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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