Wake Up Mr. West and Jean Touitou too
Early last week Jean Touitou, founder and creative director of minimalist fashion clothing brand A.P.C titled his Fall/Winter 2015 collection something that shocked many and had them aghast. The ludicrousness of his idea was something he had to have thought was brilliant. At the presentation of his collection, Touitou held up a sign with his newly branded collection. According to Style.com, the sign read “LAST NI##@$ IN PARIS”. In reference to the title, Touitou is quoted as saying:
“I call this one look Last N—-s in Paris. Why? Because it’s the sweet spot when the hood—the ‘hood—meets Bertolucci’s movie Last Tango in Paris. So that’s ‘N—-s in Paris’ and Last N—-s in Paris. [Nervous laughter from audience.] Oh, I am glad some people laughed with me. Yes, I mean, it’s nice to play with the strong signifiers. The Timberland here is a very strong ghetto signifier. In the ghetto, it is all the Timberlands, all the big chain. Not at the same time—never; it’s bad taste. So, we designed Timberlands with Timberland…”
Touitou went on to clarify when reached by Style.com:
“One hip-hop song is called ‘N—-s in Paris.’ One movie is called Last Tango in Paris. I made looks which are a cross-over of those two references: the Timberland shoes and the sweat pants are iconic of hip-hop, and the camel hair color coat, worn with nothing under it, is iconic of that precise movie. I am friends with Kanye [West, who recorded “N—-s in Paris” with Jay-Z] and he and I presented a joint collection at the same place, one year ago, and that this thing is only a homage to our friendship. As a matter of fact, when I came up with this idea, I wrote to him, with the picture of the look and the name I was giving to it, and he wrote back immediately saying something like, ‘I love this vibe.’”
Clothing and footwear brand name Timberland who had worked with A.P.C on a range of collaborations for the collection has since severed ties and rebuked A.P.C’s approach to fashion.
Behind the coded language and ill perceived intent, Touitou reminds us how terribly undervalued Black people are viewed. Kanye West’s alleged approval of his collection title tells us he tacitly consents. We know by having listened to Kanye West’s albums and his number of eloquent and passionate “rants” that the existence of racism in all manifestations does not escape him. Kanye’s association with this individual is problematic because, though he in no way represents the entire community of Black individuals, West’s continued relationship with Touitou without public admonishment informs us of his priorities. Kanye’s alleged approval of the line and its title tells us something else: the desire to gain access to a field that is dominated by such bigotry and exploitation outweighs the need to respect the legacy of a race—one that said individual belongs to. This has always permeated the chapters in the history books in reference to Black citizens and the system. The system holds promises so desirable that the oppressed (or historically oppressed if you have been deceived into believing that we are in a post-racial society) will do what is necessary to attain the dreams that it supposedly possesses.
Touitou has since apologized for his “ignorant and offensive” language. You can find his apology on his Twitter page where he tweets that he spoke “recklessly” and that he is deeply “regretful for his poor choice of words, which are in no way a reflection of [his] personal views.” What is most problematic is not the choice of words he used but his deluded understanding of what his use of “ghetto signifiers” really means.
Unfortunately for Touitou, his “I can’t be racist; look, I have a Black friend” defense doesn’t work in this scenario. Perhaps his background has blinded him to the fact that we moved past the age of tokenism and are no longer accepting the defense in the court of social justice. In this scenario, J. Cole’s lyrics in his song Fire Squad plays well as a fair retort: history repeats itself and that’s just how it goes. But in this scenario history repeats itself in a more tacit, but equally as damning way.
What Black people in inner city neighborhoods are so often condemned for is what mainstream populations revere…as long as a black body isn’t embodying it. Touitou reminds us of this in the absence of Black faces on the models that feature in his presentation.
Given the frequent appropriation of urban (read: Black) fashion trends and behaviors, Touitou is just the most recent and egregious of the lot. Having openly admitted to taking inspiration from street style most commonly seen in “the ghetto”, it seems as though the respect with which high-end fashion designers view their inspiration is non-existent. The crux of the many issues lie in the logic that motivated the continuation of slavery (and the behaviors that followed)—black bodies are ok to make money from but not to be respected. Their purpose is to create capital, as they are capital, but their value as human beings are as low as the foot that continues to step on their necks. Touitou’s supposed understanding of his wrongdoing stops at the language he uses, but he does not acknowledge the greater picture at hand.
When reporting on this story MTV.com’s Gabrielle Wilson brings up a poignant and necessary point: “When is art appreciating and when is it appropriating?” When you’re dealing with populations that have always been and continue to be oppressed and you use the forms of art they created in order for your group—who has historically done the oppressing—to make money and get credit you have crossed the line into appropriation. The power that Touitou has to bring the fashion to a wider audience is a direct result of global racism and the results of racist policies. As long as he does not include the Black bodies he takes his inspiration from, he is not admiring art; he is stealing it.
And though there are Black faces in the world of fashion, they are few and seldom do they have the position that Touitou has. His exploitation of inner city fashion and his pairing of it with a word that quite literally infers ignorance and inferiority is the greatest issue. His ability to cast human beings off as N-words is problematic. His need of inner city fashion to bolster his earnings and the simultaneity in degrading them is entrenched in the American legacy of race relations. The slave is inferior but yet you need him and her to create wealth. The Southerner is inferior but yet you use her to watch your children. The Black boy is great for entertainment but otherwise it’s open season to kill him and have him lay in the street for hours. The inner-city Black girl or boy is necessary to create fashion that appears on the runway but not for understanding or inclusion. This contradiction in the racial relationships in a country that was built on racism persists and its nuance is deafening.