Talking Diversity and Cultural Appropriation with Fashion Activist Janice Deul

Portrait Janice Deul - courtesy of Janice Deul

She’s a lifestyle journalist, co-author of the ‘Little Black Hair Book’ and is a leading Dutch fashion activist and founder of the Diversity Rules platform. I met Janice during Fashionclash where she held a presentation on the subject of diversity and cultural appropriation in fashion. A presentation that would trigger my desire for a dialogue that ultimately lead to this very interview. “You were really critical”, she mentions as we install ourselves in a bubbly café in Leiden, reminiscing on our first meeting in Maastricht. And granted. I was – and perhaps I still am.

Living in the 21st century, cultural appropriation-like globalization-is not only inevitable, but might even be positive, that is if we are open to understand what it means. After all, isn’t the exchange of ideas, cuisines, styles and traditions one of the most valuable elements of a modern, multicultural society? In fact, cultural appropriation “can sometimes be the savior of a cultural product that has faded away,” according to Susan Scafidi, a lawyer and the author of Who Owns Culture?: Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law.  In my view, if we want to secure heritage and traditions for future generations, we must stop claiming them for ourselves. The solution shouldn’t be, in what often feels like, a fashion police that tracks what belongs to whom and dictates who can wear what; which puts a cap on creativity and goes against the idea of culture fluidity itself. This doesn’t mean however, that one should make a habit of turning someone’s sacred objects and symbols in to frivolous fashion accessories. Simply put, we can’t pick and choose cultural elements we like, without showing interest in the cultures they originated from. Neglecting to do so would not only be dishonest and unintellectual, but it equally prevents heritage to reinvent itself for the sake of its intended continuity. I sat down with Janice to talk about diversity and cultural appropriation in our current fashion system. Two separate terms, that are in no way a substitute to one another. 

Mrs. Deul, why is diversity so important to you?

Because when you focus on something through one frame only, you’ll miss out on so much. You’ll miss out on stories, talent, beauty, everything. Diversity to me has a lot to do with visibility and making visible. What saddens me so much is that the diversity we see on street-level is not mirrored back in the media and in the catwalks.

Before we started our interview, we discussed the black doll/white doll test as seen in the latest documentary of Dutch filmmaker Sunny Bergman. We see kids of different ethnicities associating all kinds of negative human attributes with the blackest doll: this doll is not trustworthy, isn’t smart, doesn’t behave well and is not beautiful. Kids are not born this way, but are programmed this way growing up, not exposed to diverse images of beauty. While blond and slim is celebrated in the media, there are fewer images of black women in fabulous beauty settings and when we do see black women in the media, very often these images are related to poverty, crime, or are in sexual context. That is why children don’t think about ‘black’ when we speak in terms of ‘beauty’ and ‘positivity’. This may sound blunt, but it really is what it is. If we would widen our beauty palette in general media, the outcome of such a test would be severely different in time.

Don’t you think that children of that young age (4-6) mostly interpret the world from their own frame of identity?

Kids observe more than we know and that information is saved somewhere. When I talk of media, it goes beyond magazines, billboards and commercials. Look at fairy tales, cartoon figures (Elsa, the heroine of all little girls is blond and has blue eyes) and superheroes; here the norm is still white. It is only recently that brands and manufacturers have decided to make black and or plus sized Barbie dolls.

You’ve been a fashion activist for some years now. When did you realise that this was something you felt strongly about?

Growing up, I was always either the first, or only black girl/woman wherever I ended up. My entire world outside my family was white, and that was fine, cause I didn’t know any better. I was part of a very close and loving family with successful brothers and sisters who all turned out great. You know how it works in the Netherlands: as long as you are ‘good’ and you’ve made it, people like you when you are different, especially back then. So I never challenged the status quo- it was as it was.

It wasn’t until I landed in the media and publishing world that realisation kicked in. I remember standing in the corporate restaurant of the Telegraaf- at the time a major magazine publisher- while I was working for Elegance, a high-end glossy magazine. I turned while around holding my lunch tray and gazed at the crowds lunching and it just hit me then “Everyone in here is white!” I had never realised it this way, as in that moment. That is when my ‘black consciousness’ woke up. But I didn’t get active just then. I was really just focused on myself, my career and making my mother proud. Later I landed a senior editing role at the glamorous publishing company of successful entrepreneur Annemarie van Gaal- still in my ‘white bubble.’

That’s quite a ride. When did you become active as we know you today?

My active black conscious kicked in three years ago. I came in contact with a beautiful black girl who wanted to become a model but was constantly turned down by agencies because ‘you are nice, pretty and perfect, but we already have a black model in our base’ – that’s when I thought “My God, what is this and how does this work?!” Everything came together at that point and I felt I had to do something about it.

