Fashion, these days, is a manipulative practice. Designers orchestrate a broad swath of aesthetic references and iconographies towards a set of goals materialized in clothes. The clothes produced through this method carry the social, historical, and political charge of their origin. This is one of many processes that help to maintain the legacy of Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress, for example, as a symbol of the ’70s women’s lib.
Sometimes, the reference material designers work with—their “inspiration,” in fashion parlance—is hazardous. Certain iconographies, if not manipulated properly, are like bad dinner guests — unruly, the ones who bring up that discomforting topic from your past that no one wants to discuss.
In fashion, two of those topics are race and colonialism.
The industry’s attempt to silence the voice of certain pasts is rarely entirely successful; a loose thread always threatens to unravel the masquerade. Most recently, Olivier Rousteing’s safari jackets were that thread. The safari jacket imports a significant historical tradition, coeval with British colonialism in the mid-1800s. As did most garments, the safari jacket arose of utility, equipping England’s explorers with the durable fabric and spacious pockets necessary for hunting trips in the African wild.
The safari jacket accompanies an act with a very specific role for its idealized subject. The safari’s exploratory nature implies an “I” who sees, experiences, masters, and understands. These explorations also emphasize a masterful, unquestionable species of vision, and it is no surprise that binoculars form a key part of archetypal safari gear. (Later, the camera, in wildlife photography and ethnographic excursion would extend this oppositional subject position.) As Amy J. Staples explains in Film History, the word “safari” derives from the Arabic safara, meaning to unveil or discover, both of which are gendered acts of scopophilic looking. It is through the eyes of the safari-goer that an image of the African wild is painted. As we know from colonial history, these eyes are white, privileged, and powerful.
The turn of the century marked the commodification of this experience into a package-dream every man (of means) could experience. Theodore Roosevelt’s explorations, in particular, breathed new air into a then 50-year-old activity. Staples notes that Roosevelt’s East African excursion helped to solidify the role of “the new safari client—a newcomer to Africa, able to command big money, eager to gulp down everything in a big swallow.” By 1968, the safari jacket had been emblematized, not only as an accessory to exploration, but also as the expression of couturier Yves Saint Laurent. So began the jacket’s place in contemporary fashion trends.
At last Thursday’s Balmain presentation, the first look out was a buttery leather safari jacket with silken cargo pants, important blue sandals, and a ringed collar. The jacket appeared often within the collection’s 45 looks. Its frequency anchored Olivier Rousteing’s theme, which, as he explained, could be summed up as “Welcome to my jungle.” Side-by-side with leopard prints and paneled skirts that referenced the visual impression of raffia, the collection had an undeniably colonial edge. Rousteing expressed to Style.com’s Nicole Phelps that he wanted his message to be about “freedom and globalism.” Approaching this collection in that way becomes problematic when we consider the dark, racial past of Rousteing’s reference materials. How does the black French designer negotiate the terms of the colonialist safari for 2014? And how, if possible, does his aesthetic mission overcome the safari’s history?
Working through these questions is hard, and Rousteing’s attempt to end up with a conclusive answer is partially flawed. What deserves our attention here, however, are his successes at forging new concepts through old, hazardous means. Precisely, the casting of black models makes apparent a key dynamic in this collection. Jourdan Dunn came out in the first look from the collection. Malaika Firth, too, helped to make the runway show what is was. They were directly implicated in the lightly obscured colonial nature of the collection’s iconography. In a way, they were also immersed in said iconography, there to reclaim it and to force a direct confrontation with its implications. It was as if Rousteing attempted to respond to history’s call — not only to respond to it, but to stare into its eyes.
Artists like Renée Cox, Grace Jones and Cindy Sherman have long engaged in similar immersions, reclamations, and disruptions. Olivier Rousteing’s connection to this brief tradition shouldn’t be over-emphasized, as this most recent collection does not achieve the goals of those artists to the full extent of their achievement. Particularly, the scandal surrounding Ajak Deng’s cancellation from the show’s lineup cast a heavy umbrage over Rousteing’s efforts. The Australian model, of Sudanese decent, would’ve been the darkest girl to walk. Both Firth and Smalls are comparatively light in skin tone. Rousteing, too, is light-skinned. Even without accusing Rousteing’s casting directors of racism, it’s clear that the situation was suspect and inconvenient.
Rousteing’s collection did what is could. Its high points were glimmers in a collection generally defined by thematic strength but hampered by conceptual force. Articulating new understandings of race is not easy. Nor is fashion’s discourse of race easily perceptible. As Ajak Deng’s cancellation suggests, there will continually be bumps along the way.
Photos courtesy of Style.com and Twitter