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Galliano’s fashionable beliefs: Laurie Penny on an act of hypocrisy

The problem with racism and sexism in fashion goes far beyond one slurring fantasist.

The fashion industry is a vacuous sausage factory that minces down the bodies of vulnerable young people, tosses in handfuls of unexamined prejudice and squeezes out glistening parcels of expensive self-hatred. There is also, as Hunter S Thompson might have said, a negative side.

This week, after an alleged anti-Semitic verbal assault by the Dior designer John Galliano in a Paris bar, an earlier video emerged of him ranting about Jews and women. "I love Hitler. People like you would be dead today," he tells two horrified women. "Your mothers, your forefathers, would be fucking gassed and fucking dead."

Fashion people everywhere rushed to check their hair before joining the chorus of dismay, almost as if racism and sexism were not the stock-in-trade of their industry. In fact, it is an open secret in high fashion that black and minority ethnic faces - alongside women whose ribs cannot be counted through their rattan tops, or "fat mummies" in the phraseology of Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld - are not welcome. The few working black models accuse fashion houses of declining to hire them on the basis of skin tone - model agencies recently suggested that perhaps consumers just don't like looking at black people.

Diversity in fashion is going backwards. The recent fashion week in New York, one of the most multicultural places on the planet, featured 85 per cent white models, a proportion that has hardly changed in a decade. Recent high-profile campaigns have showcased white models in blackface, and when real black models do make it on to the pages of magazines, the airbrushing invariably lightens their colouring and straightens their hair into more marketable, Caucasian styles. Then we wonder why anxious teenagers across the world are using dangerous toxins to bleach the blackness out of their skin.

Frock horror

What should shock is not just the substance of Galliano's comments, but the fact that it took a man being caught on camera explicitly saying that he loves Hitler for the fashion industry to acknowledge a teeny problem with racism. The rabid misogyny of Galliano's outburst has hardly been commented on because, while most people now acknowledge that anti-Semitism isn't very nice, the jury is still out on institutional sexism.

The misogyny of fashion culture, however, exceeds its apparent conviction that any woman with the temerity to do more than silently starve herself is abhorrent. Silent complicity surrounds the rapes and sexual assaults that are routine in the industry. When the designer Anand Jon was last year found guilty on 16 counts of rape and sexual battery of models as young as 14, the only surprise expressed by fashion insiders was that his victims had dared to come forward at all.

The pearl-clutching piety of the response to Galliano's ugly outburst is a primer in tasteful hypocrisy. High-profile fashion colleagues eventually expressed discomfort with his viewpoint, if that's an appropriate term for the sort of drooling monologue normally delivered by a park-bench pervert with two hands down his pants. The problem with racism and sexism in fashion, however, goes far beyond one slurring fantasist.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle

Photo: Getty Images
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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.