Last weekend, Umit Benan unveiled his F/W 14 collection, entitled "Home Run", in Paris. As one of menswear's rising stars, and a personal favorite here at Four Pins, Umit and his collection were highly anticipated, a symptom of both his previous, fantastic showings as well as his departure from Milan Fashion Week to join "the big boys" at arguably the most storied of them all. The ensuing offering pulled no punches—an homage to late American great Jackie Robinson. As far as the clothing themselves, the collection featured a host of 1940's style suiting alongside traditional athletic wear, such as varsity jackets, most of which were outfitted with a "B" patch, representing both Benan and Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers (apparently, when the clothing hits selves, the patches will not be present).
Jackie’s story is admired throughout America and, evidently, around the world as one of perseverance and triumph in the eyes of discrimination, and, without a doubt, Jackie Robinson is one of our country's greatest heroes. Umit’s collection attempted to translate his inspiring story into not only a stylish collection of clothing, but also a statement on the current state of racial politics within the fashion industry. Several editors praised Umit’s use of exclusively black models as a message to the industry that, yes, discrimination still exists against people of color even if overt, flagrant racism—the blatant use of epithets, etc.—has, for the most part, gone away. It's more or less the same subject Kanye West touched on ad nauseum during his various Yeezus press junkets over the past year because it's unmistakeably true. Black models are not even remotely hired as much as their Caucasian counterparts (83 percent of runway models in 2013 were white), and there are almost no designers of color being hired by the larger fashion houses. Despite the best intentions, Umit Benan’s attempt to connect Jackie Robinson and Fashion was ultimately weak, a bit contrived and extremely self-indulgent, simultaneously reinforced society's often inability to see black people as anything but the color of their skin.
While at first glance it's easy to laud Umit's bravery, integrity and unique perspective, further analysis proves how difficult it is to grasp the nuance of what exactly his collection is saying other than what the “No To Racism” sign he held at the end of the show obviously communicates. Even before the show began, when Umit unveiled his inspiration, it was difficult to avoid knee jerk reactions, begging the question, however loaded: What is a Turkish designer doing paying homage to a baseball player, or baseball in general—a sport extremely unpopular where he grew up? Sure, Jackie Robinson is bigger than any game, but still, it's impossible to see Umit’s inspirations as something somewhat distant. Quite frankly, to any casual observer, his use of baseball seems more a calculated stylistic choice than one of deep meaning and thoughtful analysis. And, listen, that's fine if the inspiration is, say, space travel, but when it delves into the tumultuous lives of real people and, more specifically, systemic racism, reaching too far outside one's personal experience can come off as insensitive.
Baseball or otherwise, the main story here was simple: BLACK. As the acclaim poured in for Umit, a Turkish designer using black models to honor a black hero, it became difficult not to think of the "savior" complex. It's not secret that the powers that be love a good story where black people are propped up by the benevolent grace of others. Umit's ability to hire black models—professional or otherwise, as Umit is known for his "unconventional" castings—is simply not that impressive. Umit's models were used in the interest of his own ideas, his own collection and, most importantly, his business.
Will consumers even know about this runway show and its connection to Jackie Robinson when they see one of Umit Benan’s varsity jackets in stores 6 months from now?
Notice how when discussing this collection the cast's race seems to be the first thing people want to talk about. How many times have designers used all white casts and it gone completely unnoticed? In fact, how about Umit Benan Spring/Summer 2014? Yes, the collection honors Jackie Robinson, a black man, so logically it makes sense that the cast would be black, but what Jackie did was not so that black people would be given their own, separate stage. Remember, he played in the Nego leagues first. Even though Umit’s intentions were undoubtedly good, the story here is still black first, then everything else (the clothes, especially). Fashion will not truly be a changed industry until designers can simply cast models as models and not as black or white models and designers are hired as simply designers, not black or white designers. At its core, racism starts with acknowledging that races are even a real thing worth acknowledging, when really they’re just something that we as humans made up as a way to see ourselves as different from one another. And with difference come confusion, with confusion comes fear, with fear comes conflict, and with conflict comes oppression.
So, was Umit Benan's F/W 14 collection a publicity stunt? Absolutely not. It doesn’t seem reasonable to think that, and, clearly, Umit Benan is not a racist, so let's be crystal clear about that. There is no doubt that he was genuinely inspired by Jackie Robinson's story as so many people have before him. But, unfortunately, his attempt at homage quickly became a near dehumanization of a group of people who were simply boiled down to their skin color in the name of a master plan.
Benan has never been a fan of giving his models a face. In previous seasons he's used a variety of masks in the interest of transforming his models from people into walking ideas. "Home Run" utilizes almost the exact opposite technique to achieve a similar result that falls flat. Here, we see the face—other than the few who donned baseball glove masks to open the show—because we are supposed to. We have to. Taking to Instagram both pre-show and post show to individually praise a few of models, close friends or otherwise, while utilizing them as a singular group so decisively seems ironic.
Ultimately, Umit’s first mistake was finding it necessary to translate Jackie's incredible story and adversity into the superficial world of fashion. Mr. Robinson is an untouchable icon, so it’s typically advised to steer clear of this territory when dealing in commercial endeavors, no matter how hard one swings for the fences (no pun intended). Even today, players in Major League Baseball today are barred from wearing the number 42 as a sign of respect. The sheer hubris required to try take Jackie Robinson down from his pedestal in the interest of what is ultimately a promotional event for a fashion brand in somewhat unbelievable. When this happens, his feats are trivialized and his transcendent cultural image is at risk of being sold as something less than that. Will consumers even know about this runway show and its connection to Jackie Robinson when they see one of Umit Benan’s varsity jackets in stores 6 months from now? If not, then what exactly has he done to help? Even now, in the wake of his well-received collection, most everyone is talking about Umit and NOT Jackie. Apparently, they've missed the point.