Most magazines will tell you that they would love to put a black model on the cover, but that they can’t find any- this is their usual excuse. To prove them wrong, I set out a 30-day Facebook challenge for myself and devoted my Facebook header to featuring one beautiful black girl a day, whom I felt was absolutely cover-worthy. I twittered the images and Dutch Broadcaster RTL Z got air of it and featured me on their website and weekend app. From there, I was invited to do a Ted Talk on the subject and that is so how my platform was born. Even today, I feel that that Talk is my manifest, my coming out. If you haven’t seen it yet, go check it out.

Has any progress been made the passed few years?

The Fashion Spot did a comprehensive report on the status of diversity in 2016, mapping colour on covers s among other chapters of diversity. Their findings were that yes there has been progress: 2016 has been the most diverse year we’ve seen lately. Globally, we got to see a lot more ‘models of colour’ on covers and that is only good.

But?

Well, at the same time, Vogue Netherlands is listed below average compared to all the other Vogues globally! We scored the second lowest on the list of colour on covers! Kazakhstan has more colour on their covers than us!! Another thing is that yes we see more colour, but these are not models but celebrities. Lupita, Rihanna, you name it. So there is absolutely progress, but we’re not quite there yet. I feel we are at a turning point. We are on our way to a new setting and are at a difficult point right now, because we don’t know what we are headed towards. But we have to continue the path we have paved together- and it will hurt a little, requiring compromise from both ends- but at the end, we will reach a resolution.

A little diversity never killed anyone, but at the end of the day, fashion too is a business. Models are sales people, dressed up in an artificial world and very often only a small percentage can afford the clothes they are presenting. That being said, is fashion a reliable mirror of society at all?

It is an artificial world, even better; it is a dream world. Nothing wrong with that and most people know or should know that. I don’t mind photo-shopped or heavily made up models, but that doesn’t mean that these models can’t be in their 50’s or 60’s, plus sized or Asian.

But if the artificial world of the runway is just a fantasy world aimed to sell – does it matter whether the model is thin, plus size, black or white?? It seems to me that it isn’t realistic to mirror every beauty concept within society on the runway. Wouldn’t you agree?

Of course that wouldn’t be realistic- and it has to remain that magical world that it is. But we can widen our beauty palette to a certain extend whereby everyone can identify a little with it. What I mean is, you can be picky and say I want my models to be above 1.80 M- fine- but then you shouldn’t just book blonds. And if you ask me by the way, size shouldn’t matter at all size or length shouldn’t be that important at all. Look at Kate Moss, who is only 1.68M. It should be about beauty, talent and attitude, and that is limitless. On the receiving end, you have to be able to identify a little with the dream that is happening in front of you. That fantasy that fashion depicts should be available for everyone.

Should we want to identify with this ‘dream’ that fashion depicts? Isn’t it more important to teach our children realism, confidence and to be media savvy?

It is a two-way situation. Showing diverse beauty images in the media won’t solve all the issues we have with our body size, length or overall body image and identity. Of course we should teach our children to be media-savvy, to love and accept their body and show them that it’s what in your brain that counts. But let us not pretend that beauty, how we look and are perceived is insignificant. Science has revealed that “attractive people” earn more, are more successful and have more partners in life. If our image of ‘attractive’ is one-sided, we have a problem.

Dede Howard re-creates major campaigns that originally featured white models for a series called “Black Mirror.” Photo: Raffael Dickreuter/Courtesy of Secret of DD

Let’s talk about cultural appropriation. Wouldn’t you agree that diversity would be more effective and interesting if heritage is broadly shared across all cultures?

The line between inspiration and appropriation is very thin and not always defined clearly. But it’s not about NOT being allowed to borrow styles or inspiration from other cultures, but about stealing cultural attributes and posing as if you invented them. There are some that are of the opinion that white people should not wear dreads, because dreads hold a spiritual meaning. I am not one of them. I think you can wear them, as long as you know what they stand for. The famous saying goes credit where credit is due- and at the same time I would like people to realize what they are wearing; this means knowing where your outfit/style came from and what it stands for and ultimately weighing whether you can or can’t – should or shouldn’t – wear it.

How can we address those credits? Take Marc Jacobs Spring 2017 collection as seen with all the models wearing those colourful dreads on the runway. The internet exploded. What went wrong?

That is a great example! When asked by the fashion press, Jacobs’ hairstylist Guido Palau told them that the look was inspired by “certain types of cultures, like rave culture, club culture, acid house, Boy George and Lana Wachowski.” He failed to mention one person of color while explaining the inspiration behind the look. Nor he, or Jacobs mentioned the Rastafarians, Bob Marley, George Clinton or a Whoopi Goldberg- not a single coloured person. Naturally people got pissed- and were then double pissed when Jacobs reacted to the outrage by saying something in the lines of “everyone is talking about colour, but I don’t see colour.” Come on, all he had to do was to credit the looks. Taking and celebrating another culture becomes problematic when the origin of it isn’t properly credited. People need to know the origin of black hairstyles, because they are part of a culture. We need to know that there is more to dreads than hippies and rave. We have to know where a certain style comes from before we decide to put it on our body. And sometimes when we find out what something means, we decide it’s not meant for us and we won’t wear it.

