Category Archives: LABOR AND THE CREATIVE ECONOMY

“Asian Americans in Fashion” on CUNY TV

Below is a video of a program called “Asian American Life” that aired on CUNY TV on October 10, 2013. I appear in clips about the work of fashion blogging. While the show just aired, my bit was recorded in June after a panel discussion Mimi and I were a part of about race, fashion, and economies at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).

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Why Fashion Should Stop Trying to be Diverse

UPDATE: This post is now re-published at Salon (in slightly abridged form)!

OK, I take it back. For the last six years or so, I’ve written countless articles, essays, and blog posts criticizing the lack of racial and size diversity on fashion runways and in print editorials. I’ve argued for the need to expand the industry’s vision for the types of bodies that could represent what is beautiful and fashionable so that the torrent of images that permeate the everyday lives of so many different women and girls might reflect the broad range of body types and sizes of the industry’s target and accidental audiences. But never mind. I take it back. Fashion should stop trying to be inclusive. Stop trying to be diverse.

Recent efforts to diversify fashion runways and editorials have made me both sigh and groan. I sighed when I read the letter written by the Diversity Coalition (an organization formed by Black American and British models Bethann Hardison, Naomi Campbell, and Iman) calling out the fashion powers-that-be for their inattention and inaction when it comes to racial diversity in modeling. Their letter effectively sets Asian models apart from other models of color. Apparently, Asian models don’t count as racial diversity. The notion that Asians are not real people of color or are “honorary whites” serves racism by denying anti-Asian racism—which has a long and enduring history in fashion. It also advances a deep-seated divide-and-conquer approach to race relations that ignores the way racism impacts all racialized people.

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Believing the hype that Asian models are untouched by the fashion industry’s systemic racism requires that we ignore the reality of their under representation. Jezebel’s survey of nine New York Fashion Week seasons between 2008 and 2013 shows that Asian models never comprise more than 10 percent of turns on the runway. In five of the nine seasons, Asian models have less representation than Black models. And in the four seasons in which there are more Asian models represented, the difference is minimal—falling somewhere between .5 percent and 3.1 percent. This month, during NYFW Spring 2014, Asian models outnumbered Black models by the very slimmest of margins, .02 percent. By no stretch of the imagination can we take these numbers to be evidence that Asian models somehow have it easier in the fashion industry than other nonwhite models. Across these ten seasons, white models never make up less than 79.4 percent. This massive disparity can only be the result of the fashion industry’s systemic racism that inordinately benefits white models and disadvantages all nonwhite models. While I applaud the Diversity Coalition’s mission and efforts, I’m holding out hope that it doesn’t reproduce the same kinds of racial exclusions it intends to critique.

As an example of the groan-inducing moment in recent fashion history, I turn to the buzziest show of the season: Rick Owens’ show in Paris in which he used teams of mostly African American step dancers to introduce his Spring 2014 ready-to-wear line. The fashion media—so far—has universally praised the show as a “powerful” move by a leading fashion designer to overturn the industry’s dominant racial order. But “power” is exactly what’s missing in this show—and, for that matter, what is missing in the discussions about this show and about racial diversity in fashion in general. To pass muster as real change would require the racial dynamics of power that structure fashion’s visual cultures and practices be disassembled. Instead, Owens’ show represents a continuation of the same hierarchies of race and power that make it possible for a famous white designer to request that predominantly young Black women serve up “a routine that embodie[s] viciousness” for a mostly white audience.

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Fashion’s racial problem is not that white models far outnumber nonwhite models on the runways and in mainstream fashion magazines. The racial makeup of fashion’s visual cultures is only a symptom of a much deeper problem: the almost-exclusive control of white perspectives to define what is beautiful. The exercise of this control is apparent even in fashion imagery and events that include a majority number of people of color if they are there to serve a racial function. Some of the most common racial functions in fashion are:

  • people of color used as multicultural scenery, there to provide contrast and intensify the difference between them and the white model(s)
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Multicultural scenery

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More multicultural scenery

  • people of color used as multicultural window dressing, there to cover over the reality of fashion’s systemic racism
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Multicultural window dressing

  • people of color used as multicultural spectacle for an audience of cultural tourists (who do not belong to or associate with the people whose racially gendered bodies are on display)
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Multicultural spectacle

  • people of color used as embodied evidence of the “multicultural cool” of the white designer, white brand, white magazine, etc.
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Click the image to see my post about this film and the issue of “multicultural cool”.

