concerns about cultural appropriation. “If Valentino had banished the braids and the beads, added more models of color, and created a color palette inspired by a region of Africa, it’s unlikely that the Twitterati would have objected,” she says. “That being said, any culture with a recent history of discrimination or oppression, whether African, Native American, a religious minority, or some other group, sparks division when used for fashion inspiration.”
Scafidi feels that “culture is fluid” and that cultural crossovers aren’t always a bad thing. However, “designers who are inspired by other cultures would do well to hum a bit of Aretha Franklin as they work—and to find out what respect means to the members of the cultures that might inspire next season’s collections.”
View the collection below and let us know if you think the Valentino designers went too far.