Japanese menswear designer Junya Watanabe’s Spring 2016 collection was a sight to behold. The colorful assortment included vibrant Ankara prints, intricately beaded Masai necklaces (with bones!), traditional masks, spears, and mountains of messy dreadlocks and feathered cornrows. The show, called “Faraway,” brought Africa to the Paris catwalk and it showed out.
There was only one thing missing: Black men.
Like many fashion shows these days, the entire spectacle consisted of ZERO Black models, despite Watanabe’s blatant use of Africa’s diverse people as his inspiration. And while the wholesale appropriation of Africa was troubling to many, apparently, fashion critics weren’t too concerned.
WWD called Watanabe’s work “powerful” and, of course, “exotic” and praised the Japanese designer for delivering a “punch.”
“Some might see the Masai necklaces, wooden masks and metal spears as overkill, and insensitive to the darker side of colonialism. Yet the beauty of Watanabe’s pattern mixes and the placement of the scraps — along with the jauntiness of his summer tailoring in rumpled, sun-faded fabrics — delivered a powerful tropical punch.”
Umm, darker side of colonialism? Is that like the darker side of apartheid? And if so, what was the “lighter” side?
Style.com’s Tim Blanks said Watanabe’s show was a beautiful “parade of boned, beaded, bangled wannabe witchdoctors” and praised the designer for his efforts, which were “infected in some way with pattern and color.”
Now Fashion said the show felt like “Ivy Leaguers had gone native” and argued Watanabe was commenting on “colonialism, and exploited the in-roads between preppy and native African culture.”
Whatever he was attempting to do, Watanabe’s white, preppy witchdoctors were little more than yet another perverse fetishization of Africa’s “primitiveness.”
Despite the fact the continent includes some of the fastest growing economies in the world and is home to modern cities, booming tech industries, acclaimed universities, and growing financial sectors, the dominant narrative the West continues to perpetrate about Africa is that the continent is a backward, disease-stricken, primordial place.
Watanabe’s collection positions Africa as “faraway” in both time and place, and is no more revolutionary, subversive, or interesting than blackface.