There have been quite a few embarrassing, racially tinged missteps from fashion brands over the past couple of years. Take for example Prada’s big lip monkey figurines and keychains that ignited a social media firestorm in 2018. It began when civil rights attorney, Chinyere Ezie posted to Facebook, a photo she took of the unusual items on display at the Prada boutique in Soho, New York City. To anyone who witnessed them, the representation of Blackface was clear.
Then in just the past few months, Gucci’s version of a turtleneck sweater ran afoul when consumers noticed something unsettling about the $895 garment, designed to be pulled up to cover most of the face. It featured a mouth slit opening, accented with big red caricature lips, and again, as with Prada, a representation of Blackface seemed to be deliberate. The public outrage would lead to Gucci and Prada discontinuing both product lines.
If fashion is supposed to be progressive, these two brands failed miserably and managed to insult nearly 48,000,000 African Americans in the process. It marks all too many times I’ve been dismayed by the use of racially insensitive imagery by major brands, especially given the power, influence, and money within the African American demographic. According to Black Entrepreneur Magazine, that buying power hit 1.3 trillion dollars in 2017.
As such is the case, this makes me all the more appreciative to see models of color – specifically dark-skinned models of African heritage being celebrated respectfully in campaigns. So imagine my elation as I approached the Fendi Boutique recently at Hudson Yards in NYC and saw the bewitching beauty of Sudanese-born model Anok Yai, prominently featured as one of the primary campaign faces, on a larger-than-life marquee at the shop’s entrance and throughout.
Of course, there are some black models in fashion campaigns but seemingly the higher end the brand, there is a disparity between these models and their white counterparts. To be safe, many brands often opt for models of racial ambiguity.
Juxtaposed to Gucci and Prada, Fendi is to be commended for its new Spring/Summer 2019 campaign, as it not only celebrates the deeper melanin side of Afrocentric beauty, but it also embraces Felani braids – AKA cornrows, as a legitimate hairstyle, in a high-end fashion campaign. Typically when we see cornrows in TV and film, they are associated with the “thug” look or prisons gangs. Those depictions are pure Hollywood bias – not at all aligned with the real pride of African hair and culture.
For those unaware, cornrows have been a contentious part of African American existence for decades; often misunderstood and deemed as unprofessional by corporate America. Ironically, adding a few cornrows by the hands of natives has become a novelty for white girls and women while on vacation in the Caribbean – an almost obligatory ‘souvenir’ of their trip.
It’s worth noting too that in the 1977 Blake Edward’s classic, “10” due to the film’s popularity, white women everywhere wanted cornrows to look like the actress Bo Derek who rocked the style in the movie. She even wore them complete with African styled ceramic beads on the ends. Other than that though, seeing cornrows in “mainstream” media or major fashion campaigns is not the norm.
Fendi’s 2019 Spring/Summer campaign has changed that. In what was was among the last marketing work created by the legendary Karl Lagerfeld before his death in February, it features the stunning Kaiya Gerber, and Sudanese-born models Adut Akech and Anok Yai. Yai, in my opinion, is the standout, as she shines like a goddess in one of the signature campaign images; her hair elegantly cornrowed back, a fierce direct gaze, an oversized white jacket, legs for miles, clutching two white Fendi handbags.
The campaign, in essence, is simplistic, progressive, diverse and celebratory all at once, representing today’s mixed landscape of beauty. Say what you want about Karl Lagerfeld – and there are many opinions, but with this fashion campaign, which he also photographed – he nailed it. His vision speaks volumes about the Fendi brand’s global awareness and understanding of the fiscal strength of its ethnic consumer base. Acknowledgment is powerful.
Adding to the appeal of diversity in the campaign is the true story of how Anok Yai herself got discovered in the fashion world. It was in October 2017 during Howard University’s homecoming week when a professional photographer saw her in the crowd and asked to take her picture.
The photo, which he posted to Instagram, went viral quickly gaining over 20,000 “likes,” including from the world’s top modeling agencies who sent requests to get in contact with the young college student, who had fled to America with her family in the year 2000 as a refugee fleeing the Sudanese genocide.
In so many ways this latest campaign by Fendi represents far more than fashion. From refugee to the world’s top runways – for Anok, this campaign is definitive of the American dream come true.
Check Out More Behind The Scenes from Fendi’s 2019 Spring/Summer Campaign
This piece is an opinion piece by one Contributing Writer for Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of the magazine or other Contributing Writers.