‘I love that moment where we take responsibility for our own representation’. Grace Wales Bonner
Something changed the day Virgil Abloh’s former mentor Kanye West was dismissed as an unhinged, uppity black man by the modern ‘massah': the rap aristocracy, race hustlers and rich white liberals. Those that control the narrative when it reaches blacks, whites, 'racism', the slavery motif, and the MSM's nemesis and muse President Trump. It started with a West tweet: I like the way Candace Owens thinks. Hours earlier the 28-year-old conservative and You Tube provocateur challenged Black Lives Matter standard-bearers protesting her presence on a campus panel. She told them they were not slaves but overly privileged Americans. She wants to smash stereotypes; create a ‘blaxit’ within the black community; an exodus; a movement of the people from the Democratic Party ‘plantation’. (Word is, it’s happening).
Her viewpoint chimes with that of the black American economist Walter Williams: ‘For 50 years, the well-meaning leftist agenda has been able to do to blacks what Jim Crow and harsh discrimination could never have done: family breakdown, illegitimacy and low academic achievement.’ Soon the topic was opened up by the online magazine Quillette in an article by the promising young writer Coleman Hughes, entitled ‘The High Price of Stale Grievances’. He suggests that black leaders are using historical grievances to justify special dispensations for blacks in the 21st century. Meanwhile, a majority of blacks believe that 'bias is not the main issue they face anymore’. Those that express these views are often dismissed as race traitors. Owens has been called an 'Uncle Tom', a ‘coon' and a 'house negro'. On campuses, middle class students with pink skin and blue hair refer to her as a ‘white supremacist’. When Kanye West tweeted support, and broke with the narrative on Trump, racism and slavery it may indeed have been inarticulate and unhinged, a publicity stunt, possibly, but this paled beside the unhinged reaction of his critics. So, something changed. It was a pivotal moment. A monumental shift in the dialogue on race in the post-racial/post-Obama present. ‘There is an ideological civil war happening,’ Candy says, launching a philosophy for a new generation of millennials like herself. ‘Black people that are focused on their past and shouting about slavery, and black people that are focused on their futures’. She is laying down a challenge: Are you on the bus or off the bus?
Something else. Something in these lines conjures up the Situationist slogan we stood and read from t-shirts at Seditionaries - or was it Sex? - at World’s End in the 1970s: You’re Gonna Wake Up One Morning And Know What Side Of The Bed You’ve Been Lying On. Then a list of what was in and out; in the future or in the past. So who is off the bus? Who are the fossilised figures of yesterday rather than those affiliated with the future like Candace and Coleman? Those that believe black lives matter when they end at the hands of white cops but not black culprits (Check the stats! says Candy, and a cast of thousands).Those championing equality of outcome based on minority status, instead of equality of opportunity based on merit - all in the name of diversity. ‘If there is ever a contest for words that substitute for thought, “diversity” should be recognized as the undisputed world champion.’ So says the black American social theorist Thomas Sowell, a major voice emerging from the shadows again and into the light. 'You don’t need a speck of evidence, or a single step of logic, when you rhapsodise about the supposed benefits of diversity. The very idea of testing this wonderful, magical word against something as ugly as reality seems almost sordid.’
The word is part of a limited lexicon heard ad nauseam from the lips of those ever widening the remit of victimhood along with the definition of ‘racism’. Diversity is definitely the new black, but what is actually preventing the proliferation of this in an age when, as young Coleman points out - bias is not the main issue? Those writing articles on this subject offer up their indignation, but offer no answers. For a recent Business of Fashion issue on this topic the aforementioned Virgin Abloh, erstwhile ‘consigliere’ to Kanye West, founder of Off-White, and newly-installed artistic director at Louis Vuitton chose not to participate. Previously, interviewers have been irked by his decision not to discuss either race or politics even though, they guilefully point out, these are related to his output.
