Vogue Italia’s Haute Mess and The High Theft of Black Culture

March 26, 2012  |  

Earlier this month, Vogue Italia’s released its March issue, which featured a number of the world’s top models including Jessica Stam, Joan Smalls and Coco Rocha, in a spread ironically titled “Haute Mess.” The spread, which is said to have been inspired by the “messy” side of drag queen culture, features these top models, who are mostly white, playing up images of neck and facial tattoos, gold teeth, and wigs made of money and candy-colored towering hair styles.

Of course, Vogue Italia has caught some flack over the fashion spread, mainly for perpetuating stereotypes of black women and ridiculing the culture. Despite Vogue Italia’s assertion that drag queens were the inspiration, many folks have drawn a very clear – and in my opinion, obvious – correlation between Haute [or High] Mess to the “Ghetto Fabulous” panache we see on sites like Hot Ghetto Mess.  Some pictures featured in Haute Mess, including the Easter basket and the Skittles-appliqué hairstyles, have clearly been ripped directly from photos, which have been circulating for many years online.

Yet Franca Sozzani, editor of Vogue Italia, denies even knowing about the existence of these photos of the inner city black women we see sprawled all over the internet and the corresponding sites, which mocks their fashion motifs. Likewise, she dispels any suggestion of a racist element to the spread, saying that:  “A racist image, I really do not understand. I went through the pages so many times. Like when we did the Black Issue, everybody said that we did that on purpose because Obama was the person chosen to go to the White House, and if you just think one second, not more than one second, you can see that to make a magazine like what we did for the Black Issue, it takes six months [to do]. … People wanted to see an economical and a financial [decision], just to get more money, because we talk about Black Issue, it’s probably because the president is black. What do you answer? They don’t know what it means to work at a magazine. That’s it.”

Sozzani’s meandering aside, I’m much less interested in the “is it racist or not” discussion (of course, this is the same Vogue Italia, who christened hoop earrings as slave earrings, so I’ll let you all draw your own conclusion) as I am about the clear case of theft related to the pictorial. For the sake of argument, let’s say that this was a homage of some sorts to a fringe culture the editorial board found fascinating – how do you justify taking a cultural representation outside it’s respected realm without proper attribution to the source?  It’s obvious that the fashion elite in Milan have an obsession with the American Black community. And I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing Skittles colored cap wigs, gold teeth and dollar bill insignia fingernails during fashion week pretty soon – just don’t expect Black folks to get the proper credit.

The whole issue reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine recently about a car I’ve seen rolling around in my neighborhood. Some young dude, maybe in his early 20s, had tricked-out his all black Crown Victoria, with 26 inch rims, red and green stripes and a huge Gucci logo on the sides.  The vehicle stands out like a thumb around these parts because the Donk car style is what we usually associate with the South, particularly Memphis, and certainly not Philadelphia.  Anyway, I was telling my friend about seeing the car and how some people shake their heads at the pure “ratchetness” of it. That’s when my friend showed me a link to another vehicle and said: “you mean like this?” It was a link to the new Fiat 500 by Gucci, which too included green and red stripes and Gucci insignias.

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  • D. Marie

    We HATE when we see something in media that we think makes fun” of us….but, have you SEEN some of the women with the gold teeth, colorful hair styles or neck tats? Are they pure fiction? No, they’re not. And if Italian Vogue wishes to use that style of dress as a layout, so be it. We tend to be sensitive about the wrong things. Pick your battles in a wiser fashion.

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  • Su

    If you look at Vogue Italia’s track record they do more to promote black culture than any of the other Vogues-strange considering Britain & America have larger black populations- including a dedicated black culture blog and The Black Issue- this article is unfairly biased.

  • Glittermagic86

    i feel like the minute someone tries to mainstream black culture there
    is always a complaint. its like you cant win. either black culture is
    being “copied” by people who don’t do it right/look dorky/offensive, or
    they are “stealing” it or its considered racist or making fun of blacks.
    what, exactly, will be an appropriate way to export this type of
    fashion and culture where someone ISNT going to pull the race card or
    the “everything gets taken from us” card??  i think it was a really fun,
    artistic spread and it made me smile to see that there was
    international awareness and acceptance made of these trends.

