First published by The Pool on 9 July 2018
Glitzy front rows are nothing newsworthy at Paris’ haute couture and menswear fashion weeks – but this June, alongside Pharrell Williams, Penelope Cruz and Tracee Ellis Ross, there were a handful of guests you might not have expected: film director Roman Polanski at Miu Miu, stylist Ian Connor at Louis Vuitton and the rapper A$AP Bari at Alyx.
It’s quite the guest list. In 1977, Polanski was arrested in Los Angeles and found guilty of “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor” – a 13-year-old girl. He fled to France before he could be sentenced and has never returned to the USA. Connor has been accused of rape by at least seven women; some reports say it’s as many as 21. A$AP Bari was reportedly arrested and charged by London Metropolitan Police on two counts of sexual assault only eight weeks ago.
To be placed front row at these events is prestigious and high-profile; these men are being hailed as Very Important People. The incongruity of seeing them championed, in a largely female-focused industry that has, over the last year, been loudly pledging its allegiance to feminism, is astonishing. It’s only six months since The New York Times broke the story that the photographers Mario Testino and Bruce Weber – revered almost as gods within fashion and previously chummy with everyone, from the royal family to Anna Wintour – had been accused of groping and behaving inappropriately with multiple models and assistants. Both were quickly and publicly suspended from working with Condé Nast magazines, which include Vogue.
The backlash against Testino and Weber was seen as fashion’s contribution to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements – an overdue reckoning for the exploitative and abusive. In fact, even before the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke in October, it felt as though female empowerment was finally being prioritised by the industry.
At Dior, in particular, Maria Grazia Chiuri has made feminism a central and consistent theme since her first collection as creative director in September 2016. “We should all be feminists”, said her spring/summer 2017 T-shirt. It’s been widely copied and has filtered into 1,000 new girl-power slogans on the high street (“Be your own muse”, declared the T-shirt of a woman sunbathing in my local park last weekend). And her work has attracted plenty of praise, too: Chiuri was recognised at the British Fashion Council’s Fashion Awards in December 2017 with the Swarovski Award for Positive Change.
And yet here we are, with other major brands still apparently blind to the implications of their choices. Imagine, as someone who had been assaulted or raped, seeing your abuser given pride of place at one of the world’s most glamorous events. It’s beyond inappropriate – it’s dangerous. “What are these brands doing?” tweeted the journalist Pandora Sykes last week. “Wasn’t the public dumping of Mario Testino and Bruce Weber meant to mean something?"
The New York Times recently checked in with the 27-year-old model Kenny Sale, who is one of those who says he was assaulted by Testino. “People who claim to be activists in the community and are part of the #MeToo movement still associate with this person,” he said. “I think it’s really weird. Maybe they don’t know, maybe they don’t believe it. I’m not sure.”
The truth is that the fashion industry is adept at talking the talk on all kinds of important issues, but struggles to commit to walking the walk. Moral reckonings risk being reduced to passing trends when they’re all about slogans and glossy campaigns – and not only when it comes to #MeToo. Progress on the subject of models’ weight and wellbeing has been frustratingly slow; we all remember the “heroin chic” outcry of the 1990s, yet, 20 years later, concerns are only just beginning to be addressed. Major organisations, including Condé Nast, LVMH and Kering, have now introduced guidelines intended to safeguard the models, but only last year in Milan I was appalled to see some of the unhappy teenage girls on one catwalk, their spines painfully visible in the low-backed gowns, their feet bleeding from too many ill-fitting shoes. It’s simply not good enough.
When I hear about the recent move away from inhumane fur practices – Gucci is the most high-profile of the brands that have recently announced that they will no longer use fur or angora wool – I can’t help feeling that only time will tell there, too. It’s another debate that’s been waging on for decades and, while you rarely see real fur at London Fashion Week, it’s still everywhere in Milan, both on and off the catwalk. Naomi Campbell posed for an “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” PETA campaign in 1994 and has subsequently worn it many times (six years after those pictures, she amended her stance, telling a journalist, “I would never wear endangered fur”). I don’t think intentions are bad, but there’s often a disconnect between what brands and individuals believe in theory and what they do in practice.
At the heart of the problem, perhaps, is the fact that fashion is simply not in the habit of committing to long-term plans. Everything is seasonal, from the most-coveted accessory of the moment to the runway models themselves, who tend to have an “on-trend” face for a limited time only. For some, the commitment to crack down on abuse and create a safer, healthier environment for women seems to have already become passé – though those who’ve suffered assault and rape don’t have the privilege of forgetting it so easily. Both luxury brands and publishers need to decide which values they want to embody and commit to behaving accordingly. Time really is up. They would do well to remember it.