On that Jezebel article on the Rodarte situation

"$4,000 Dresses Inspired by Violent Mexico Town"
Rodarte Fall 2010 collection review

I read this article at some point during the weekend and when I found myself still thinking about it hours after reading, I thought maybe I should look deeper into it.

So it all started last week when the pr for Rodarte's collaboration with MAC started. One of their lip glosses had the name "Juarez" and some bloggers took serious offense to it. Since the 1990's an alarmingly high number of young women have been reported missing and/or found dead, most of them being young factory workers (maquiladoras, which is the name of another one of their products) and as young as 12 years old. It's clear how this would be something that would upset some people, but this post is not about that.

The article that Jenna Sauers wrote for Jezebel upset me, I think, because it completely took the situation out of context, and into a next-level of hysteria. The good thing is that it really got me thinking and in the process, it made me question how we look at "creative freedom" and re-awakened the ole' debate of "can fashion be art?"

Let's start with the title, shall we? "4,000 dollar dresses inspired by violent Mexico town". You don't know what happened, but ALREADY you are outraged. What kind of sick people make such a HUGE profit off of murdered minorities?, you will think. Nothing will be able to change your mind. Especially not when the first thing you read says:
"For fall, Rodarte presented a collection inspired by women factory workers in Ciudad Juárez. Juárez is the world's most violent place, outside of active war zones. Hundreds — some say thousands — of women have been murdered in Juárez."
But, if you manage to keep reading just a few lines, you will see that the inspiration behind their fall collection was not REALLY the homicides of women factory workers. According to Style.com's Nicole Phelps it was
"a long drive from El Paso to Marfa, Texas, (that) got them thinking they might like to explore their Mexican roots. From there, they became interested in the troubled border town of Ciudad Juárez; the hazy, dreamlike quality of the landscape there; and the maquiladora workers going to the factory in the middle of the night."
Sauers ends the quote there. But on Style.com, Phelps continues:
"And that, according to the designers, who certainly know how to romance a pitch, led to this conclusion: They'd build a collection off the idea of sleepwalking."
The collection is actually inspired by sleepwalking.

Is their romanticizing of the maquiladoras a bit off? Perhaps, but since when does inspiration need to respond to anyone but the one being inspired? If you remember the collection the whole thing was built upon layers and layers of thin chiffon, floral prints and their signature chunky knits. There were no "interpretations" of maquiladora uniforms, no grotesque use of smeared makeup or multiple shades of red to convey blood and murder. It was hazy, with smoke machines, lit candles and melted wax everywhere but it was definitely not violent or even "provocative". Their inspiration and creative process does not really need to be justified to anyone but themselves, but in any case, it is hardly a literal interpretation of the events.

Sauers goes on to say that when the collection came out back in February something about it seemed a bit off to her. Not that she wrote anything about it back then, a search through the Jezebel archive shows a tightly edited slideshow of the show and the celebrities in attendance with funny captions by Sadie Stein. In fact, it seems that no one had a problem with the collection until the MAC press release came out last week so it seems a little disingenuous to go back and try to denounce editors for not responding to their "transgressions" when she actually didn't either. She makes a reference at the disparity of the models with the actual women that work in Ciudad Juarez, but it's a moot point; they're not SUPPOSED to look like them. Natalie Portman is quoted commenting on the beautiful ghost-like make up and then gets totally Debbie-Downered by the author:
"Maybe the women were turned into ghosts because they were brutally murdered and their bodies were dumped in the desert and their killer(s) were never pursued by a dysfunctional and corrupt police force, let alone prosecuted?"
Wah Wah Waaaah.
Way to take it to a brutal level.
(Disclaimer: On the Style.com video interview Kate Mulleavy admitted to Tim Blanks that this is something that she thought about (not in such a graphic way, I'm sure. They're just really into spirits! Laura did not see it that way but she thinks you can if you want to.)

