Cultural Appropriation at Paris Fashion Week: Did Junya Watanabe and Thom Browne Cross the Line?

At Fashion Week, Junya Watanabe featured an African-inspired collection, and Thom Browne borrowed from Asian culture. Both shows had all white models. WTF?

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In the wake of Paris Fashion Week, two designer collections stood apart from the Spring/Summer 2016 pack, although not necessarily for the right reasons. First was the collection of cult menswear god Junya Watanabe, a Japanese designer known for patchwork, mixed-media items and reimagined workwear and suiting, no stranger to implementing American items like Levi's jeans and Brooks Brothers blazers into his collections as high-end reinterpretations. His latest collection featured an array of white models clad in Dutch wax fabric garments, with some wearing dreadlocks and wielding a variety of tribal accessories.

Second came Thom Browne's Spring/Summer 2016 offering, which turned its inspired eye to Japan for a collection of menswear staples infused with a distinct exotic flair, exaggerated by white male models in geisha make-up, a runway that looked like a rice paddy, conical hats, and plenty of drapey, stereotypical kimono-like garments. Normally, Thom Browne is known for pushing the envelope and upping the spectacle during his fashion shows, last season was themed after a funeral, and previous seasons have featured tweed animal masks and heavily padded suits resembling human musculature, which made the flagrant cultural appropriation on display this season all the more jarring.

Self-identifying Asian-American menswear nerd Jian DeLeon (@jiandeleon) and self-identifying African-American menswear nerd Nick Grant (@nicholasgrant) discuss whether Watanabe and Browne crossed the line in presenting their latest collections.

Nick Grant: So, Junya Watanabe, what are you doing? I’ve been looking at what he’s done in the past and you know what his mark has been, and just kind of some of the things he’s trying to reinterpret, and he’s always on the mark, like his Fall/Winter 2015 collection

Jian DeLeon: Right, the one inspired by La Sape.

NG: Exactly, the sapeurs. He featured actual Congolese sapeurs and he had the dandyism on point. Everything about it was crisp and cut well.

JUNYA WATANABE Fall/Winter 2015 collection PARIS MENSWEAR #moda #fashion

JD: People who aren’t really familiar with La Sape—it’s a group of Congolese dandies, originating in Brazzaville. Sapeurs dress a bit like Jidenna, but they were doing it way before him. They were on the "classic man" tip way before “Classic Man.”

That whole movement had existed in Africa as like a style tribe for decades, there’s a whole book about it. And Junya, when he sampled that—I’m gonna say sample, because he took the inspiration and put his own spin on it—he paid homage and he did it in the right way.

NG: It was almost like he overstated it because it felt so authentic, there was a lot of inspiration. You could tell he took the inspiration to the next level. Like you said, it wasn’t a reappropriation, it was basically just a reintroduction to exactly what this movement looks like. Obviously because it’s Junya, he had some of his features in it, but in terms of the overall look and the show and the models, it was perfect. So do a complete 180 to go and do this shit with the jewelry, the dreads…

Shoutout to Junya Watanabe on his Rachel Dolezal collection

JD: Even the clothes themselves aren’t as awesome as the last collection. There are some good pieces, but the styling, the dreads… it’s too OD.

NG: I almost felt like it was put together super last minute. Like, those affectations were put together really quickly because he thought they would add to the homage that he was paying with the collection but it was done so poorly and just the taste levels were completely off.

JD: He went from doing it so right to doing it completely wrong. There were so many black models in the last collection and then this collection has none. Everything good that he did and was authentic about that last season is gone. I mean, you have the dreads and you have a dude straight-up with a tribal mask and a spear.

But, seriously?

NG: It’s one of those things where it gives people in the fashion industry a bad rep. It’s what always causes this perception outside of fashion where that people in the industry have no social or  political awareness—we don’t understand what’s going on and it leaves us open to being called ignorant and naive, when people really do understand it. If you’re looking at this without any real understanding of what’s going on, then it looks really really bad. It just kind of sucks because I like Junya, I like what he’s done in the past, but I just feel like this wasn’t really thought out.

JD: It came off as a really colonialist collection. He’s partnering with Vlisco, which is the company that makes those colorful Dutch wax fabrics. The artist Yinka Shonibare is known for making a ton of stuff, including dresses and suits, out of Dutch wax fabrics in his work. He uses them to represent and challenge colonialism. This Junya Watanabe collection feels a bit out of context.

Yinka Shonibare explores culture, identity & politics via multi media. Hallmark is brightly colored fabric. Amazing.

