Daily Archives: August 23, 2010

What’s Beautiful in Eco-Disaster Chic?

The latest contribution to “oil spill-inspired” fashion has come from a small footwear company called Bed|Stü.** The boat shoes (pictured above and available for purchase in November) are from their “Gulf Coast Cleanup” collection. The shoes aren’t yet listed on their website but similar shoes (e.g., the Uncle Buck and Uncle Larry models) are $75.

A lot of the same critiques targeted at Steven Meisel’s “Water & Oil” spread in the August 2010 Vogue Italia issue (see Refinery 29 and Jezebel) might be directed to this collection. Arguably, both aestheticize and thus depoliticize the material and environmental effects of the April 2010 oil spill. In making the oil spill “fashionable,” Vogue Italia and Bed|Stü diminish the significance of this devastating act of corporate irresponsibility for the people and for the wildlife whose very lives depend on the health and safety of the gulf. Worse, they exploit this catastrophe for commercial profit. For these reasons, as critics have already widely noted about the Vogue Italia editorial, it is outrageously offensive. (In an article about the editorial, Tyler Gray writing for Fast Company poses this question to his readers: “Who does this make you loathe more, BP or the fashion industry?”) Even Vogue Italia editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani admits Meisel’s photos are “shocking.”

And yet, as both supporters and detractors have noted, they are “beautiful” (see here, here, and here).

What interests me about the above shoe collection and the Vogue Italia spread is the ways in which they can be read as “beautiful” when they (1) overtly depict such ugliness and (2) when their production depends precisely on the kinds of wastefulness that are contrary to the increasingly popular eco-sartorial sensibilities the global fashion industry is publicly embracing? (Consider that the photographer, model, and Vogue Italia editorial and production crew flew to Los Angeles from New York City and Italy for the shoot. And that the luxury clothes destroyed in the photo shoot – labels included Alexander McQueen, Alaïa, Hussein Chalayan, Alexander Wang, and more –  will only add to landfills).

A brief word about eco-fashion:

Since around 2005 when Earth Pledge and luxury retailer Barney’s sponsored the first FutureFashion event during Fall New York Fashion Week, the fashion and beauty industries have been widely organizing around an eco-activist platform of sartorial sustainability. Their efforts include the production and promotion of environmentally-sound fashion. (That same year, the World Environment Day celebration in San Francisco concluded with a climactic “Catwalk on the Wild Side” eco-chic fashion show sponsored by the nonprofit Wildlife Works and featuring top models and fashions by, among others, Loomstate. Loomstate, by the way, was also one of the subject’s of the recent and very beautifully curated “Ethics+Aesthetics = Sustainable Fashion” exhibition at Pratt Manhattan Gallery that Francesca Granata and Sarah Scaturro put together.) Disposable fashion, fast fashion production practices, as well as the notion of fashion seasons (based less on weather and ecology and more on capitalist principles of planned obsolescence that work to mobilize and accelerate consumer desires and actions) are losing favor in the fashion industries and among fashion insiders. What’s “in” are slow fashion, locovore models of fashion consumption and production (e.g., the Made in Midtown campaign), and “timeless” investment pieces. Thus, the pursuit of beauty and fashion today is understood to serve ecological goals.

So given this new climate of eco-sartorial activism, what do we make of the “Gulf Coast Cleanup” collection and “Water & Oil” campaign? At one level, we can understand (and dismiss) the shoes and the fashion photo spread as contrary to the stated goals of eco-sartorial activism. Surely, aestheticizing environmental disasters is not eco-chic. Yet, the Gulf Coast Cleanup shoes and the “Water & Oil” spread are meant to be read as environmentally-conscious fashion statements and indeed, as beautiful (in some way).

In a blog post discussing the process by which covers—particularly the aforementioned August 2010 cover—are created, Sozzani writes: “A cover must arouse curiosity, interest, even wonder. It should surprise, at each issue. It should never offend others, though (my emphasis).” She goes on to assert that “glamour, sophistication, eccentricity and elegance” are the primary elements of every Vogue Italia cover. Further, neither Sozzani nor Bed|Stü are oblivious to the devastating consequences of the oil spill. Sozzani has said that “[t]he message [of the “Water & Oil” editorial] is to be careful about nature” and Bed|Stü has asserted the conservationist goals of the “Gulf Coast Cleanup” collection—they’ve committed 100% of the profits from the sales of this collection to the World Wildlife Foundation and its efforts towards restoring the gulf’s ecosystem. Without meaning to be too cynical, I think it’s fair to say that the publicity these shoes generate for the company won’t be bad for its own bottom line either. Nonetheless, it’s not so easy to dismiss Vogue Italia and Bed|Stü as simply being tone deaf to eco-sartorial activism or the larger chorus of environmentalism that, as Randy Shaw notes, is the “new national activism” of our time. But how is the ugliness of the oil spill reconciled in the fashionable Gulf Coast Cleanup shoe collection and the “Water & Oil” spread? How are ecological disasters made chic?

