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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.

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.