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In Making a Bold, Artistic Statement, Are Designers Crossing the Line?


PARIS — Fashion, like contemporary art, is often at its best when it is provocative. In some ways, the catwalk is like a university, a safe haven in which both new ideas and old ones are presented for discussion, heated debate and, perhaps, redefinition. Indeed, one of the reasons the Paris fashion shows can be particularly inspiring is that designers feel comfortable presenting collections that quite often make members of the audience shift uncomfortably in their seats. They disturb with their excellence, not their mediocrity.

Such was the case recently with Viktor & Rolf. The Dutch duo, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, called the collection Black Hole, and it was a study of the shades and textures of black. How does this anti-color absorb light? They explored the contrast in textures among fabrics such as brocade, silk jersey and satin--all of them dyed black. Black forced them to rely only on silhouette to distinguish their languid jersey gowns and their posh day jackets. Black gave the collection a form of purity that made for a splendid design exercise.

But the two went a step further. To underscore their aesthetic point, the designers sent their white models out in blackface--and black arms, hands and shoulders. The makeup did not have the tar-like viscosity of burned cork, and the models did not step and fetch their way down the catwalk, but it was blackface nonetheless.

The first model down their runway emerged from the darkness--a silhouette eerily stepping out of the shadows. She was, of course, dressed in all black. Her hair was styled in an oversize chignon of fake jet locks; her white skin was coated in a layer of black body makeup--even her eyelid shimmered with an inky black gloss.

The point of this scene had been made clear in the stage notes left on each seat. This was to be a fashion presentation of silhouettes and shadows. The jackets often had oversize padded French cuffs; a blouse had Brobdingnagian sleeves; the decolletage of a dress was overstuffed with a silk scarf. Amid the theatrical garments, there were clothes that were wonderfully sophisticated and adult: silk jersey gowns with portrait collars, day suits trimmed in satin, metallic overcoats that belted at the waist and crisply tailored jackets with pronounced lapels. Every last stitch of it was in black-chic silhouettes in the glow of the spotlights.

As for the makeup, it was intended to transform the models into silhouettes, too. But there was an unshakable feeling of discomfort as a steady stream of negative connotations flooded the mind and accompanied the models down the catwalk: minstrel shows, Al Jolson, Jim Crow, mockery, insensitivity, racism. Didn't Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" get a European release? Was this the only way for the designers to make their artistic point? No one really wants to slap the political-correctness card or, heaven forbid, the race card on the table in this game of showmanship. It probably wouldn't even be necessary if the fashion industry in general had stockpiled a little goodwill, if it had a reputation for sensitivity and diversity, if it had won the right to reclaim and rework a sad stereotype.

But the reality is that while these models paraded down the runway covered in black makeup, most shows here include no models of color at all, unless it's the black model of the moment. Right now, Alek Wek is the beneficiary of the "only one" rule. The audience looks just slightly more diverse. It's homogeneity by omission and by circumstance.

But more than a question of who is or isn't on the runway or who is or is not sitting in the audience is this simple fact: Fashion does not happen in a vacuum.

One can't separate the artful intentions of Horsting and Snoeren from the culture. And black makeup such as that seen on the runway has a long, complicated and painful history. Not intending to offend doesn't negate the offense. And while it may not be fair for an aesthetic point to get caught on American cultural history, that's the price that designers must pay for the privilege of working in a global economy.

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