You may remember the somewhat problematic spring 2016 ready-to-wear show that Valentino staged. Drawing inspiration from Africa, designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli stated that “the message is tolerance. And the beauty that comes out of cross-cultural expression.” Unfortunately, that got lost in translation, as things got kind of screwed up when it all came to fruition; out of about 90 looks, only 10 were featured on black models, while everyone (including all of the nonblack models) got cornrow hairstyles. If you need more clarification as to why this is an issue, Africa is predominantly made up of black people, and cornrows are a traditionally black hairstyle. So if the team at Valentino wanted to represent Africa, they should’ve at least tried to show their collection on people slightly reminiscent of the majority of those in Africa.
Despite all of the backlash hurled towards the house, things only got worse when the ads came out. Featuring just one black model, Tami Williams, the mostly white cast donned the faux-tribal elements and cornrow hairstyles yet again. Only this time, they traveled to Amboseli, Kenya, using several Maasai tribesmen as background accessories. To put it bluntly, we know what’s wrong with cultural appropriation, and we know it’s not okay to use people – especially indigenous African people – as props. It’s 2016, and Valentino should know better.
Yet apparently they don’t, and here we are.
Let’s talk about Matonyok, the accessories brand that works with Maasai women to produce hand-beaded bags and leather goods in order to provide them with sustainable employment. There’s a way that the Maasai could have been included in this whole thing like how they do at Matonyok. The team at Valentino could’ve used their beading for a more authentic result on some of the pieces instead of the slightly off reproduction that’s come out. Or they could have focused entirely on the Maasai if they were going to shoot their ads in Amboseli instead of trying to lump together the thousands of cultures from the 54 countries in Africa into one collection. Or maybe this whole thing could’ve been slightly ameliorated if they used more than one black model for their “African adventure” (or even better, multiple women who actually represent the various African groups that they’re trying to reference). To be completely frank, they could have walked down the streets of Nairobi and found at least 50 gorgeous Kenyan women to model this collection instead of putting literally the most Aryan model they could find in front of a group of Maasai people in the middle of a ceremony. It’s certainly a bit disrespectful given that there was most likely no interest in learning about the culture, rather simply using it as a backdrop to sell luxury goods.
It’s great that Chiuri and Piccioli were trying to promote tolerance, and the effort is surely appreciated. But the final result is kind of tasteless. Maybe we’re too PC or too easily offended, but this is pretty disturbing when you look at all the issues with the misrepresentation of women of color – especially black women – in fashion imagery and then go ahead with this flop of a tribute to Africa.
You’d think we would all learn by now. But until there’s adequate proof that the industry has grown past these sort of facepalm moments, this conversation is going to keep coming up.
See the full Valentino spring 2016 ad campaign below, and share your thoughts
All photos by Steve McCurry for Valentino