Why Won’t Comme des Garçons Hire Black Models?
There is little about Rei Kawakubo that hasn’t already been said. She is a genius, a brilliant businesswoman who has maintained sole ownership over an empire molded exclusively in her image, a radical provocateur who still runs creative circles around those far younger than her 75 years. With the death of Azzedine Alaïa, she is arguably the world’s greatest living designer and she seems far from finished. Her company is one of perpetual innovation recognized for its idiosyncratic, undefinable and often puzzling aesthetic that resonates with the misfit in everyone. From her famous Lumps and Bumps collection that made viewers confront society’s fetishization of women’s curves to her enduring collaboration with photographer Nick Knight, she has produced more iconic moments than are possible to recount—but perhaps not all is exactly as idyllic as it seems.
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A couple of months ago, I was working my way through the Instagram stories on my feed when I came across a screenshot from Christopher Niquet, the fashion journalist, close collaborator and romantic partner of Zac Posen, which stated that Comme des Garçons hasn’t hired a black model in the last 10 years. The narrow confines of Kawakubo’s casting caught my eye in the past, as I’m sure it had others, but I had failed to recognize its severity. My curiosity got the better of me and I poured over all of Comme des Garçons’ womens runways shows available on Vogue.com, whose archive stretches back to the Spring 1991 collection. What I learned was even more eye-opening, and distressing, than what I anticipated.
Two important things should be noted at the outset: 1) my analysis is strictly limited to the Comme des Garçons ‘Mainline’ women’s collection runway presentations and does not include the men’s or any other sublabel, and 2) a person’s name and appearance can never fully reveal their genetic makeup or racial identity, however, visibility and appearance are intimately intertwined with concepts of race and, as such, my analysis did rely on physical characteristics to identify those who seem to be of non-Caucasian ancestry.
At first, I limited my research to the previous 10 years in keeping with Niquet’s observation, which I confirmed as accurate. Not only was I unable to identity any black models, but I couldn’t identify any models of color at all. What I did discern was a heavy preference for Eastern European women with especially white skin. To be fair, due to some extreme headdresses, full-coverage bodysuits, and heavy makeup, there were a handful of models across the 10 year span that very well could have been models of color, but if the only models of color are disguised beyond recognition, what does that say about their value in the eyes of Kawakubo’s company? However, even in the instances where the majority of a model’s body was covered, some flesh was usually visible and no one was a shade darker than alabaster, which heavily suggests that none of them were black. It was startling to take in, but I needed more context. If Kawakubo hasn’t cast a black model in a decade, when was the last time she did?
After reviewing the 54 runway shows (excluding the as yet unavailable Fall 1991 season) on Vogue, which includes a total of 2,533 looks, I was only able to identify 5 black models—a total of 32 appearances comprising 1.26 percent of the total runway exits—over the entire covered time span. The last black model I was able to find who traversed the coveted Comme runway was Chrystèle Saint Louis Augustin in the Fall 1994 show. Meaning it has been nearly 24 years since a black model was included in a women’s Comme des Garçons presentation. It just so happens that among those five identified models are some of the greatest, of any background, to ever work a catwalk—Naomi Campbell, Veronica Webb, Beverly Peele—but none ever made an appearance at Comme after 1994. It is important to recognize that the beautiful Anna Cleveland, who has modeled for the brand during fashion week and acted as a brand ambassador by making several appearances on its behalf in recent years, has a blended heritage that includes black and indigenous American ancestry stemming from her mother (modeling legend and fashion luminary Pat Cleveland). However, Anna’s complexion could best be described as peach-tinted cream and no one unfamiliar with her familial history would be able to easily surmise the totality of her background.
But let’s say my count is mistaken. Let’s say that even after double and triple checking my calculations, that my count is off by one, three or even twelve. If the task of counting black models or models of color in general is akin in difficulty to finding a needle in a haystack, then this serious casting issue still remains far from healthy. The real question is the most obvious: Why? Why does a label with a French name founded and run by a Japanese woman have so much difficulty reflecting a genuinely international image? Why does Kawakubo’s radicalism end where the inclusion of brown and black models should begin? Why do Asian models make such scant appearances at an Asian label? Why are Latinx models practically nonexistent? Why are black women erased completely? And why does the fashion community at large allow this to go largely unspoken about?
This predilection for pale features doesn’t entirely spring from nowhere. Asia has a long history of desiring and working to cultivate such an aesthetic, from the lead-based paint used for centuries to create the pale complexions of geishas, to contemporary high-tech Korean beauty products that promote skin ‘lightening’. In the Far East, there can also be a perception of otherness when it comes to those from the West, with many travelers to the region treated with an unexpected level of curiosity. Even anime, one of Japan’s largest and most influential cultural exports, often features characters who bear little resemblance to their creators—Sailor Moon’s long blonde hair and crystalline blue eyes do not read as particularly Japanese. For Kawakubo, who grew up in the devastation and eventual rebuilding of post-WWII Japan, there is no doubt that she was inundated by images and popular music from the West at a young age (as evidenced by collections that reference musicians ranging from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones to Jamie Reid). Her clothes often riff on Japanese concepts of wabi-sabi, spirituality and impermanence, but her beauty standards appear largely adopted from the Eurocentric Western Hemisphere transported to her via magazine advertisements and television during childhood. This is just one of the many dichotomies that appear within her oeuvre—a body of work that claims disdain for feminism yet creates an ideal light years away from any traditionally male notion of allure, and seeks to create wholly new things without precedent yet calls on countless facets of the historical canon, whether in cultural significance or material fabrication.
One of the more interesting aspects of this tale is why 1994 seemed to act as a cutoff date for most models of color, especially black models, with each successive year growing more homogenous. Black models were never strong in number, but at least they were present. It’s impossible to fully comprehend this aspect of Kawakubo’s decision-making process, yet it must be addressed for both ethical and practical rationales, especially since a sizable portion of the brand’s base and public proponents are people of color—no one wore the label better on the 2017 Met Gala red carpet dedicated to Kawakubo than Rihanna and Tracee Ellis Ross.
I am not Ms. Kawakubo and I cannot pretend to know her motivations or inclinations. Perhaps her casting is due to an outdated misconception that in order to present a cohesive vision, one must have similar bodies to showcase the clothes, or perhaps Kawakubo has been horribly misled by casting directors not as free-thinking as their employer. Whatever the reasoning, there must be some level of intention behind it as it would otherwise be impossible to go more than two decades without hiring a single black person—for that, Kawakubo must accept responsibility. The fashion community cannot allow one of its resident geniuses to escape culpability simply because of her brilliant work. If Kawakubo hopes to actualize a brand ethos free from the expectations and societal norms that cause so much pain in the real world, then it is long past time she abandon the kind of racist casting that suggests the only beauty worth anything is lily white.