Then of course, the notion that just because bad things have happened somewhere, a place is incapable of containing beauty or being able to inspire someone to create beautiful works of art. There are still many people that live and work there and I'm sure they are tired of everyone thinking they live in "murder town" and are working hard to improve the image of the city. As so, they have one of the highest literacy rates in Mexico and their education system is one of the broadest, making education available to a variety of different incomes. When Sauers says it's "icky" for us to ask the maquiladoras to "provide inspiration" for $4,000 dresses, it strikes me in different ways. First, why not? Why shouldn't these hard-working women be the inspiration of something beautiful? Isn't that kind of a wonderful thing to be a part of? And second, if the Mulleavys were traditional artists, and painted their ideas instead of creating clothes, would it still be "icky"? No, it would probably be lauded by critics for finding the "diamond in the rough" or seeing the "true souls of the women that work there". Sauers is unsure about whether fashion can inspire the same spark of conversation that art can. When she talks about the real problem being a "failure to engage", she's referring to the editors and celebrities that praised the collection but failed to mention the brutal violence (because it wasn't really there). If most people see the collection without ever talking to the designers or realizing one of the many aspects of its inspiration, are they in the wrong for judging the product solely on its own merits*? Or should people put as much weight behind intent as they do with the finished product? If we insist that fashion cannot be seen as art, then the answer is obvious, object before idea.

So yes, naming the lipsticks made some of their inspiration obvious and made many of us uneasy, but they ARE donating a portion of their proceeds to a charity in Ciudad Juarez. And just imagine how many more people now know about the things going on just south of the border. In the end, although the subject matter is dark, the result is not so. It's not so much about the ghosts of the women that have passed, but about the resilient spirit of those that live on.

* Like, yesterday I was watching one of those Food Network competitions where they had to re-make a classic dish. A contestant had to re-vamp "pigs in a blanket" and so she made breaded shrimp. Should I hate the breaded shrimp because I don't like "pigs in a blanket"? Or should I just eat the shrimp because it's probably delicious. And may I please remind you that it does not say RSVP on the statue of liberty.


bea. said...

I did a little irritated bit on this and I think the idea was skewed way out of hand and twisted around by shitty PR. But it's 2:25 am and I just like the note at the bottom with the clueless reference.

Frank Rubel said...

Laila, That they *are* donating a portion of the proceeds to Juarez is taken out of context a bit. This decision to do so was only announced in reaction to the controversy *and* the statement was actually quite tentative "M·A·C will give a portion of the proceeds from the M·A·C Rodarte collection to help those in need in Juarez. We are diligently investigating the best way to do this."

I appreciate your point that the ruckus is largely motivated by the tidy headline that can be easily replicated across the web about poor dead people inspiring expensive clothing but that doesn't mean that there is not a less easy to categorize issue underlying which is that *clearly* these girls (geniuses in their own rights... perhaps) either recklessly invoke Ciudad Juarez and the maquiladoras as (part of) their inspiration or they are afraid to actually make a powerful statement that says something substantive about this serious issue.

I think that the fashion press (and adoring devoted bloggers) that pander to designers and refuse to address issues such as this until it becomes reactionary is a problem. Mainstream fashion criticism (including from a ton of blogs) is seriously lacking in even an air of objectivity. Why has nobody yet latched onto the irony of *fast fashion* being a part of the economy of Juarez. Something that has actually in some way served as motivation for these massacres.

I'm sorry my thoughts are all over the place on this, but I think the extension of all this is that because we are never seriously critical of our artist-designers they can't and/or aren't motivated to stand up and actually make an artistic statement worth making.

Pashupati said...

"But, if you manage to keep reading just a few lines, you will see that the inspiration behind their fall collection was not REALLY the homicides of women factory workers."

So bad, I thought it was a good hommage.
Seriously, I don't know why people take things like that so bad.

laia. said...

Frank: I do not believe I am pandering or giving them a pass. I agree that using the names for the makeup collection was in poor taste and I'm glad they are changing them and donating the proceeds, whether or not it was their original intent. I assume that since there was no controversy when the collection came out then they were not expecting the makeup line to be any different.

I guess one of the main things I was trying to say here is that I do not think that designers need to apologize or make sure that their creative process is approved by the rest of the world. Like I mentioned in the post, the clothes themselves have nothing to do with the awful situation that is happening over there so what is really offensive then, their thoughts or their final products?
Sauers did mention, in passing, that these women work "making our jeans" and although you found some irony in it, I don't really think that it reflects in any way in the Mulleavy sisters as their clothes are the exact opposite of fast fashion. If it was a company like Topshop or H&M then maybe I could see where you are coming from.

The Mulleavy sisters communicate through textiles and are not designers that have a "message" or a "statement" each season, so I do not think that this time should be any different.

Gabriela said...