What each of these categories share, and what links them as liberal multiculturalist posturing (as opposed to radically substantive change) is that each of these multicultural moments unfolds and emanates from the privileged and controlling perspective of whiteness. In these situations, the standards of beauty—as well as the standards of unconventional beauty—are established and contained by white perspectives and white needs for racial difference. Owens has said that he chose to introduce his spring 2014 line through step because he was “attracted to how gritty it was.” In the context of racial spectacles, what is important is not the cultural history or cultural present of the cultural practice on display; what is important is the display of racial difference itself. The significance of racial difference for its own sake (rather than for the sake of social and cultural political equity) is summed up in Suzy Menkes’ review for the New York Times in which she describes “the joy of seeing a sea of black faces”.

Owens’ show and the popular discussions about it are reflective of a general misunderstanding about the ways that racism and exploitation work.

As I wrote in another post, racism is not about individual intention. Well-intentioned people speak and act in ways that reinforce racism all the time. The only way to undo racism is to fundamentally alter the structures that enable whites to benefit from racism and people of color to be exploited by it.

And just as racism doesn’t require intention, exploitation doesn’t demand dominance. It is entirely possible for fun and gratifying experiences to be exploitative. (For more on this, see Mark Andrejevic’s excellent essay, “Estranged Free Labor.”) The dancers surely enjoyed the global spotlight, the free trip to Paris, and the free designer clothes that I imagine Owens allowed them to keep as a gift and because these outfits were individually tailored for each dancer’s body. Stepper Adrianna Cornish tells reporters that the experience is “something [she] never would have dreamed of”. A blogger for the Wall Street Journal notes that “some guests dabbed tears during the show” and that dancers themselves were “wiping tears” from their cheeks following the performance. To draw attention to the exploitative conditions of the performance is not to deny or diminish the fact that the show was emotionally moving for some of its participants and observers. But if racism is not necessarily a product of personal feelings and intentions then anti-racism cannot be achieved at the level of personal feelings either.

So how do we know racism or exploitation when we see it? (Hint: they are usually conjoined.) A quick and handy litmus test is one in which the following two questions are answered positively. Does one party benefit, not just more but disproportionately more, from the multicultural event than the other participating party? Does this relation of benefits mirror and repeat the prevailing social relations that already structure dominant society? If the answer to both questions is “yes” then it is a pretty good bet that the multicultural event is racially exploitative.

In the example of Owens’ show, the white American designer stands to reap immeasurable social, cultural, and financial rewards for this show. Already, the show is securing his reputation as a cultural provocateur and a fashion rule-breaker. In the professional and user-generated press, Owens is regarded as a leading force in the industry, an edgy designer, and an innovative showman. The dancers, on the other hand, are merely looked at as evidence of Owens’ creative genius, as the current hot topic in fashion (one that will, as all hot topics do, fade out), and an outré spectacle. New York magazine’s fashion blog The Cut likens them to a UFO sighting and fashion blog The Gloss describes the dancers as an Orange is the New Black celebration, referencing the new Netflix original series about women inmates. (Remember, all of these dancers are college students or college graduates.)

Thanks to the deluge of reviews, of Instagram photos and videos, and tweets, Owens’ brand is winning in the attention economy that now drives fashion in the age of social consumerism. And if others felt the way a Dazed Digital reporter did after the show—wanting “to clear [her] savings [and] buy a Rick Owens leather jacket”—then this publicity will also generate sales.

The dancers, on the other hand, the women whose bodies, energy, and time made the show will be remembered only as Owens’ dancers. The few dancers that have been interviewed and named will be forgotten but Owens’ bold statement, his powerful message, and his creative vision will be memorialized in fashion history. In academic language, Owens will be remembered as the agent of the show while the dancers will be remembered as the people who instrumentalized his agency, his vision, and his mission.

So I repeat: the global fashion industry should stop trying to be inclusive, stop trying to be diverse. Rather than count racial bodies, it should begin recalibrating its structural dynamics of race, power, and profit so that a statement like Menkes’ that “the imagination of the [white male] designer is the greatest achievement of the show”—a show brought to life by the talents and hard work of mostly Black women dancers—is simply unthinkable.

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LINKAGE: New Essay!

Some news! An article I wrote last year called “‘Susie Bubble is a Sign of the Times’: The Embodiment of Success in the Web 2.0 Economy” is now available online at Feminist Media Studies. In it, I consider the enormous popularity of fashion blogging phenom Susie Bubble (also, Susanna Lau) as a case study for examining the cultural frames that now shape how we see and recognize “success” in the digital creative economy. Understood more broadly, the essay explores the new racial and gendered formations of the labor market in the creative digital economy. This article builds on and expands some of the ideas from my blog posts tagged under the label “Fashion 2.0” (in the Departments pull-down menu, right column).

Also! This week I was super excited to learn that an older article called “Blog Ambition: Fashion, Feelings, and the Political Economy of the Digital Raced Body” in Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies was the journal’s most-read article in March 2012! WOOOT!!

(I know we’ve been a little quiet on Threadbared for awhile but wanted to share these essays as alternative ways you can keep up with what we’ve been doing.)

