I’ve heard the phrase, “rise of the Asian supermodel," thrown around the block for awhile now, and I can personally attest to the veracity of the alleged trend: a few years ago, I could only name maybe one Asian semi-supermodel by name – now, I can name…two. (But the two is on top of the first one, so really, it’s like three.)
This week, after reading yet another article about the “RISE OF THE ASIAN SUPERMODEL,” I decided to see if the claim had any factual basis. There is some: Givenchy’s all-Asian show earlier this year; the ubiquity of Liu Wen, now one of the most booked models for all the hottest haute couture shows; Asian supermodels like Fei Fei Sun and Du Juan achieving a respectable degree of mainstream fame; Vogue publicly validating “Asian” beauty for one and all (finally!) in their December issue by announcing that Asian models have “redefined traditional concepts of beauty.” Oh and also, Louis Vuitton’s spring 2011 collection featured eight Asian models out of the fifty-three total. Eight! That’s fifteen percent of the show!
But, of course, as with any fashion trend that deals almost solely with racial profiling, you know – you just KNOW – what’s coming next. Uncomfortable accusations being thrown around about “exoticism.” Comments that all the female models in the all-Asian Givenchy show were made to look the same, once again reinforcing that hilarious observation that we Asians really do all look alike. Criticism about how Asians are being used as some kind of novelty gimmick – a shiny, new side-fad to spice up the same-old same-old routine of “normal” white models. Cynical assertions that all this new-found diversity is just about money.
Do I think these cries of racism are true? Yeah, probably. I mean, just the way the term “Asian” has been repeatedly and indiscriminatingly used to represent a handful of silk-haired, white-faced East Asians without any distinction or acknowledgment that there are many different types of Asians living in the largest continent of the world – most of whom won’t be rising to supermodel stardom any time soon because of fundamental prejudices – says something, doesn’t it?
But I guess my question after seeing this old debate again is this: what is it that people expect from the fashion industry? At its most basic level, fashion is about the art of appearance. The way a model looks as she’s on the runway: her clothes, shoes, hair, makeup, expressions, attitude, face, style, walk, aura, vibe; you know – the look. And at its most basic level – there’s no use denying it – an obvious difference between races is that they look different. Therefore, it seems to me that fashion is inherently “racist” at its core. Not Galliano-ranting-about-the-Jews racist, but still, “racist” because in an industry that’s all about playing with looks, race becomes an unignorable, distinguishing feature between the products. It’s something that makes them different.
Of course, this doesn’t excuse all the ways the fashion industry is racist in that Galliano-ranting-about-Jews way; but I also think it’s a little delusional, as well as unfair to say that fashion should be colorblind, or that race doesn’t matter. A model donning gold eyeshadow makes a different visual impact from a model smeared with purple, just as a model who’s stick thin makes a different visual impact from one who’s overweight, just as a Chinese model makes a different visual effect than a white model. Race matters in how someone looks.
Which is why it kind of bothers me when I hear the battle cry of “Hey, that’s racist” amidst critics whenever a mainstream designer decides to feature non-white models in a way that doesn’t try to hide their racial differences. Yes, it is racist a lot of times, but other times, maybe it’s just a sincere attempt to appreciate a different look from what the mainstream is used to. And as problematic as the attempt may be, at least they’re trying. It’s ironic that the people who are attempting to bring more diversity into mainstream fashion by braving that very, very fine line between artistic expression and racism end up being the ones who are punished by being called “racist.” It’s a difficult position to be in. Because the bigger, more specific, problem is the fact that “normal beauty” is still overwhelmingly framed within Western ideals, and anything that falls outside those narrow parameters can slip easily into the novelty category. And since Western ideals still sort of dominate… well, everything, it’s an uphill battle for political correctness and cultural sensitivity on both sides of the spectrum.
But with every new show that braves accusations of racism as they try new ideas for incorporating different races into shows and make new mistakes, with every public conversation or argument that starts because of those shows, I think that fashion takes another step closer to becoming an industry that’ll one day (hopefully) celebrate inclusively all different types of beauty in a way that is both artistically pleasing as well as historically and culturally sensitive.
For more information on this topic, please read:
The Asian Supermodel Revolution
Rise of the Asian Models
Gisele, Noami, Liu Wen? Asian Models All The Rage in Fashion World
Fashion Week Fall 2011 Asian faces grace the runways this season, represent shift toward East
The Rise of the Asian Model – A Moment or Movement?
Vogue Magazine: Asian Women Are Beautiful (Finally)!
Vogue: Asian Models Are ‘Redefining Traditional Concepts of Beauty’
Image via Huffington Post