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Dior is currently making headlines for naming Rihanna the first black woman to be the face of the storied French brand. Rising above high fashion’s antipathetic attitude towards diversity is a huge deal for the singer, who has an almost-literal army of impressionable young fans. So full props to her. But why is Dior getting a pat on the back for ignoring women of color for almost 70 years?
The news of Rihanna’s appointment isn’t the only thing keeping Dior’s PR team busy lately. There’s also the release of the documentary Dior and I, which kicks off right of Raf Simons’ appoint at Dior and follows the creation of his first Haute Couture collection for the brand in Fall 2012. The film is a beautiful homage to the artisans who bring Simon’s vision to life, filled with heartfelt asides, gorgeous insights into the mind of a notoriously camera-shy designer, and many late nights lost to labors of love. It is, objectively, a good movie. Unfortunately, it’s also a 90-minute reminder of Dior’s crippling fear of diversity.
The stars of the film are no doubt Dior’s artisans and its new creative director. But after casting starts for the show, it often becomes difficult to pay attention to the exquisite clothes they create. Particular attention is given to then-15-year-old model Esther Heesch, who had never walked a runway before Dior (as we’d hope would be the case at age 15.) Simon’s gushes over how “Miss Dior” she is, and Esther effectively becomes a template for each further hire. By the time the much-anticipated collection debuts, it’s difficult to tell one girl from another, give or take the 3-or-so Asian models cast — and I’m a fairly seasoned model-stalker. Just click through the slideshow on Style.com if you need a refresher. The show (and the movie) didn’t feature a single black model, setting the pace for another six seasons to come.
The accusations of runway racism lobbed at Raf Simons post-2012 have been well documented. Casting director James Scully took firm aim at him in 2013 after this troubling six-season period, telling Buzzfeed,”‘Natalie Portman could complain that John Galliano was a racist, but I feel Raf Simons sends the same message. I don’t know what the difference is. If I were at Dior tomorrow, there would be black girls in that show.”
Following Scully’s statements, Dior’s Fall 2013 couture collection used six black models, which seemed applause-worthy if not blatant pandering. But was it worse than both these things? The show notes claimed this was a collection inspired by Dior’s global clientele across Europe, Asia, America, and Africa. Were these models or were they scene-setters? British Vogue‘s Jessica Bumpus wasn’t convinced, writing at the time, “This was Dior as seen through the filter of an African tribesman or a Geisha girls.” Sure enough, Simons’ Fall 2014 couture collection featured only four black faces in a 62-look collection, and by Spring 2015 couture we were down back down to just two. Are we still giving out back-claps? It’s not like Dior is the only brand being put on a pedestal despite having an obvious aversion to runway diversity — “Cool girl” Phoebe Philo has literally never featured a black model in a Céline show, and her designers are revered by everyone from Tumblr teens to Kanye West. But the insane number of editors and A-listers who show up to Raf’s debut is a testament to the brand’s enormous influence.
It’s easy to point the finger at Simons because he’s a person rather than, say, Bernard Arnault, head of Dior’s luxury parent group LVMH. Simons came to Dior from the also pointedly white Jil Sander, which might be another cause for suspicion. (Allegedly the two brands both use the same casting duo, Maida Gregori Boina and Rami Fernandes.) But Dior has never exactly been a hotbed for diversity. Yves Saint Laurent was the first designer in Paris to hire a black model in 1962, more than a decade before Beverly Johnson became Vogue‘s first black cover girl. He continued to challenge fashion’s status quo throughout his career. But this only happened after he was thrown out of Dior. Say what you will about John Galliano’s very public personal race qualms; as a designer he made a solid effort to add more color to Dior’s runways in more ways than one. But unfortunately even he didn’t have the power to hand a black girl the “Miss Dior” crown.
If Dior had done more to clean up its act following Raf’s appointment then maybe Dior and I’s lesson in whitewashing wouldn’t be so uncomfortable. Ditto if 2012 wasn’t such recent history.Breakfast and Tiffany’s was pretty racist, but more in an embarrassing Dad kind of way. Dior is so far from being out of the woods, and the film’s attempt to glorify these problematic years by swathing them in watercolor fabrics and walls of faux flowers often just feels wrong. Rihanna’s new title is a step in the right direction, but we shouldn’t let that cast a veil over Dior’s problems either.