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For the occasion of a Dior boutique in Shanghai, a series of photographs by Quentin Shih was installed at the store. Not surprisingly, Jezebel was the first one to issue a missive about its racist/colonial undertones. My apologies for the link to a post that is entirely in French, but it’s the only thing I’ve read so far that gives proper context/record. I don’t think her being a white French woman makes her post illegitimate; as my being Chinese/growing up in Shanghai shouldn’t necessarily give my post authority/legitimacy (though my fanaticism for France and fashion might even out the bias?).
It’s easy to dismiss this campaign as being imperialist what with the bland sea of Chinese people vs. the Caucasians dressed to the nines in Dior, but I would argue that it is easier to do so mainly due to the context. In another context, a different discussion would probably – if not definitely – ensue. The photographs were done by a Chinese native (which, in itself, doesn’t eliminate the possibility of racial issues), but would at least force some due consideration to significance beyond the obvious connotation. Imagine if the series were exhibited in 798 or something, rather than for the commercial purposes of promoting a boutique?
Given the historical relationship between France and China – Shanghai especially with its picturesque French Concession, which is still very much a somewhat exclusive area for expats of Occidental origins, it’s very easy to interpret it as a throwback to that “bygone” era where Westerners are in China to bring the good ol’ European civilization/Christianity to the savages of the east. That’s the European view. That’s where Jenny Zhang of Jezebel, despite her Chinese descent, began. But, can we just pause for a minute and realize that Chinese people had an opinion of the west? Such as, Chinese people thought Europeans were barbaric? We have one of the longest recorded histories in the world and certainly the longest existing civilizations as would be recognized in terms of infrastructure, institutions and writing systems. We invented noodles and the most efficient utensils to eat them, too. Why is the “Westerner” necessarily humanized? Between the stiff outfits and robotic posture/expressions, why do we not interpret them to be a Chinese view of an archetype or a mere mannequin (a vehicle) for the goods – the real end?
Furthermore, let’s look at the photos, the sea of Chinese faces evokes an era of Chinese history where any contact with the west was officially excluded. The fact that it’s meant to portray the Cultural Revolution rather than the prime of French colonization is more a reflection of the photographer’s own upbringing and China’s nouveau riche and their aspirations to that image. You don’t have to jettison your culture for the aesthetics of couture. I mean, hello, have we met? As an ad, it’s appealing to that sensibility. The fact that Jenny Zhang would ask the question of whether Dior ever asked a Chinese person – that is a Chinese resident of China – for perspective betrays her own ignorance of the very same. If you are at all familiar with the “culture” of the Cultural Revolution, then you know that these images are an accurate depiction of the oppressed conformity of the era. Juxtaposition isn’t some avant garde technique in art or any form of expression. And, can we be honest? Dior, for the past few seasons, hasn’t exactly been groundbreaking in terms of creativity; its own idea of fashion is traditional and might we applaud in view of all the other houses who are breaking into the market. Consider Chanel and Fendi whose “special” collections for China have been anything but PC? Is fetishizing and appropriating Chinese aesthetics for their own profit any better than what Dior has done? (For the record, it’s seriously put me off Karl. The creative license he feels entitled to – that he is entitled to thanks to the mindless fashion fans – is a little egregious.) I will say though, as China becomes a huge market for luxury goods, the companies that try to establish a niche there will have to do a little more research. Hey, Chanel? For the record, a Chinese person with money buy Chanel, because of the Western idea of luxury it represents. If you want to talk about authenticity, Chanel qi pao is anything but. Bootlegging applies for the reverse, too.
And, just to be a jerk, if you want to talk about the paradigm of power dynamic, look at Kanye West’s new video for “Power”. While it is an attempt to reconfigure the idea of power, isn’t he merely conceding to a very Eurocentric view of the image of power? How empowered is he? If he were to rewrite history with a black man in power, why would the rest of it look so eerily reflective of the “classical” portrait of power?
Controversial conjecture: but how much of our racial insecurities – without dismissing legitimate day to day injustices due to race – are constructed by the hegemony? Or at least bred by it – not the power structure (obvs that’s legit) but its dictates? Jenny Zhang, are you listening? It’s me, Jae.
Also, no rationalizing it by saying fashion is ignorant. Sometimes, yes, in editorials, but you really think a company as big as Dior isn’t calculating about a big business like the one in China? Are YOU dumb? Why do you think they used a Chinese photographer instead of just using the same campaign by Meisel?