Beauty as Justice: Umit Benan and Others Tap the Fashion Industry's Conscience

Beauty as Justice: Umit Benan and Others Tap the Fashion Industry's ConscienceImage via Style.com

Justin Charity is a freelance and fiction writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is hungry.

Last week, Umit Benan blacked out on a runaway in Paris.

With a perplexing bit of loudspeaker intro, the Turkish-born designer debuted a cast of all black models to trot his latest collection, which commemorated MLB legend Jackie Robinson’s impact on baseball and American culture. Fashion as statement, naturally—yet with an earnestly political execution that took many critics by surprise.

Reviews of Benan’s “stunt” have amounted to a tepid applause. Writing for the Independent, fashion editor Alex Fury expressed that Benan’s anti-racism conceit, while admirable as social sentiment, may suit the industry poorly: “The trouble with tying noble aims to fashion is the simple fact that fashion is a business. It can look like you’re simply trying to tug on the heartstrings of a hawk or something.” Likewise, our fam at Four Pins questioned whether Benan’s PSA messaging was too contrived for its high-fashion context.

At age 32, Benan seems happy to take such risks, sprinting down behind his runway models and flapping a cheerful protest canvas to the audience. And though it may be his boldest and most unabashed, the Jackie Robinson tribute is hardly Benan’s first spectacle of fashion-as-politics. Last year, when Benan incorporated classic Turkish caricature in Spring/Summer 2014 collection, critics underscored the maturing pronouncements of masculinity and political awareness in his stage vision.

In various corners—online, academic, and advocacy communities—many fashion industry critics have long protested for greater social awareness among designers, producers, and retailers. Last year, during New York Fashion Week in September, Jezebel ran a lengthy, data-based analysis of 142 runway shows of womenswear, underscoring that about 80 percent of those 4,637 looks were modeled by white women. “Fashion is often about luxury and exclusivity,” Kate Dries concedes. “But when that exclusivity comes in the form of an all-white cast, it certainly looks like discrimination and racism.”

Broadly, this strain of commercial skepticism has long disquieted the debate over diversity among the models who flaunt the brands. A chief concern is the realism of it all, coupled to the suspicion, in Benan’s context, that major fashion houses don’t much care for/about black consumers. An unwise bet, I’d say. And while Vogue Italia, via Vogueista Black, may be trying to have its black readership and snub it, too, the state of affairs is such that any big, whole-hearted embrace of a black cast or black themes will be seen as a radical departure, a spectacle, a “statement.” So be it.

In Benan’s case, fashion critics’ dismissal of his latest, anti-racism conceit reads rather detached from these larger conversations about the industry. Call it cynicism, call it myopia of the fashion imagination; but across all other media, the question of whether art functions as politics seems all but settled.

Granted, when Allison Davis writes, for New York magazine, “A few collections inspired by Pussy Riot won’t help us to elect a female president,” I can’t help her sense of perspective in regarding Fashion Avenue a detour to the White House—but it’s not like Rick Owens or the staff at Elle are fools and naifs for attempting to refit a $1.5 trillion industry’s conceptions of beauty, inclusion, and fairness.

Artists are often provocateurs. And high fashion is certainly art.

Back in June, SHOWStudio’s discussion of Umit Benan’s Turkish collection also noted the variability of Benan’s designs, which bare an apparently witting de-emphasis of personal brand. But then, perhaps for Benan, the personal is indeed political. In which case, who’s to say that a runway is no place for making statements?

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Tags: high-fashion, fashion-industry, racism, social-justice, umit-benan, new-york-fashion-week
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