Monday, October 6, 2014

Fashion’s Faux Feminism

Chanel’s iconic designer Karl Lagerfeld staged a mock feminist protest Tuesday at the close of his Spring/Summer 2015 ready-to-wear collection runway show in Paris. He had an entire Parisian neighborhood constructed inside the Grand Palais, with the audience lining a “Boulevard Chanel No.5” complete with pedestrian crossing and shimmering rain puddles beneath towering 19th century apartment façades. Celebrity guests included The Great Gatsby director Baz Luhrmann, who said, “His shows are great opera.” Indeed. But in addition to the fake boulevard and fake apartments, the feminism felt fake as well.

At the end of the show, all the models marched down the boulevard alongside budding supermodel Cara Delevingne and ultramodel Gisele Bundchen leading a protest chant with  quilted, Chanel-monogrammed megaphones (because fashion). Some models carried placards with bland slogans in French and English like “Be different,” “Make Fashion Not War,” and the perplexing “Free Freedom.” A few signs bore a feminist theme: “Ladies Rights Are More Than Alright” [sic] and “Ladies First,” for example. A couple of them took equality to a rather dubious extreme: “Boys should get pregnant, too” and “Divorce for all.”

But even the self-absorbed glamour crowd was put off by the shallowness of the faux protest. In a review entitled “Chanel’s ‘Feminist’ Protest Wasn’t All That Great for Women,” the fashion website Refinery 29 declared that “This season’s show presents protest as pure product, the irony of which we suspect Karl is both aware, and presides over with a provocative, Warholian glee.” That site also called the “empty” event “an oddly jovial fashion circus more than a statement,” and reported that the “attendees didn’t seem to know how to interpret it.” was less forgiving, describing the finale as “cynical, money-grabbing” “tokenism” and “empty marketing.”

How feminist can an industry be that hinges upon a never-ending parade of very young women serving as largely anonymous, voiceless, walking clothes hangers? The French word for model, after all, is “mannequin.” Sure, those models are well-compensated, but for every Gisele Bundchen, who is on track to become a billionaire, modeling eats up and spits out innumerable eager-to-please young girls who don’t end up so much with a lucrative career as an eating disorder and a smoking addiction. Women aren’t even the most successful fashion designers. This is not to say that fashion can’t put forth a feminist vision, but fashion is not the real world.

Fashion isn’t serious. It’s fantasy, fun and style. Certainly clothes can be empowering for both men and women, but fashion fails when it takes itself too seriously, or attempts inevitably heavy-handed social statements, or waxes pretentious with artsy creations that cannot possibly be worn. Lagerfeld may have intended to set his colorful collection to the beat of the times – like the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and the climate change march in New York – but his playfulness was out of sync with the real world.

It’s hard to blame Karl Lagerfeld, he of the trademark dark glasses, snowy ponytail and starched collar, for a lack of perspective. The concerns of real women protesting real issues are not his. He is the highest-paid fashion designer in the world, having earned $58 million in the last twelve months. He inhabits a fantasy universe far removed from mere mortals like the women protesting government violence in Venezuela, or sexual violence in India, or a law permitting men to marry nine-year-olds in Iraq – and they are doing so without a quilted, monogrammed megaphone in sight.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 10/3/14)