To begin, it’s important to understand that eco-disaster chic is actually not as novel or cutting-edge as Sozzani imagines.

The aesthetic recuperation of the conventionally un-beautiful or the ugly has a long, if unstable, political and social history. Prominent examples include the Negrophile movement in the first half of the 20th century and the “Black is Beautiful” movement in the second half. Both, to ambivalent effects, intended to wrest cultural imperialist notions of blackness (associated with primitivity) away from its racist roots. Sarah Nuttall’s edited volume Beautiful/Ugly: African and Diaspora Aesthetics (Duke University Press 2006) explores an array of other examples, this time involving African diasporic artwork like Joseph Francis Sumegne’s sculpture made entirely from garbage called La Nouvelle Liberté (The New Statue of Liberty) and the “fertility dolls” young girls in Johannesburg construct out of waste materials.

Finding beauty in the socially-defined ugly is a prevalent theme in contemporary U.S. popular culture as well. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty (launched in 2004) and the reality television show How to Look Good Naked hosted by Carson Kressly (who cut his style guru teeth in the wildly popular and by now, widely theorized show, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) both seek to “make more women feel beautiful everyday by widening stereotypical views of beauty.”

As it is implied here, these “makeover” events include a therapeutic dimension. The primary goal is not to simply look beautiful but to feel beautiful. This feeling, we are repeatedly told in the era of fashion and beauty’s democratization is accessible to anyone through the deregulated free market of ideas and consumer objects. Note that the Dove campaign website includes “self-esteem building tools,” “self-esteem activities,” “self-esteem discussion boards,” “self-esteem workshops,” and “articles by leading self-esteem experts.” The website also assures that “Your Dove purchase supports self-esteem.”

In taking a broader historical view of eco-disaster chic, there is very little that is novel or cutting-edge about the aesthetic or social concept of either the “Gulf Coast Cleanup” collection or the “Water & Oil” editorial. (To be fair, Bed|Stü—unlike Sozzani—makes no such claims of avant-gardism though their supporters certainly do.)

What is unique about these fashion statements of eco-disaster chic is that their rearticulations of that which is ugly (i.e., environmental devastation, corporate irresponsibility, and the destruction of local economies) into something reinterpreted, repackaged, and resold as fashionable and, yes, beautiful lacks any semblance of a resistant politics.

Whatever criticisms we may have about the Dove campaign, for example, (e.g., its reconstitution of traditional notions of beauty such as clear skin, symmetrical facial and bodily features; its superficial multicultural agenda; its uncontested claim that consumer capitalism is a natural and necessary condition for the public good, and so on), it does have feminist and democratic intentions: “to challenge beauty stereotypes” that leave only “2% of women around the world [able to] describe themselves as beautiful.” (For a critique of these statistics, see Virginia Postrel’s 2007 Atlantic article The Truth About Beauty.)

Unlike the Dove campaign, the How to Look Good Naked show, or the Black is Beautiful movement, “Water & Oil” does nothing to challenge hegemonic notions of beauty or the exclusions and elitism such notions reproduce and secure. Kristin McMenamy, the model featured in “Water & Oil,” is older than many models (she turns 46 this year) but her thin body, clear skin, and lustrous blond hair – some say “gray” though I don’t see it- evidence her youthfulness. In addition, the composition and the lighting of the photos emphasize,  centralize, and idealize the long-limbed, hollow cheek-ed, white female body form. Below, the placement of the netting around her legs give her body a mermaid-effect. McMenamy’s beached mermaid may be tragic but she is still conventionally beautiful.

Further, the denunciation by Vogue Italia’s supporters of its critics as too stupid or too politically correct to fully appreciate the cutting-edge and radically beautiful aesthetic of the editorial smacks of liberal White elitism. Historically, the failure to respond positively to “avant-garde” art has often been perceived as a mark of less-refined taste. And judgments of taste, as we know from numerous scholars and as we have seen in the hullabaloo around previous “cutting-edge” fashion ideas like “homeless chic” and blackface, are in no small measure judgments of race and class.

In the above examples of eco-disaster chic, then, the ugly is not so much recuperated as beautiful. Such an act of recuperation would disrupt, if only temporarily, the usual categories of beautiful and ugly. Instead in eco-disaster chic, hegemonic notions of beautiful – as well as the usual arbiters of beauty – colonize ugliness in ways that uncritically maintain beauty as the category of the good, the moral, and the transcendent.

**I’ve been really disciplined here by not making too much about that odd and frankly, ill-placed, umlaut in the Bed|Stü company name. However, if the company’s name is an homage, as its website asserts, to “the tough and resilient streets of Bed Stuy, Brooklyn” – no umlaut there! – the umlaut is very perplexing indeed. What’s more, the umlaut changes the pronunciation of this name from “Bed Sty,” a verbal shorthand for the neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York called Bedford Stuyvesant, to “Bed Stew” – which is . . . I don’t know where.