Chicago Is My Beat?

By Camille Coklow

It was a busy Friday afternoon at the office. However, being the nifty little millennial that I am, I was, of course, simultaneously checking my various social media feeds. While aimlessly trolling Instagram, I stumbled upon a picture that caught my attention. As someone who loves fashion, seeing the new Versace Fall 2016 ad campaign posted by Yolanda Hadid was hands down the highlight of my social media splurge! Seeing it as an ode to her supermodel daughter, Gigi Hadid, I was in awe of Gigi’s beautiful stature and wind blown tresses. But, after looking at the photo a bit more closely, my “insta-happiness” suddenly transformed into utter frustration.

I noticed there was a black baby girl in a stroller with a cheap beauty supply store clip in her hair and a suspicious looking metal chain around her body. At that moment, I was no longer stricken by Gigi, but by the blatant cultural exploitation happening in the photo. I asked myself, “Is this a new fad? Or is it the active appropriation and manipulation of every black girl’s childhood? Of my own childhood?”  I had hoped that I wouldn’t be alone in my conjectures. I was sure that there would be widespread outrage, but after cross-referencing the campaign through the NY Times, Refinery 29 and The Business of Fashion, what I found was the opposite; in fact, what I found was endless praise.

Bruce Weber 

Bruce Weber 

Gigi, (herself half Arab), was photographed for the campaign in Chicago by Bruce Weber, along with three other people of color. Described as a “chic mom” by Refinery29 (Versace Explains it's Controversial Gigi Hadid Campaign ) and trending the hashtag, #momgoals, “white passing” Gigi plays wife to model Marcus Watts, and mother to two children who obviously could not be the product of their union. While the location was described as “a city on its rims,” by renowned fashion journalist Tim Blanks in his Business of Fashion take on the campaign, (Donatella Versace and Bruce Weber Reunited) Bruce Weber is quoted as stating he found the non-models through a “street casting,” in the “African-American part of town,” which according to Vanessa Friedman, of the New York Times, was an attempt to move fashion into a more realistic direction, or in her own words: “an effort to move from fashion fantasy to actuality.”

They then discovered a bar-nut handful of “non-modeling” people and “put together all kinds of diverse families.” Clearly this was one of them. But, is that really street casting? On top of the subtle racism that flooded the basic description of Chicago by both Tim Blanks and Bruce Weber, it is clear that this shoot was another sad attempt by a luxury fashion brand to capture the holy grail of authenticity.  

Unfortunately, it seems like all Donatella and Bruce did was temporarily slip away from their padded mansions in Miami and Milan to a mysterious city called Chicago; the murder capital of the United States. There they hoped to bless the West Loop with their “street casting” and diverse talent. As a result, I believe this expedition not only discredited the project’s potential creative value, but also highlighted the cultural tone deafness and blindness that the fashion business is continuously guilty of.

The act of rich white creatives capitalizing on the shortcomings of a disenfranchised community, to build their “set”  evokes neither luxury or authenticity. Thus this grit supposedly brought by the city of Chicago is not a beautiful canvas for one to use as a dramatic backdrop, but rather a continual war zone, affecting the real lives of real people who do not have the luxury to be fondled by the hands of luxury.

As a native Black female-Chicagoan, and someone who loves that city, I know for a fact that this is true. And just to underline how fashionably tragic this campaign really was, one should note that the New York Times simultaneously published A Weekend in Chicago: the amazing interactive piece on the memorial day weekend shootings and Vanessa Friedman’s tribute to these fashion legends. On the same day? Really? Shame on you. Just as we learned of the 64 people shot and the 6 who lost their lives to senseless gun violence, were we supposed to be able to soften the tragic blows by learning of Donatella’s authentic “trip to the supermarket?” But what about the realism? Clearly Donatella and Bruce aren’t ready for it.