Tuesday, September 10, 2013

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The Diesel Burqa Ad: Fashion Faux-Pas

By Shruti Parekh @yungsaffron

Last week, I was returning to work from a lunch break when a Diesel poster ad on 6th avenue had me doing a triple take. I walked back to give it a few minutes of my time, jaw open. A white woman, tattooed and apparently topless, stared out in all her defiant glory through the eye slit of a denim burqa. Next to her in bold letters were the words, “I AM NOT WHAT I APPEAR TO BE.”

I work both in media and at the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, an organization of women artists and feminists from all over the South Asian subcontinent. I spend a good deal of time paying attention to the way South Asians, Muslims, and women are portrayed in the media, and this ad is exactly the kind of thing I come to screeching halts for. After snapping about 10 pictures and looking around a bit to see if anyone shared my disbelief, I began to try and make sense of the ad.

First, some context. Earlier this year, Lady Gaga’s controversial and notoriously out-there stylist and fashion director, Nicola Formichetti, was brought on as Diesel’s art director. Nicola Formichetti works off of shock factor; his work almost seems to fetishize controversy. As his first project at Diesel, Formichetti began an ad campaign called DieselReboot, a “full blown reinvention of one of the world’s most iconic brands.” The denim burqa ad, which features model Ira Chernova, is part of this campaign. At the bottom is a URL for the DieselReboot tumblr on which Nicola puts out calls for imagery from the masses, in order to “help...baptize a new era of energy, bravery, and bold iconography at Diesel.” I haven’t been paying attention to Lady Gaga much lately, but perhaps if I had, I wouldn’t have been as surprised by Formichetti’s burqa-influenced leanings. Lady Gaga’s recently leaked song “Burqa” and the Twitter trend that followed is another issue in itself, but lends noteworthy context to this ad and the way the burqa is being dealt with by pop culture and fashion right now.

The issue with this image starts at cultural appropriation, but goes much deeper. On the most basic level, the ad appropriates the burqa and puts it on a white woman in a socio-political context rife with Islamophobia and attacks on the Muslim world. Now, the burqa is a loaded item and has come to mean so many things to both Muslims and non-Muslims in our age of Islamophobia and sensationalist news. While the issue is complex, the agency and experience of Muslim women who wear the burqa must be respected. And Muslim women who wear the burqa in the West have had to deal with everything from discriminatory banning laws in Europe to racist slurs and hate crimes.

Meanwhile, this white woman who wears her Diesel burqa bears none of the hate or loaded connotations that Muslim women bear on the regular. Brown, Muslim women in burqas are often looked at with distrust and fear or patronizing sympathy by Americans, while this white woman represents fashion. She is in fact bold, cutting edge, and rebellious. This level of cultural appropriation is more than a disrespectful “borrowing of culture,” it is a nasty flaunting of privilege.

Putting a white, non-Muslim woman in a burqa in our current global context is one level of disrespect, but making her topless takes it to a level that is hard for me to comprehend. In my attempt to understand where the hell Diesel was coming from with this (other than just the obvious shock factor), I can only assume that they were trying to express a sort of subversive spirit with the “I am not what I appear to be” slogan. Under the burqa is a sexualized, inked-up woman. It seems that Formichetti and Diesel are taking it upon themselves, in the name of “fashion” and “bold iconography,” to use a white model to display a message about burqas and the women who wear them that they are in absolutely no place to display. This image would mean something drastically different if it was created by Muslim women, and if the woman was actually a Muslim model in the context of a fundamentalist Islamic regime. It might be radical, bold, and subversive. It might actually be an empowered assertion of women’s sexuality.

But context is everything, and in the context of a white woman in a Diesel ad created by Americans, the meaning and symbolism twists inside out and is deeply disrespectful. It is this entitlement rampant in the fashion industry that needs to be called out, time and time again. Images are powerful forces, and they can never be put out into the world without being directly in conversation with the current social context. Formichetti can flaunt his avant-garde-ness all he wants, but in a moment when our country is dropping bombs on the Muslim world, in a moment when Muslims are surveilled, targeted, and attacked on our streets, this image reflects the embarrassing and disappointing level of ignorance and disrespect that can be present in the fashion industry.