Cultural sensitivity has never been a higher priority for the fashion industry than it is right now. Case in point: Dolce & Gabbana came under fire last week after a racially-charged ad campaign went viral, forcing the brand to cancel a costly 500-look runway extravaganza in Shanghai. The video in question featured an Asian model fumbling to pick-up a massive cannoli with chopsticks—not exactly a thoughtful or progressive take on Chinese culture. But, while certain brands like D&G flounder to embrace a modern concept of diversity, others, like Valentino, are setting an example for how cultural cross-pollination can and should be done.
For Valentino’s Pre-Fall 2019 collection, creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli transported showgoers—both literally and figuratively—to Tokyo. The offering articulated a sharp cultural awareness: “I love the culture of Japan,” Picciolio told Vogue. “It’s so modern with a sense of tradition which is romantic, not nostalgic—it’s part of the present.” That appreciation is evident in the clothing, which Out editor-in-chief Phillip Picardi applauded on Instagram Stories, writing “so many silhouettes that reminded of Comme [des Garçons] or Junya [Watanabe] (and even some pleated accents that seemed like a nod to Issey [Miyake]), but all given a Valentino, Italian romance (and flair!)”.
Nary a kimono in sight, Piccioli ignored dated Japanese references, instead digging deeper to find the similarities (and differences) between Italian and Japanese cultures. One of the ideas behind the collection was “ma,” which roughly translates to the space between two objects in Japanese. In Italian, it literally means “but,” which refers to the connection of two different ideas. Wabi-sabi, another concept Piccioli was inspired by, is a Japanese view of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by this idea [of wabi-sabi],” Piccioli said. “Western culture is about symmetry, perfection, static beauty, while wabi-sabi is more close to the idea of harmony, of inner grace. Time goes by and it adds, it doesn’t take away. It’s really interesting for this moment—in the past, beauty was perfection, but I really feel beauty is about diversity, that this idea of wabi-sabi is very modern in this moment.”
It’s true that, at times, it seems like everyone is tip-toeing around the issue of diversity to an unnerving degree, but it’s not for nothing. As writer Katherine K. Zarella argued, “cultural cross-pollination can be a beautiful thing,” when done correctly. But Dolce & Gabbana’s representation of the Chinese was interpreted as surface-level, and mocking, notwithstanding the fact that it was specifically geared towards an Asian audience. These actions don’t happen in a vacuum. There’s a longstanding history of racism against Asian culture, and this was a clear continuation of that narrative.
Instead, the Dolce designers could have shown respect by collaborating with a Chinese artist or brand. Or, at the very least, could have gone beyond obvious stereotypes. And that’s where Valentino got it right. Piccioli’s appreciation of the Japanese culture was apparent without being offensive. In this, he was able to “keep the prettiness and the romanticism, the codes of the house” while tastefully mixing them with the principles of wabi-sabi. Maybe Piccioli and his team are just more plugged into the current millennial-mindset, but whatever the reason, he knows what young fashion consumers want—and that’s something that feels authentic and appreciative, not appropriative.