NG: And that fabric was really big a couple years ago right? Burberry Prorsum used it, who else was using it? Was it Woolrich Woolen Mills? Am I making that up?

JD: There was the Woolrich Woolen Mills Spring/Summer 2012 collection. African and batik prints in menswear aren’t anything new. Engineered Garments Spring/Summer 2015— the collection in stores now—features Kalamkari scarves and shirts, and was inspired in equal parts by Robert Lighton’s British Khaki brand and the colonial-era British army in India. But unless you specifically knew that’s what it was, you couldn’t really tell because they managed to reel it in enough. The clothes speak for themselves, and the way they were presented was very true to the brand. The inspiration didn't overshadow the execution like it does with this Junya collection.

NG: Like I said, it just really seems like it was put together really quickly and wasn’t really thought-out and was like a last-minute decision that obviously it backfired.

JD: Well maybe not. Keep in mind, we now live in a very hyper-sensitive world when it comes to race.

NG: Absolutely.

JD: The Internet has become a platform for the proliferation of social justice. In the context of fashion specifically, this collection showed one season after A.P.C.’s Jean Touitou found himself in hot water for using the n-word in a presentation. For this to occur definitely doesn’t make the fashion world look any better in terms of its already prominent diversity problem and it being an unwelcoming space for minorities.

NG: Right, well I mean that goes into the discussion we’ve been having for like what, 20 years now? About models of color being featured on the runway, and how all these brands are really just starting to introduce them, and for something like this to still happen when there’s cultural appropriation and you're either doing it wrong, like what Junya just did, or what Thom Browne just did. It’s almost like they’re oblivious to it.

JD: We’ve also seen prominent minority, especially black, designers on the rise. In menswear specifically, you have Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air, Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School, and Virgil Abloh of Off-White, who have all been nominated for awards. In the recently dropped documentary Fresh Dressed, Maxwell, who worked for Sean John at the time, was talking about how the first black winner of the CFDA Men’s Designer of the Year Award was Diddy in 2004, that was just 11 years ago. That’s crazy.

NG: It’’s a good thing because an African-American designer or somewhat designer was being recognized, but it also showcases that it would take someone of Diddy’s stature to be recognized in that position. He’s obviously not a designer, he may have done some design for the brand, but to be recognized in that capacity and be considered a black designer, it’s almost like a slap in the face to actual black designers of that time and then, you think about today.

JD: To his credit, Diddy gave props where they were due. It was a team effort and a team victory. He says something along those lines in the film. He’s very much like Pharrell, who puts on pretty much anyone he collaborates with—whether it’s in music, fashion, or art. He really paved the way for guys like Pharrell and Kanye West to be the multi-hyphenates that they are today. That whole era of so-called “urban brands” really pioneered fashion as being a place where you could go in as  like a rapper or a musician or someone not of that world, and carve your own lane. And I think now, we’ve sort of reached a convergence where the runway, what’s hot in the streets, and what people are rapping about are like finally mixing in the right way. The energy goes both ways, and I don’t think that’s happened before.

NG: It’s kind of infiltrated fashion and art, and it’s all kind of come together. Whether it’s being appropriated correctly or not, I think that’s still up for debate. I almost want to give Junya Watanabe the benefit of the doubt that this was some kind of political statement and like a reverse protest or something, where he just wanted to completely make it into a spectacle that basically says: “I did this on purpose, this needs to be a part of the discussion.”

JD: I think there’s just this distinct nerdiness there and an aspiration to sort of use the fabric, and the idea was better than the execution. He could have avoided controversy by not taking the concept so literally. There’s no way nobody’s not going to call bullshit when they see that.

NG: Oh absolutely, and it already has been called out. This also kind of reminded me of the Rick Owens collection with the step team, that was an appropriation of black culture, but it wasn’t about the clothes. Here, it’s about having this African-inspired collection and not having any African models or any models of color while still featuring a lot of the cultural references to the West Indies and Africa in general. I understand why you’d want to make the show memorable, you want to make the collection memorable, but at what cost?

JD: There could be an entire book about black culture’s relationship to fashion—in fact there is a book if anyone has the chance to check it out. It’s called Slaves to Fashion by Monica Miller, and it traces the roots of black dandyism. But moving forward to Thom Browne… Asian culture is often reappropriated in fashion, I mean the last big time in the fashion world was the Met Gala which had the theme of “China: Through The Looking Glass.” You also have Balmain’s dragon-embroidered blazer worn by Justin Bieber and Kris Jenner, and Supreme did a kurta-inspired T-shirt and a kung fu jacket with matching pants. You see that sort of frog button jacket being reinterpreted from everyone from Arpenteur, a French label, to Needles. Michael Bastian made a samurai-embellished sweater a few seasons ago. Ralph Lauren even references Asian culture in some of their clothes.