Like the appointment of Edward Enninful to editor-in-chief at British Vogue, that of Abloh to the luxury travel brand was rightly heralded as a big deal. (For Abloh the Vogue appointment was a sign of 'the actual tectonic plates of new land being formed’.) It was newsworthy in Jamaica - odd, seeing as his parents are from Ghana - and the America of his birth. The tale of an immigrant son achieving the American dream. Perfect. A breakthrough. Almost an Obama moment. Much joy elsewhere around new energy; new representation; the beginning of a new establishment: 'The outsiders have not just been granted access to the corridors of power, but are actually in power’, was the I-D take on the appointment. This was bigger than fashion’s Funky Chic high point when Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) wrote of how, historically, fashion, philosophy and politics come together in periods of great turmoil. He made notes: the poor were being imported to the fashion pages, and ‘live black bodies’ were the last word in interior decoration. That was the season of Funky Chic, when Sonny Charles sang ‘Black Pearl’, and The Supremes asked ‘When Can Brown Begin?’
To accompany his ‘philosophy for a new generation’, Abloh created a new ‘vocabulary’ for those attending his debut for Louis Vuitton at the Jardin du Palais Royal. Words matter to him. He favours precision when it comes to definitions. He doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed - even as a designer (he trained as an architect). Off-White, for instance. He chose it because it’s between black and white; both a colour and not a colour. Even the word ‘streetwear’, with which the brand became synonymous, doesn’t fit. He doesn’t like the connotations; he needs to add depth, gravitas to the term. For just as the poor made their way to the fashion pages in the age of Funky Chic, streetwear is now part of the luxury market. The signature themes of Off-White, the graphic hoodies and industrial belts co-exist with the collection that launched him at Louis Vuitton entitled ‘Colour Theory’: capes, jodhpurs, bodysuits, with only sneakers being a nod to his other life. Despite his efforts to find that new vocabulary, a number of elated critics relied on the old lexicon when they came to watch and rhapsodise. What apparently made this another big, Obama-like moment was it was unlike anything seen in fashion before: 'it was a moment not so much about fashion and clothes, but about finding hope and’ - that wonderful, magical word the mighty Thomas Sowell denounced so aptly - diversity. Does this suffice, for one so hooked on semantics as Abloh? Diversity.
The theme of the show was travel, following the explicit directive given always to all Louis Vuitton menswear creatives. The sub-plot was globalism and - surely - human migration. There was a map of the world. Each dot represented the destination where the models hailed from. It was difficult to cypher Abloh's precise take on this, but to me it seemed a tad démodé. Globalism, internationalism, multiculturalism, mass immigration may be new lines for the fashion industry, but for many of us they are not so much very last season as very last century. These trends are in turmoil across Europe and the US, and may be the reason why philosophy, fashion and politics are being brought together again. But to what end? As I say, a tad démodé for native Londoners of my generation, born between the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the publication of James Baldwin’s 'The Fire Next Time’. Me: A cracker. A honky. An uppity middle-aged white man daring to write about race. Doubtless a ‘racist’, a ‘bigot’, a ‘xenophobe’ to some of the readers that have ploughed through this essay to this point. To paraphrase the designer Grace Wales Bonner: Don’t you loathe that moment when others take responsibility for your own representation?
Some of us lived in those streets, went to those schools where immigration and multiculturalism were first introduced. Some of us took home a black boyfriend to the white folks before we’d barely left the 1970s, or left our teens. Yet we were the ones lectured on race by race hustlers; by white media class leftists - from white middle class neighbourhoods, white middle class schools - who had the luxury of casting the immigrant in one of two roles: exotica or victim. While the white working class were forced to see within the new arrivals the good, the bad, and the ugly. In short - themselves. Now fashion this season is upping the ante on inclusivity, on celebrating difference and diversity as a reaction to this talk of borders, walls, controlled immigration, faux-nationalism said to be revivifying the stale grievances of the poorly-dressed, pale-faced masses.
