Junya Watanabe, the renowned Japanese designer who works under the aegis of Comme des Garçons, showed his latest men’s collection in Paris on June 26. The inspiration was clear: the vibrant prints that anchored the clothes and the artifacts the models wore and carried all signaled Africa.
The cast, on the other hand, offered a different message. Not a single black model walked the runway.
A blatant act of whitewashing and cultural theft, right? The reaction on Twitter definitely leaned that way, with plenty of jokes about Rachel Dolezal, the recently-outed white woman who lived for years under a black identity.
But Watanabe is, if nothing else, an extremely thoughtful designer, and one with a history of referencing Africa that complicates any knee-jerk judgment of the present collection.
Take his use of the colorful African prints assembled in patchwork across much of the clothing. They were created by Vlisco, which is widely popular and beloved in Africa for its African wax-print fabrics. Only Vlisco isn’t African at all.
It’s actually a Dutch entity—now British-owned—that started making its famed batik cloth in the mid-19th century. At the time, it wasn’t ripping off African fabrics either. It was copying a fabric made by the local Javanese population in the colonial Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. When Vlisco introduced it into West Africa, it became a hit. So the fabric that the collection centered on is itself a legacy of colonialism—a European brand in African trappings making an Indonesian cloth.
Some fashion commentators have pushed to interpret Watanabe’s latest work as a comment on European appropriation. In the past several years, in fact, Watanabe has showed a fascination with Africa’s culture and fashion heritage, so it’s hard to imagine he hasn’t given it any thought. His women’s spring-summer 2009 collection made similarly clear references to Africa, even more directly than his 2008 show, which subtly experimented with African-style draping. “It all goes back to Africa,” Watanabe told Style.com.
Watanabe failed miserably to offer any diversity among the models in those shows. That 2008 show didn’t include any black models; the African-influenced collection that followed in 2009 featured only five black models in its 47 looks.
But that doesn’t mean Watanabe has shied from including black models generally. His last men’s show, fall-winter 2015, was all about sapeurs, the sharp-dressed and sartorially devoted men of Congo. The casting there was mostly black models by far, and included some genuine sapeurs in the lineup.
The show and its models met with praise, not least of all from African commentators such as Yegwa Ukpo, who curated Nigeria’s entry in the International Fashion Showcase at London Fashion Week in February.
So was the point of his recent outing to comment on cultural appropriation? Nobody knows what Watanabe intended except Watanabe. So far, he hasn’t said a word. (Quartz has reached out for comment and will update with any response.)