So it’s not anything new, but again, it’s the idea and inspiration being taken so literally in the execution of the fashion show. Thom Browne literally had models in yellowface in a traditional Japanese setting that looked like a rice paddy, replete with conical hats and geisha-like make up. Isn’t it 2015? What’s happening? What Thom Browne did was OD: the bamboo stalks, the printed banners—

Geisha meets goth @ThomBrowneNY menswear #SS16 – see it here:
... spring 2016 details ... photos: @patrickjanelle

NG: The rice mats on the floor.

JD: Right and again, he used all white models in an Asian-themed collection.

NG: Obviously, it still has his uniform look with the greys, the suits, the overemphasized tailoring and all that good stuff, but then he is taking—and I’m speaking directly to the collection here—he is taking it to the next step with some of the traditional Japanese imagery.

Kabuki crucifixion at Thom Browne.

JD: The ironic thing is that Thom Browne wouldn’t still be in business  if it weren’t for the Japanese consumer and the Japanese market.

NG: Absolutely. So do you think that’s why he’s doing it? Because he knows he has such a following in Japan and with the Japanese market that this is his way of I dunno, like paying it forward.

JD: Definitely not. Because what the Japanese market loves about Thom Browne is his reinterpretation of Trad American menswear. And for him to flip that on its head and deliver this ultra-literal Japanese collection, I think that falls super flat. That's not what they go to Thom Browne for. In the same way that Japanese investors also saved J. Press from going out of business because of that cachet of classic American prep style, that was the look that Thom Browne took to modern times. So to have these wooden slippers and these Hokusai-esque graphics, just seems a bit off-brand. I mean, not a lot of the runway stuff is what makes it into stores, but the presentation doesn’t sit right with me.

NG: Uh yeah. I mean two big designers really falling flat with their showcases when they obviously were trying to make something unforgettable. I don’t want to bring emotions into this, but I mean we’re in an emotional state right now, not just in the U.S., even if you look over in Europe or Asia or Libya or all these other places where there are these big political statements being made and these big issues that are being taken up, even from a fashion side of things, it's not just about fashion. We need to make sure that we’re asking those questions and we’re making these designers and these people and these models ask themselves why something like this happens.

JD: I mean, at the end of the day, the consumers and the buyers are the ones who can affect change, so I think  you can give all the positive and negative press you can to something like this and this kind of collection but ultimately what moves the culture of fashion forward is what stays on the racks and what flies off the racks.

NG: Absolutely. You make a good point that it does come down to the buyers, but if we do keep asking these questions and we do shine a light on these things and say: “Hey, this is kind of fucked up” and more people are saying: “Yeah well, I didn’t really think about that, that is kind of fucked up.” The more and more people that get behind that and move that forward will kind of force the issue on the buyers. It's sort of a chicken or the egg situation, but I think that it does start with us asking those questions.

JD: People vote with their wallets, and I think we’re starting to move into the age where, as people pay more attention to the menswear market, we’ll be able to quantify who that consumer is and start to see the establishment of fashion and menswear reflect the diversity of people who are interested in the clothes and who are buying them. There’s a way to cultivate a certain degree of multiculturalism without being so Benetton about it.

NG: I just think that these two brands—Thom Browne and Junya Watanabe—have taken a step back in how they present themselves. It’s kind of unfortunate because I respect both of them, I just think both of them made really stupid decisions with these collections and with the shows. I just don’t think that the taste levels are there, and hopefully they'll both learn from it and make the right decisions.

JD: It’s a disappointment because there’s such a diverse energy and “anything goes” approach to menswear right now, and it just feels so backwards. I can’t believe these particular designers who have such a diverse fan base of different ages, different ethnicities, different styles, to see two things like this being executed in this day and age is a reminder of what Obama was saying on the WTF podcast. Racism is very much not over. It’s not so much about being polite or being cognizant of each other's differences as much as it is trying to re-educate ourselves about things that have been institutionalized by people ages before us. Whether it’s a mentality or stereotypes that have been proliferated by white culture. We have a lot of work.

NG: Absolutely, not just in the fashion industry but as “one nation under God,” there’s a shit ton of work that needs to be done.

JD: Yeah sure, fashion is clothing, but fashion is reflective of the society and culture that we live in, and the designers that are really relevant and that we care about have always been able to encapsulate and interpret the mood and the zeitgeist in clothing and in style.

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