Culture

Marc Jacobs Is In A Big Mess Over Cultural Appropriation At Fashion Week

His response has made things muuuuuuuch worse.

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the accusations of cultural appropriation at fashion week. Under the gun this year? Marc Jacobs, whose latest collection walked the runway on models — including Gigi and Bella Hadid, Karlie Kloss, Adriana Lima and Kendall Jenner — styled with pastel-coloured dreadlocks in their hair.

The style, which Jacobs developed with Redken Global executive director Guido Palau, is closely linked to both African-American and Rastafarian culture. Despite this, Jacobs featured just two black women in his show, meaning that a whole heap of white models sported the controversial look on the runway.


Outrage And Outrageous Response

While this caused some concern, the bigger problems came from Jacobs’ response to criticism. It seems that neither Jacobs or Palau (both white designers) could see how the look may be co-opted from black culture as Jacobs blundered forth with this non-apologetic response:

“[To] all who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race or skin colour wearing their hair in any particular style or manner — funny how you don’t criticise women of colour for straightening their hair,” Jacobs wrote in a comment on Instagram.

Of course, the hair straightening to which Marc Jacobs refers is itself a controversial racial issue. Many black women consider the pressure or regulation to straighten their hair a form of systemic oppression. Indeed, there have been countless cases of women of colour facing societal or institutional pressure to change their natural hair. Last month some brave South African schoolgirls fought their school after it forbid afros and “untidy” hair. They won and the policy was repealed.

Not yet content, Jacobs addressed the controversy again later in an Instagram post he attached to pictures of the runway show. He wrote: “I respect and am inspired by people and how they look. I don’t see colour or race — I see people. I’m sorry to read that so many people are so narrow-minded… Love is the answer. Appreciation of all and inspiration from anywhere is a beautiful thing. Think about it.”

The #sorrynotsorry defence did not go over so well.

What Jacobs fails to realise is that saying “I don’t see colour” is not just a cop-out (especially in a fashion show that is walked by mostly white models), it’s also incredibly disrespectful. To suggest that you don’t “see” colour is to imply that racial identity is irrelevant, that the history and culture tied to that identity isn’t worth consideration.

Palau also stuck his foot in it while chatting to New York Mag’s fashion vertical, The Cut, backstage at the show, when he said that the issue of misappropriation never entered his mind. “I don’t really think about it,” he said, “I take inspiration from every culture.” Palau went on to explain that he and Jacobs were influenced by “movements like rave culture, acid house and club culture, travellers, Boy George and Marilyn”.

Jacobs has previously stated that he was specifically influenced by the pastel dreads of filmmaker Lana Wachikowski, who modelled his spring collection for him in a print campaign. When asked if Rasta culture was an inspiration, Palau reportedly said, “No. Not at all.”

The uproar following their statements has been intense, and rightly so.


This Isn’t Really About Ignorance

The thing is, cultural appropriation is a hot-button issue at the moment, and has been for the past couple of years. Look at the current controversy around Lionel Shriver’s keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival last week. Her comments — she said she hopes the concept of cultural appropriation is merely a “passing fad” — led writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied to walk out and share a lengthy post about the discomfort the experience caused her which has since spread around the world. The issue has since been further highlighted by a number of POC creatives in Australia and beyond.

Though it’s clear there’s plenty to talk about, we’re just not allowed to claim ignorance about this issue anymore — not when there is so much discourse out there explaining the difference between “appreciation” and “appropriation”, and why the latter is so harmful. Dismissal of the voices of people of colour who call out the appropriation of their culture is just another way to harm, gaslight and oppress. So let’s not do that.

Today, the plot has thickened. Jacobs has posted a longer apology to Instagram overnight addressing the further problems people have raised with his response: “I have read all your comments… and I thank you for expressing your feelings. I apologise for the lack of sensitivity unintentionally expressed by my brevity.

“I wholeheartedly believe in freedom of speech and freedom to express oneself through art, clothes, words, hair, music… EVERYTHING. Of course, I do ‘see’ colour but I DO NOT discriminate. THAT IS A FACT! Please continue to express your feelings freely but do it kindly. Nothing is gained by spreading hate by name calling and bullying.”

Baby steps, Marc.