Did Valentino learn anything? At the brand’s Spring 2016 show in Paris last October, models walked down the runway wearing dresses with Masai fabrics and skirts made from strips of leather with women of all races and nationalities (but a large majority white) sporting cornrows in their hair. Cries of cultural appropriation immediately sounded off across the Internet. But now, for the Italian brand’s Pre-Fall 2016 collection, models have traded braids for Bantu knots. Cue the outcry.
The presentation, which took place on Wednesday night in New York, consists of 84 looks, including a sequin dress with the Empire State building in bright primary colors, a sheer black minidress with embroidered dragons and flowers, a midi skirt with an exploding volcano, a light blue gown featuring a seascape, and more beautiful pieces reflecting Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli’s international inspirations.
A model backstage at Valentino’s Spring 2016 show in Paris. Photo: @maisonvalentino/Instagram
But when it came to styling the models’ hair (there were six models, two of which were black), the worldly references from Japan to Jamaica pointed to just one reference, seeing as all the women were sporting Bantu knots. While Vogue inferred that the designers were influenced by Björk’s music video for “Big Time Sensuality,” in which the Icelandic artist sports similar buns, Jenell Stewart, a beauty reporter, was quick to correct the publication.
— JenellBStewart (@JenellBStewart) January 14, 2016
Interestingly enough, when models sported Bantu knots at the Spring 2015 Marc by Marc Jacobs show, the brand was met with similar criticism, and Guido Palau, who was the lead hairstylist at the show, said that the hairstyling actually was inspired by Björk. As for the Valentino designers, they claimed their Spring 2016 show’s message was “tolerance. And the beauty that comes out of cross-cultural expression.” Which is lovely, yet still a piss factor for many.
Pointing to a white woman is part of the problem. As Amandla Stenberg pointed out in her viral “Don’t Cash Crop on My Cornrows” video, pop culture has historically tended to assign white ownership to styles, fashions, and trends that originated in black culture. “But here’s the thing: Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves,” Stenberg said. “Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in.”
So here’s the real, non Björk-related history: Bantu knots, a traditionally black hairstyle, are said to have originated in the tribal regions of Southern Africa centuries ago. Since then, they’ve cropped up on celebrities including Lauryn Hill, Scary Spice (Mel B.), and Uzo Adubo’s character on Orange Is the New Black.
The conversation surrounding cultural appropriation is fashion has been blaring as of late. The right way to do it — finding inspiration in cultures without being offensive — is definitely tricky. But it’s the ongoing talk about what is and isn’t appropriate that’s making a difference.