    • Brownielocks

       I think that the point is that *we* should be the ones mainstreaming it, embracing it, and profiting from it, if not necessarily in that order…

  • cleo

    Black culture is very popular in this country and around the world and just because other cultures like and emulate it doesn’t make it theft. IMITATION IS THE HIGHEST FORM OF FLATTERY.

  • MixedUpInVegas

    Am I the only one here who has no idea what Charing Ball is talking about?

  • if the vogue editor said I got inspired to do this spread from boomkisha in compton black people would have been like who the f*** does she think she is. In addition, I don’t want to be the type of black person associated with this f*****y because gluing a bag of skittles to my head is not appealing. But I do get where the article is coming from and sometimes I do feel slowly, but surely white people in high places are trying to capitalize off a lot of the s**t that we have created. black people have ALWAYS been the more creative race when it comes to dance, songs, fashion, cars…not so much in an academic way such as nasa, science etc. I personally dont give a crap though. We need to put our pride aside and get this $. You know how many mags were sold cus we’re in a uproar over this. If B.E.T put the pride to the side for a second they would out-do Vh1 in major ways. We need to stop being so sensitive ijs

  • FromUR2UB

    Fortunes have been built through pirating.  If the web sites that may have inspired this have copyrighted their material, then I suppose they can wait to see if this issue of Vogue is profitable, and then sue them.  They’d have to establish that Vogue had access to their material and used it.  That’s not as easy as it sounds, though.
    Like hair shows, runway shows are extreme in what they exhibit.  They display the designers’ concepts and showcase what they’re able to do.  Then, elements from the shows influence fashion trends, after which Buyers purchase diluted versions of those styles for stores.  The model up there is wearing a costume, and there was a time when people understood it as that, and that it wasn’t intended for walking down the street.   Theatre and music performers have always worn outrageous stuff on stage.  But not until the last 20 years or so, did anyone try to look like that in their everyday lives.  This is one reason it has been a source for ridicule. 

    As I waited for a pizza a couple of days ago, I saw a young woman working at the shop, wearing a bright red weave pulled back in a braid, hanging down her back.  I couldn’t help but notice her because bright red hair definitely draws the eye.  She was a very plain woman, and since the extra hair nor color did anything to enhance her appearance, I wondered why she thought it was a good idea for her.  Clearly, she had bought the hair, but it hadn’t been styled and wasn’t neatly groomed; so, what was the point?  She’d had acrylic nails at one time, but all that remained of them was one long, blue thumbnail.  So, for her, the look wasn’t working and wasn’t practical because, apparently, she couldn ‘t afford to maintain it.  It’s better to look simple and neat, than go for a look you can’t keep up.

  • JB

    Okay. Let us all take a test. Go to Google Images and type in “drag queens”. Review the results. THEN type in “ghetto hair” and review those results. Now you be the judge as to what the inspiration for this VI spread was.

    Now is “ghettoness” = black culture? If anyone believes that then they really do not know what black is. Know yourself. 

  • L-Boogie

    LOL! Why get offended by this?  Unfortunately, there is a lot of people who act like this.  But those who do not just do not get equal amount of time in the spot light.

  • black culture isn’t copyrighted. and, according to some it doesn’t exist. so, how can it be stolen?

  • Greentea516

    Didn’t someone tell this to Gwen Stefani this when LAMB had a kente print line not too long ago (which was dope) or when she first came out as a solo artist and pretty much exploited Japanese Harajuku girls for their style and tried to bring that to the states? Fashion inspires more fashion so not everyone is going to get their credit.

    Whatever we as a community call that “hot ghetto mess” style, it’s ours and we know that, that’s all that matters. It’s our punk, our Harajuku. Do you think all Japanese parents want their kids to dress in loud colors and baby doll dresses? Not really. It’s an expression that makes them different. The Vogue spread was actually artsy and made me realize that a lot of work goes into looking different. It may not float with everyone else but it’s still art.

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  • IllyPhilly

    Did they actually say it was Black couture?