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VIDEO: T-Shirt Travels

The documentary T-Shirt Travels (2001) explores the relationship of the secondhand clothing economy and “Third World Debt in Zambia”. This documentary should not be confused with Pietra Rivoli’s 2009 book The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy, which as one of my friends puts it “cares more about free markets than free people.” (h/t Alondra Nelson and Kim Yi Dionne for this video!)

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Vintage Ad: Underwood’s Red!

Harmonizing gendered labor and gendered consumption in one happiness-making product: this vintage ad (ca. 1955) via my Twitter feed. #TGIF

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Some Notes on Fashion’s “Labor Problem”

Asian immigrant women garment workers walking the sidewalk, boycotting DKNY.In Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique, Roderick Ferguson argues that industrial capital pursues labor regardless of labor’s “origins” while the political state secures its body politic through racial and gender regulations. He observes, “While capital can only reproduce itself by ultimately transgressing the boundaries of neighborhood, home, and region, the state positions itself as the protector of these boundaries.” Ferguson locates certain raced figures –the”transgendered mulatto,” the “out-of-wedlock mother”– as compelling scenes for these competing powers in the twentieth century, to which we might well add the “garment worker” in the new one. 

At the end of 2011 New York Fashion Week, fashion industry stalwarts including Oscar de la Renta, Brooks Brothers, and Diane von Furstenberg joined with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in calling for immigration reforms and easier visa procedures for international workers. Here is the International Business Times:

Mayor Bloomberg announced that eleven leading designers, retailers, wholesalers, and entrepreneurs from the fashion industry have joined the Partnership for a New American Economy to make the case that sensible immigration reform will help American industry and grow the American economy.

The Partnership is an alliance between business leaders and mayors in the US launched by Mayor Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch to influence public opinion and policymakers toward comprehensive immigration reform.

One of their major goals is to pursue the White House and the Congress to enact legislation in order to create a path for legal status of thousands of undocumented immigrants residing in the country.

New York City, being the hub of the fashion industry, has over 165,000 undocumented immigrants, accounting for 5.5 percent of the City’s workforce and 31 percent of its manufacturing jobs.

Here is Bloomberg’s statement from The New York Observer, which states the case for capital:
New York City is the fashion capital of the world, and that means thousands of jobs for our City – not only for models and designers, but also for seamstresses, deliverymen, clothing manufacturers and caterers…. But if international fashion companies face too many visa problems in America, they will simply move their billions in revenue and thousands of jobs to our competitors overseas. We need an immigration strategy that supports our businesses, instead of getting in their way.

Yes, we need a broad immigration rights movement that includes full legalization, especially for undocumented and low-wage workers whose access to visa and green card programs is limited (see the Brooklyn-based Audre Lorde Project’s statement on immigrant rights, for instance). But I’m positive that the answer is not recruiting labor to New York City in the name of fashion –which is also the name of industrial capital– even as the political state disestablishes social services and other welfare provision to immigrant and working-class communities.

We are in the midst of an historic push from the political state to further dismantle labor rights, and these calls for the state to “reform” its immigration laws are not accompanied by demands that the state also cease to produce more poverty. Michael Bloomberg may wish to increase the numbers of immigrants arriving to New York City because the local economy –which is hinged, in these statements, on the fashion industry– continues to “need” low-wage noncitizen labor, but the political state continues to divest its welfare responsibilities at a rapid pace. Diane von Furstenberg may call upon the United States’ self-image as a “nation built by immigrants,” but the garment industry is the historical scene for so much labor exploitation, especially of immigrants of color, and there is nothing in these statements to suggest that labor rights are on the table too.

My Politics of Fashion course just watched Made In L.A. (dir. Almudena Carracedo, 2007), a documentary following three Latina immigrants working in Los Angeles garment sweatshops on their three-year odyssey to win basic labor protections from Forever 21. Forever 21 settled in 2004, but soon moved much of their manufacturing overseas. (With the recent doubling in cotton prices, it remains to be seen if garment manufacturing will shift back to the United States to recoup costs in shipping.) Some clips are online!

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EVENTS: Fashion Writing & Fashion Writers

This Wednesday (February 16) is a day full of events for Threadbared and Friends of Threadbared.

  • Thuy Linh N. Tu sits down with NPR commentator Brian Lehrer for an interview on WNYC. If you’re listening from New York, tune into to 93.9FM or 820AM at 10am. If you’re listening from anywhere else, check your local NPR station or just listen online.

Note: the website contains an error that I’ve tried to have corrected twice. Obviously, I’m not the sole founder of Threadbared. This fabulousness takes two!

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A behind-the-scenes look at Thuy Linh Tu on the Brian Lehrer show this morning (2/16/11)

 

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