Vetements, Prada, and a Brief History of Being Too Avant-Garde for Diversity

How does a designer get away with an all-white model cast, these days?
How does he do it twice?

That’s the central mystery of Demna Gvasalia, the Georgian wunderkind and toast of Paris Fashion Week, first through his work with the haute-streetwear collective Vetements on March 3, and again with his debut at the helm of Balenciaga three days later. The casts of both shows were entirely white.

Each show was breathlessly lauded: “a new chapter in the life of Paris fashion,” per Vogue; “raw, uncertain, almost innocent cool factor,” per WWD; “the shape of things to come,” per Business of Fashion.

And yet, to those who noticed it, the Vetements casting and its lack of diversity, was not just offensive but inexplicable. How is this possibly still a thing in 2016?

That question seems especially pertinent when it comes to Vetements, which has risen meteorically thanks to its critical appreciation combined with highly visible celebrity fans like Kanye West and Rihanna. It’s not that the label exists in a vacuum: it was comfortable enough associating itself with people of color when it showed in a Chinese restaurant last season. And more to the point, it trades on haute streetwear – hoodies, sneakers, and sweatpants by any other name – that are impossible to separate from their origins in hip-hop and urban culture.

But it seems unlikely it was an oversight. Two is a trend, and with the all-white Balenciaga redux, it was tough to explain away either as a fluke.

Who’s to blame?

Maybe Lotta Volkova, Vetements’ and Balenciaga’s stylist and casting director, whose popular Instagram, as Business of Fashion has noted, includes almost no people of color. Casting directors extend surprising influence on runway shows, as director James Scully has explained, particularly ones dubbed the industry’s coolest.

But that’s not the whole story, since Vetements is a [mostly anonymous] design collective, suggesting that multiple people approved, or at least did not disapprove, the all-white lineup for their fall show.

“Avant-garde” fashion aspires to art, that is, to be appreciated on its own terms. So a forward-thinking designer rubs up against the challenge of showing fashion – which has the unavoidable utilitarian destiny of being worn – while minimizing the presence of human personalities behind the clothes.

Avant-garde designers have addressed this in several ways. Martin Margiela famously literalized the paradox but putting his models in masks. Rei Kawakubo disfigured her models’ bodies in her “lumps and bumps” collection for CDG in 1997, rendering conventionally beautiful bodies unrecognizable. But the avant-garde strategist re-ignited the conversation over diverse fashion casting was is Miuccia Prada, another critical darling who popularized the “clothes-hanger theory” of model casting in the nineties. Her team sourced flocks of obscure, mostly Eastern European, girls to walk as “exclusives” each season, and serve as walking, breathing, “hangers” for some of the most memorable high-fashion looks of the 2000’s.

That – ahem – model for casting unknowns was taken up with the zeal of the converted by Calvin Klein, Dior, and a previous iteration of Balenciaga under Nicolas Ghesquière. And Prada’s blithe whiteness went mostly unchecked during this time; it notoriously cast only white models in campaigns for twenty years until 2013, when it cast a single black one.

It’s not even the de-humanizing “clothes-hanger” part of her theory that’s most upsetting, either, but its girding assumption that the least distracting, most anonymous type of person to wear any article of clothing is white.

That’s why diversity remains an afterthought in “high” fashion, exactly like it is in “fine” art or “serious” literature. White people have the luxury of letting [clothes/texts/works] speak for themselves, without the inescapable baggage of melanin. No matter how much more diverse most fashion shows get, the most cutting-edge labels can stay outliers, with the understanding that innovation sometimes “crowds out” diversity.

“No label gets a ‘pass’ on diversity, no matter how avant-garde they consider themselves to be,” says Bethann Hardison, a retired black supermodel and advocate for diversity in fashion. “First of all, no brand is intellectual. They’re just not. These are just clothes,” she says.

Avant-garde fashion has been deluded in its whiteness for a long time, even though some of the most influential “artistic” designers have been people of color themselves. Junya Watanabe and Undercover, by Japanese designer Jun Takahashi, both had all-white casts at the most recent Paris Fashion Week. Another boundary-pusher, Comme des Garçons, by Rei Kawakubo, also still habitually whitewashes its entire lineup.

Interestingly, this is now rare in mainstream high fashion, and almost nonexistent in mass-market fashion, which have to respect basic norms of public opinion and economics, respectively. Ashley Mears, a sociology professor who wrote Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, wrote that lack of diversity is “much more of a problem at the luxury end of the spectrum.” “You never see people complaining about a catalogue — ‘Where’s diversity?’” she told Business of Fashion.

And big-name high fashion designers, since diversity is widely acknowledged as a public virtue, at least try to keep up appearances. The “squad” phenomenon, the packs of diverse, glamorous amazons who make up #BalmainArmy or Chanel’s #FrontRowOnly, owe their existence, in part, to the democratizing effects of social media. On the flip side, when diversity can “trend,” it can also prompt a reaction. So Vetements, the ultimate cool-kid label du jour, is free to reject a #diverse #squad in favor of its own, lily-white parallel universe of non-professional models.

Well, okay. So is this just the Way Things Are?

One obvious upshot, now, is that Vetements probably won’t pursue a decade-long streak of whiteness like Prada did, since we, as a community, are better positioned to call them out.

“All you can do is keep banging,” says Hardison, advocating vocal criticism of designers at fault. “And I think, after the Prada phenomenon, people are a bit ‘once bitten, twice shy’ about Vetements and Balenciaga. After keeping quiet about Prada, for so long, people are worried that this new young designer’s influence will cascade, and erase our progress of the recent past.”
The slow browning of the rest of the fashion world is a good thing, in terms of throwing blinding white outliers like Balenciaga into stark relief – to reverse the old Zora Neale Hurston chestnut.

One specific problem with Vetements is that a haute-streetwear line needs something to justify its price tag. Must one of those things be whiteness? That’s the elephant in the room distinguishing a hoodie in its natural environment from its $1500 iteration. If so, this reasoning is terrible, and frankly exhausting.

It also erodes Vetements’ claim to cast friends, who just happen to all be white (also known as the “Lena Dunham/Girls defense”). When the product they shill is so heavily influenced by urban streetwear of minorities, it comes across as unbearably arrogant to cast zero minorities to wear them.

Ironically, after the whitewashed Prada, CDG, and Balenciaga shows of years past, the whiteness of Vetements’ cast actually had the opposite effect: it distracted from, rather than served as a seamless backdrop for, their technically accomplished fashion. Which leaves me wondering, how cool is Vetements, really? Until they make changes to their lineup, I’ll still suspect this to be a case of the emperor’s new hoodies.

How could the so-called creative climax of fashion month end up, on another measure, so bland and uniform? Because it could. Until the routine whitewashing of the avant-garde becomes unacceptable, Vetements won’t be the last show to try this.