I’ve been trying to ration my magazine consumption lately, but I had to buy the latest issue of Vogue because one of the headline articles is titled “The Arrival of the Asian Supermodels”. Boo yeah! I thought. Take that idealised stereotypes of barbie women! He-llo asian invasion!
But reading the article highlighted two things for me – one is that the rise of Asian models is being almost exclusively driven by the new elite class of mega-rich Chinese. The Chinese market for luxury items has gained so much power that Givenchy showed their Spring 2011 collection using exclusively Asian models, in an attempt to appeal to this “new” demographic (below).
I’m happy that there will be faces that look more like mine peppering the media from now on. I’m glad that being Asian will be seen as simultaneously more ordinary and beautiful. But the fact that this is happening as a result of market forces and greater consumer clout is perturbing me. It’s the translation of money into beauty that ensures greater representation and yet highlights those other ethnicities or “markets” who remain invisible in the western media. Must we wait for economic development before we see beauty?
The second point is one about racism in the fashion industry in general. The first paragraph of the article summarises it perfectly:
Chinese model Li Ai vividly remembers her attempts to break on to the international fashion stage in the early 2000s. Season after season, as she made the London, Paris and Milan circuits, “at most places, casting said, ‘We don’t want an Asian,’ or, ‘We just want one and we already have her.’ I gave up and went home.”
The article also touches on the fact that many of the Asian models being used at the moment have particularly “western” features and do not necessarily conform to what is considered beautiful by Asian societies – “Often Western stylists and photographers mistakenly think they know what makes an Asian beautiful better than Asians themselves.”
I was pleased to be reading an article with these perceptive insights around race in Vogue. That is, until I turned to p.124, where I was confronted with a fashion spread titled “Neo Geisha” with the blurb “With the eyes of the world on Japan, designers are referencing the colours, shapes and forms of its past. The serene beauty of the traditional geisha gets a twenty-first-century remix”.
Over the following ten pages, we see a white model in various states of geisha-inspired dress which include bondage referencing headdresses and some revealing boob shots.
There is so much wrong with this situation I find it hard to know where to begin. But I’ll have a crack at it:
1) Why after an article 60 pages earlier referring to the rise of the Asian supermodel, do you use a white model in a fashion spread that is inspired by Japan?
2) Why do you use no Japanese designers? An excellent way to support Japan while “the eyes of the world” are on it in the wake of the earthquake, might be to celebrate Japanese designers and models.
3) A “geisha” inspired fashion spread is just weird. Geishas, even if they weren’t all “courtesans”, are commonly thought of that way. The geisha motif just perpetuates images of Asian women in the west being “exotic” and sexually available. And the bondage-inspired headdresses? Seriously?
4) You also use the word “oriental” to use an outfit. I would have thought after an article investigating racism against Asian models, you would have thought twice before using a loaded term that recalls colonialism and commodification of Asian culture.