When daring to write on race you return to James Baldwin and 'The Fire Next Time’. It was written in 1963, the year that JFK said America would have a black president within forty years. Baldwin writes of how the black American is a key figure in his country, and how his future is as bright or as dark as that of America itself. 'And the Negro recognizes this, in a negative way’, he writes. ‘Hence the question: Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?’ I read Baldwin in my twenties. I’ve returned to reading Baldwin because Grace Wales Bonner is reading him in her twenties. She too is a native south Londoner, be it one of another generation: a mixed-race, middle class millennial from a wealthy suburb. She’s also big on words; precise on definitions. She hated being pressurised by her peers to prove her blackness when she was a child. (‘It takes you a while to work out being ‘this’ doesn’t mean that you have to be ‘that’.’) Like Candace Owens and Virgin Abloh, she is in the business of breaking down stereotypes, proposing a new slant on black identity in the designs for the company Wales Bonner (launched in 2015, one year after Off-White). She’s crashing through the predictable narratives by ‘playing within the classical tradition of what people think of as luxury or elegance in the European sense…..playing with ideas about blackness within that framework.’ Whereas Abloh offers a vocabulary, Bonner offers virtual dissertations and bibliographies when citing the figures that influence her elegantly crafted clothes. In presenting a new style of black male she looks to history, but not historical grievances. Her tall, slender models blur the lines between male and female. Although for her, ‘fluidity’ is overused, useless even when describing her intention. These models recall the fey black dandies plucked from antiquity and celebrated in Ekow Eshun's ‘Made You Look’ exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery a couple of years ago. It’s a gentler, effete figure free of the limited physique and dress code associated with the streetwear stereotype.
Bonner's original inspiration was a decade that she missed out on: the 1970s. That era of Funky Chic; of Situationist slogans on Seditionaries t-shirts; of gangly, gender-blurring boys wearing high-waists, high-heels and living in high-rises. ‘The sons of the slums have become the Brummels and Gentlemen of Leisure’, wrote Tom Wolfe. ‘The true fashion plate of the 1970s’. Bonner’s designs - bell bottoms, halter-neck tops, beaded flares, wide-brimmed hats among them - have been described thus: 'A touch of Harlem renaissance blended with Seventies ‘blaxploitation' and a sense of the British council estate’. She begins by creating scenes, adding characters and then the clothes. The research brings in cultural theory, obscure historical black figures, poets and writers that provide their own interpretations of blackness. The name of James Baldwin crops up regularly. The Caribbean. Paris. Post-war French couture plays a part. As does nautical and military wear. The New York Times has said of Bonner’s work - with that tiresome predictability that is beyond parody - it’s a tribute to 'the perhaps-fading notion of a cosmopolitan Britain’. Looking at the tailored designs and the research that goes into them, there’s another way of summing up the mood and the thinking behind it. She taps into the global travel narrative that fashion designers are currently pushing, but here it’s more subtle, more layered. The themes are identity, exile; the feeling of departure and arrival; distant shores and lost horizons.
It’s a universal story. Think of the itinerant Charles D’Ambrosio in his collection of essays ‘Loitering’ (2014), writing of those born in geographical exile knowing that the good life is out there somewhere. 'You import your enthusiasm from the past, other languages, other traditions’, he writes. 'You make the voyage first in the aisles of bookstores and libraries, in your feckless dreams. The books you love best feature people who ditched their homes in the hinterlands for scenes of richer glory. Pretty soon the word Paris takes on a numinous quality, and you know you won’t be silent forever.’
Bonner has this to say: 'There's a web of people all over the world who just don't connect with current politics or definitions of place. It might feel like a physical thing to be stuck within your own borders, but, actually, there's an ideological network of people, for sure, who have strong energy and connectivity that transcends that, people in my generation from all over the world, who are much more of a community, and much more hopeful, who have a sense of urgency to do what they're doing in an honest way, who will be braver now’.
James Baldwin chose Paris to escape the racism he encountered in America. Actual racism, that is. Brutal racism. Not that which falls under the thought crimes of ‘unwitting prejudice’ and perceived ‘hate crimes’ that feed a booming industry. The historic racism that Candace Owens accused protesters of capitalising on, using greater emotion than those that experienced it. All they are left with are the stale grievances that Coleman Hughes addresses. Candy says, often: ‘There is an ideological civil war happening. Black people that are focused on their past and shouting about slavery, and black people that are focused on their futures’. The latter
are closer to those of all creeds and colours that have experienced the pitfalls of the globalisation, internationalism, immigration causing turmoil in Europe and the United States. These, more than that web of characters that Bonner speaks of, do not connect with current politics. They are a network of people with a strong connectivity; a community with a sense of urgency. They will be braver now. They’re on the bus. They’ve decided which side of the bed they're on. To paraphrase little Jimmy Baldwin: They don't want to be integrated into a burning house.