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John Galliano: Just One of Many Problems In the Fashion Industry

Dior fired its celebrated head designer for making anti-Semitic statements. But don't expect a renaissance in the racially tense world of high fashion.
 
 
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This month a rare moment occurred in the fashion world: the very public firing of much-loved Christian Dior visionary John Galliano. Central to Galliano’s fatal gaffe are two separate, public confrontations involving vicious anti-Semitic slurs and inchoate schoolyard jabs lobbed at patrons of a Parisian café, one of which was captured on video.

The first British designer named to lead a French house (Givenchy, 1995) and 13-year-long headmaster at Dior, Galliano is a career eccentric known for loosening up once-rigid couture as well as looking like a fashionable Captain Jack Sparrow. But as the video circulated and news snowballed, Dior executives made the decision to cut him loose within one week. You can’t blame them: Galliano was caught under dimmed lights, nursing a drink and slightly slurring while declaring his love for Adolf Hitler and personal disgust at the strangers filming his consternation. As well as the overnight end to a remarkable career, the British designer also faces possible jail time and has entered rehab. No doubt, the dismissal came in response to upholding consumer and corporate interests. But to hold up Galliano as an isolated example would be to ignore industry-wide prejudices, ones most often swept under the fashion world’s ornate rug.

Fashion proper has successfully styled itself as the bastion of the hyper-progressive, despite deeper corporate-fueled machinations and a conservative, more-moneyed-than-not clientele. That traditionalism is still evident, especially when it comes to race. Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer Robin Givhans recently touched on this idea in a New York Magazine piece called “Why Fashion Keeps Tripping on Race.” Designers and style pundits fete Michelle Obama’s chic, she says, but they also dodge exploring how it might feel to be the only black person in the room. Givhans adds, “The fashion world considers itself so cosmopolitan and sophisticated that it can play fast and loose with racial stereotypes—occasionally shattering them, sometimes benefiting from their stubborn existence… Fashion editorials can be thoughtful and exasperating—sometimes in the same breath.”

This brings up the now-cliché (but still exploited) photo shoot concept documenting comely well-dressed white women cavorting in Third World locales. Contrast and cultural juxtaposition continue to make up the basis for ethnic inclusion within white society’s sartorial Wonderland. Stylists can drape locally sourced textiles over a model’s jutting collarbones as a nod to the scouted locale but it’s an accessory of divergence (vis-à-vis mercantile progress); there’s no system in place to actually purchase that scarf or tunic. Just like the token issue or spread featuring all black models, it's lip service designed to placate an increasingly multicultural audience.

Add to this the continued playing dumb when it comes to ceasing and desisting with the blackface, already. French Vogue’s October 2009 issue ran a 14-page spread featuring model Lara Stone wearing “African”-inspired designs, her body painted a mottled, dull brown. Even more recently, Beyonce—who is sometimes speculated to be retouched to appear lighter-skinned in photos—sported a plainly darkened face in a Fela Kuti tribute editorial for the March 2011 issue of L’Officiel Paris. When controversy inevitably bubbles to the surface, official explanations are always too dismissive and broad stroke, relying on feigned ignorance of what is always a repeat offense. But you can’t dream a post-racial world into existence.

Sometimes fashion’s race problem will make mainstream news, jarring the unspoken conflict into existence. Oprah brought attention to the subtle trickle-down of discrimination after an overzealous Hermes employee denied the mogul access to a Parisian outpost in 2005, citing trouble with north African shoppers. The subtext here (which went mostly ignored because, well, it’s Oprah) was the slandering of non-“French” immigrants of color that is casually acceptable in certain French circles.

Hate most often moves in silence, unlike Galliano. Fashion’s top influencers lack a fundamental mea culpa (or, colloquially, a “flying fuck”) when it comes to the collective treatment of people—women—of color. Exclusive corporate, casting and creative choices might not be Galliano-level obvious, but noiselessly perpetuate tropes that have long-term implications.

The hush-hush culture extends beyond racial discrimination. This time last year, well-known editorial photographer Terry Richardson was the subject of a loud, finger-pointing campaign—led by model Rie Rasmussen—on charges of sexual abuse. Known for his candid, simplistic and often super-lewd photography, Richardson didn’t exactly deny the accusations. Whipping it out while shooting young (sometimes underaged) and barely clothed models is justified, in his mind, as getting in the spirit of things. More serious than the skeevy-looking photographer stripping down in front of suggestible, unsupervised women are the claims—some anonymous—that he solicited sex acts from these girls, not even behind closed doors. Guilty complicity brands the band of creative directors, casting agents and editors that fiend for Richardson’s photographic controversy despite this very public, perverted conduct.

Playing “What’s Worse?” is unfair, but when considering Galliano’s dismissal it's useful to keep in mind that there are other insidious elements rotting beneath fashion’s glam veneer. Here’s a possibly unstable, likely drunken, and clearly fame-engorged designer acting alone on his subliminal through lustily shouted, racist proclamations. That’s awful, for business and society. But isn’t a sexual predator disguising deviance as art, or creative directors who insist on blackface aesthetic, just as condemnable?

Culture critic Cintra Wilson clocked the rote dismissal of problematic personalities and ideas by wealthy creatives in a new think piece for Salon.com. “Untethered rich people act out the unrestrained id of toddlers and madmen – they shit everywhere, literally or figuratively – and their class-peers excuse this batshit crazy behavior,” she writes.

Given all of this, it's surprising that Galliano, as Dior’s artist-in-residence, did not receive similar preferential treatment. (In a statement denying blame on the basis of provocation, he also apologizes, saying, “Anti-Semitism and racism have no part in our society.”) But corporate alignment might have been his ultimate faux pas. Swift dismissals make for cheery PR and, provocation or not, shareholders seem eager to wipe their conglomerate free of controversy. The bigger idea here is that the almost-too-easy solution feels like a trophy Birkin of banishment. It comes off as self-congratulatory example-setting by an industry that condescends to the seemingly plebeian debates of an obviously fragile world.

Dismissing Galliano isn’t extreme, however. It’s the kind of no-tolerance disciplining that should happen more often when dealing with mouthy, boorish CEOs and celebrities. The downside is that these quick-draw actions sidestep deeper discussions. Fashion’s establishment needs to start engaging in ideas and conversations about the fair and ethical treatment of the humans it consumes, or it will continue to be seen as (in Givhans’ words) “bumbling” and “tripped up by ignorance.”

Utopian hallucinations of a post-racial, LGBTQ-safe, non-patriarchal world -- played out in editorials, advertisements and on runways -- might make fashion designers and consumers feel progressive. But it amounts to taking the easy way out. The real world, its battle scars and traumas, can’t be smoothed and airbrushed into cloying, well-dressed submission.

Anupa Mistry lives in Toronto, writing and blogging about music, culture and the Internet.