I think over at Jezebel there's a big culture of outrage which comes naturally from wanting to decry all the injustices in the world. Yes, quite often it's a sentiment that's righteously placed, but too many lines get so quickly and horribly blurred that I find myself thinking that those rants are created with the purpose of sounding critical and discerning without any real thought to the matter at hand.
I'm still a bit on the fence about this case. I felt horrified when I saw that headline, but as I read further I found myself thinking that a lot of the "research" was based on assumptions that were used to further scandalize readers. I do think the situation in Juarez is the stuff of nightmares, something so horrible that I can't even begin to fathom it, and I don't think fashion is the right outlet to decry the atrocities being committed over there. But then again, I don't think that was the point of the collection to begin with, and a little research with a less convoluted mindset would've shown exactly that.
Anyway, yeah, Im really tired of people bitching for the sake of bitching. Too bad I'm kind of addicted to Jezebel now, ergh.

Frank Rubel said...

What I didn't say so well was that the clothes must have something to do with the situation whether specifically (and politically) intended in that these girls are ghostly. You put something out there artistically (and make whatever statements) but ultimately an artistic voice always has future dialogues built into the aesthetic and I think there is something suggestive here (and in my heart believe it's a message we should be talking about).

I don't think we do the artist/designers a service by trying to address whether the discourse is fair and if it should exist.

They've obviously opened an important door here (intentionally or not) and I hope it stays open (and cherry on top, clothes are gorgeous and made in a humane way!). I just hope the discussion can go much further than: "ohhh look at those rich people consuming products 'inspired' by the poor" versus "leave them alone they're just doing fashion they don't need to be making any statement." (apologies for the extreme hyperbole!)

Plantress said...

the word ghostly is key for me as well. Is it possible to separate the art from the situation that inspires it?

corrie said...

This is why I had to stop reading Jezebel. They take everything to this level. It's truly exhausting. Posting photos of baby animals in between articles like this one really doesn't ease the vibe around there, either.

Anonymous said...

I for one, didn't know anything about the situation south of the border, and am horrified by it. However, I do not see the why the Rodarte sisters are taking so much heat for creating a beautiful collection. Props for both informing me about Ciudad Juarez in a respectful and realistic way, and also for standing up for beautiful art.
I think at some point, Jezebel needs to stop looking for the bad in everything. The Rodarte sisters did not draw inspiration from the actual deaths that occured (or ghosts), but the ghost-like state of sleeping, and of dreams.

Ross said...

I think I've told every "fashion" girl who talks to me about this, exactly what you've written. the collection (and the makeup) were not inspired by brutal murders, rape, ect. but by the dreamlike state of waking up in the dead of night to go to work and the process involved in that. I think it's funny watching editors and fashion journalist running around like headless chickens trying to backtrack and say they were not fans of the collection initially. Wow.

Elena said...

Jezebel articles often seem like they are trying to create an uproar. While I think that some of the things in this situation are problematic (the makeup thing mostly,) I think the article really misses the point. When this collection was shown I don't remember ever hearing about this having to do with Juarez or the violence there specifically. Sauers seemed shocked by the fact that people who reviewed the show didn't mention anything about the violence and were talking about how dreamy or beautiful the clothing was. I'm not sure how they were supposed to have known at that point that the inspiration had a connection to Juarez, and I think it's ridiculous that Jezebel expects them to have been, like, solemn when describing the clothing.

cake. said...

thanks for posting this.

kathrynnova said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
lpkitten said...

Thank you. I find Jezebel to be a little overly ready to jump on the controversy wagon and had to unsubscribe from their feed a while ago because I was sick of reading their narrow-minded thinking.

dani said...

reblogged because i think this post is pretty stellar.

Sister Wolf said...

Yep, the aim of Jezebel is to create controversy. But the worst thing about them: you have to audition to become a commenter there!!!!!


Lauren said...

Creating controversy or drawing attention? And it's not just Jezebel but the parent site, Gawker, that pre-approves its commenters.

I thought Rodarte were a bit... (white and privileged?) off the mark, that the least they could do was light Wikipedia research on the town they found so inspirational to avoid this negative publicity in the first place. Comparing those pervasive murders to PIGS IN A BLANKET adds further insult. Could you have been even more belittling? I'd compare it to shoe ads that for whatever reason commonly depict lifeless female bodies dangling stilettoed feet out a car trunk. Even in fantasy this is disrespectful. I don't read Jezebel because I cannot give a shit about the Housewives of... and Mad Men, but don't confuse it for pop fluff. Their articles on DADT repeal, rape, cultural appropriation, etc. are deliberate.