Yesterday, Willow Smith made her debut as the new face of Chanel in their Fall 2016 eyewear campaign, a partnership she announced in March at the Fall 2016 fashion show. The 15-year-old slayed in a black-and-white video and photos for the company, rocking thick-rimmed Chanel eyeglasses, a septum piercing, and dreads.
When I say “dreads,” it is absolutely imperative that we take in that this is one of the only times in the fashion world where the dreads are actually real, and actually worn by an African-American woman. Designers including Valentino and Junya Watanabe have been criticized for putting white models on the runway to showcase their African-inspired collections, culturally appropriating various ethnic styles and symbols that are sacred, and have used dreads on just about everyone except on the heads of the people they originated.
According to The Fashion Spot, which factored in 373 shows and 9,926 models in New York, London, Paris and Milan, they found that almost 80 percent of runway models were White. Black models only made up 8.5 percent of castings. When it comes to celebrities, black women are brand ambassadors, but typically for products sold in drugstores. Queen Latifah was a Covergirl, Beyonce snagged L’Oreal Paris, Halle Berry has been the face of Revlon for a decade, and Gabrielle Union is with Neutrogena. Rihanna became the first black ambassador for Dior last year.
The last time that Chanel used models with dreads was in 2012, and they were (surprise!) white. The show, which decorated the heads of white models with dreadlocks, was an inspired by “India,” according to Chanel creative director Karl Lagerfeld, who hadn’t even been to India. However, having Willow Smith as their new ambassador means that perhaps the company is starting to educate themselves on the harms of cultural appropriation, and is realizing that their definition of beauty is limiting and unrealistic. More than that, it’s Chanel finally getting that you can cast black models for any part of a collection, not just for ethnically-inspired runway shows. White girls aren’t the only ones that wear glasses.
The upside of Smith’s campaign is that other designers will start to see that companies don’t crumble or become irrelevant when they choose a model with a different ethnicity or hairstyle. If anything, they reap the benefits of potential new buyers. Having more diverse faces will bring in consumers who may finally take interest in a brand where they previously never saw themselves represented. And if a luxury brand like Chanel can finally showcase black women with natural hair, we can erase the belief that natural hair is “dirty” and unkept, but instead, can be sexy, fashionable, and more than appropriate enough to be on a poster or ad.
We’ll have to see if Chanel continues to hire women of color as their ambassadors in the future, but props to them for actually doing it (and putting the dreads on the head that they finally belong). Faces like Willow Smith’s can only better a brand, not botch it. Now other designers need to see the merit.