There is no denying that dreads have their origin from the Rastafarians, but can’t a designer be inspired by Boy George or the 80s/ 90s club scene? Anything can be inspiration.

Google George Clinton and have a look.

Well, he could have chosen to be inspired by George Clinton, but was inspired by Boy George and the club scene of the 90s instead? Music and icons are after all personal and a matter of taste. I agree however, that it makes sense to know what we actively put on our bodies. A lot of people today aren’t aware of the history and symbolism behind the fashion they choose to wear. 

That is trivial to me. Take the cornrows, a typical black hairstyle. It is unsettling to see these looks being branded as “Kim Kardashian’s signature braids,” or “Boxer Braids” by Kim Kardashian, or, whatever they’ve been labeled ever since she has been seen wearing them. Cornrows are a hairstyle that is very traditional to black culture- and when black people rock them, they are labeled ghetto and so on. Yet now, magazines say things like, ‘Oh, Kim K started this new trend’- that is not only really insulting, but it’s also falsifying history to me.

The autumn campaign for the Rihanna for Stance (where she is depicted wearing a Japanese kimono vs. Marc Jacob’s SS17. Isn’t that kind of the same thing?

Some consider it cultural appropriation, and some don’t.

I felt there was less of a frenzy made about it, than in the case of Jacobs. If we say we want to fight cultural appropriation, shouldn’t we we have to treat all cases equally?

We should. And very often, people do. Remember Coldplay’s video clip with Beyoncé wearing a Sari and portraying Hindu symbols? People rightfully made a big deal about it.

Cause why would it be okay for Rihanna to wear a kimono, but it is a no-go for Bella Hadid to wear synthetic/fake dreads on the runway?

Well, the term cultural appropriation stands for a dominant culture appropriating something of a less dominant, smaller culture. Rihanna is black. Black is not considered to be a dominant culture, making it easier to get away with it without being tapped on the fingers. I admit it’s tricky, but you are right, we should be addressing this too. It’s rather a difficult matter.

rihanna-bad-girl-tertiary_lg1
Rihanna for Stance 2016

If you were Anna Wintour, what would you do differently?

I would address these kinds of issues. I don’t understand why the focus is so much on the material side of fashion instead of the theoretical and psychological. These are insightful and interesting subjects, inviting people to think and see much further than the shoes and the bags and allow people to make up their own mind. When I started my workshop at a leading Dutch women’s magazine, they hadn’t heard of the term cultural appropriation. A lot of magazines didn’t know the term. It’s only recently that people are becoming familiar with it. So if I were in Anna’s shoes, I would use my influence to address difficult and yet meaningful subjects- in a glossy kind of way of course- create fashion stories that tell the entire story, not just one part of it.

Fashion activism. Sometimes I think it’s never going to be good enough. No system can possibly satisfy everyone. That’s simply impossible.

It’s not about satisfying everyone. People are never truly satisfied, but that doesn’t mean that we should leave things as they are. Today more than ever, if you believe in something and want to make change happen, you have to step up, open your mouth and show yourself. And consequently, when you’re in that process, you’ll run in to more elements that need improvement. To give an example of what we just discussed; awareness has lead to a global increase of models of colour on covers, but then when we look closer, we see that these ‘models’ are often celebs- so you’ll have to continue your efforts until we get it right.

How does fashion look like in 20 years?

We are currently in a transition era. Things are changing rapidly and from all sides we are seeing more colour, more diversity and authenticity popping up in many ways. At the same time we see people entering fashion in less traditional ways, it’s becoming more democratic. Back then it all went via via. Today people are making their own entry in to fashion through various avenues like YouTube, blogs, podcasts etc. And I think all of this is going to channel more diversity for the future. And not just for ethnicity. We are already witnessing the celebration of age. There was a time I almost felt uncomfortable naming my age, but now I purposely say it out loud. The time that beauty was limited by age is over. Those ideas are outdated. Today there are millions of ways to be a fashionable and successful woman- being stylish is no longer dictated by celebs and I think people are more and more discovering this and playing with the idea.

So, fashion in 20 years is…?

One big party for everyone. I really think so. I really believe that. Why should we allow age, gender, colour or whatever to limit us in who we are or want to be? Fashion is awesome. Let’s celebrate it together!

Loved this interview and like to learn more about Janice? You can follow her on Twitter and visit her Diversity Rules platform on Facebook to see what she’s up to next.