Donna Karan’s Adriana Lima Ads Reduce People Of Color To Props

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I need you guys to help me puzzle out WHAT exactly is going on with Donna Karan‘s S/S 2014 ad campaign. Because whatever it is, it isn’t good.

I saw the pictures, which feature Adriana Lima and male model Andres Segura, over on Oh No They Didn’t and my overall impression of the clothes was that they resemble what a super rich, super sexy Santa Fe housewife would wear on vacation to Sedona. They’re vaguely Southwestern, vaguely “ethnic,” and vaguely “tribal,” whatever that means. Oh, and there’s a lot of cleavage. The setting is the same: there’s a hot dark-haired man making stuff out of leather and/or being shirtless and Adriana Lima seems to be posing in some kind of beautiful ruins. All in all, nothing groundbreaking, but nothing that immediately made me cry “CULTURAL APPROPRIATION!”

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But then I watched the video. Hoo boy, does this video get into some seriously problematic depictions in just over a minute running time. There’s dark-skinned people who are gesticulating and bowing behind the lighter-skinned models. There’s drumming and sexy looks and sexy posturing and sexy posing amidst nondescript ruins.

Are we in the Southwest? Are we in Africa? Are we in the Caribbean? Are we in South America? Does it even matter to Donna Karan? There’s brown people and brown walls and vaguely-ethnically-patterned dresses, so the company has clearly achieved their “look” and feel for the shoot.

Whoops! Turns out we’re in Haiti! This isn’t the first time Donna Karan has shot an ad campaign in one of the poorest countries in the world. Apparently, Haiti is a country that’s close to the designer’s heart. While that’s all well and good, I still think it’s tacky to shoot sell thousand dollar lace-up skirts in a country where the per capita income is about $1300 per year.

The video reminds me of nothing so much as the last scene of Game of Thrones’ most recent season, albeit in a much tamer way. I want to raise serious issue with how the (assumedly?) native Haitians in the video are depicted: in the background, dancing, waving their hands, seemingly almost bowing to Adriana and Andres. None of their faces are shown clearly. We only see their drumming hands, their bending backs: They exist only en masse. They’re there to provide some “authentic” background eye candy so our gaze is drawn to where it really matters, to the clothes and the glamorous lighter-skinned people. The people of color in this ad are essentially props.

Yes, I know that Adriana Lima is Brazilian, and could be considered a person of color (I do not know how she defines herself). I don’t know much about Brazil, but I understand that it is a country still rife with racial issues that center around skin color, including a sharp divide between black Brazilians and others. That’s certainly something interesting to consider in the context of this ad, no?

I also find it incredibly strange how one-size-fits-all “exotic” the campaign feels. I would never have known it was shot in Haiti if I hadn’t done a little Googling. Maybe, if I were better versed with Haitian culture, I would have recognized the drumming or the ruins, I don’t know.  But I think there’s a lumping together of “exotic” cultures that is going on here, one that’s not necessarily anything new in fashion. But just because it isn’t new, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck.

Donna Karan’s clothes are aimed at an extremely privileged audience of consumers. She’s trying to sell them a wholesale “othered” experience, without actually giving any importance to the experience or the depiction of the other. And that’s not ok.

Photos: Donna Karan 

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    • http://ThePeppercat.com/ Candace

      Holy shit you weren’t kidding, it does look like they’re bowing. That’s so messed up, I can’t even deal.

    • David

      let’s not discount that Karan’s principle ad campaign images features the multi racial Afro Brazilian model, Adriana Lima. If you open any fashion magazine where these advertisements will be displayed it stands in sharpe contrast to the status quo.

      Your points are well taken but I think the overall process and legitamacy of what Karan has done in Hati and by breaking from the status quo should also be acknowledge.