On 18th January this year, the Japanese fashion brand Comme Des Garçons sent multiple white models down a runway, surrounded by the upper echelons of the industry, in poorly applied cornrow wigs. This was seen as a disrespect for Black consumers and a mockery of their culture, which Comme Des Garcons hairstylist, Julian d’Y claimed, was a paying of “homage” to “Egyptian culture”.
Following the catwalk, creative studio BLACKONBLACKreleased a body of work entitled COMME THE F*CK ON – a satirical response to the ignorance of the international fashion brand and a form of consumer-led critique of the industry, “one that does not serve brands by giving them free publicity alone, but one in which they are mocked, as they mock their consumers. We want to live in a world where racist (and exclusionary) brands become a laughingstock, where it is embarrassing to be the center of discussions like this.” We spoke to creative director Joycelyn Longdon as well photographer Chiian Pope and Hair & Make-Up artist Edith Longdon on their motives behind creating COMMES DES F*CK ON and what they hope to achieve through this piece.
What were your initial thoughts when you saw that catwalk at the Comms Des Garcon Men’s Paris Fashion Week?
CP (Photographer): Again? I couldn’t even be mad, I was just fed up. At that point I started to think these brands were doing it on purpose, for the controversy, which didn’t feel right. They know we’ll say something and just like that, free marketing.
EL (Hair stylist): Personally, when I saw the pictures from the catwalk I immediately thought “here we go again”. It’s not surprising to me anymore when I see a large brand making such silly mistakes. I guess to them “no publicity is bad publicity”.
JL (Creative Director): My initial reaction was a second of disbelief and then just looking at the actual execution of the catwalk I felt so embarrassed for them. It was humorous to me. We are slowly becoming used to these bouts of appropriation, but I had never seen a shortfall as embarrassing as this one. I wasn't angry, I felt pity for the brand, that they had to use the tactic of appropriation (whether intentional or not) to build a buzz.
If you were to guess the thought process of hairstylist Julian d’Y when putting together for the look the show, what would you say it was?
CP (Photographer): It’s 2020, cultural appropriation is a huge discussion in the fashion industry and has been for a long time. It’s either he knew something like this would cause controversy or he just had a really poorly executed concept that didn’t consider much past the fact he liked the look of braids and so he was going to use them.
JL (Creative Director): I have no idea. Because I don't know how anyone could look at those models walk down the catwalk and feel proud of that work. Even putting the appropriation to the side for a second, the wigs just look a shambles. His explanation of paying homage to Egyptian culture made the whole thing worse. A brand that doesn't hire a black model for 20 years wants to celebrate an African country's culture all of a sudden? He could have done better than that.
EL (Hair stylist): The hairstylist probably thought he was producing something that looked edgy and cool, something he’d never seen/done before. I don’t think any thought went into the origin of the style he was producing or the standard he was doing it to.
Why did you choose to respond instead of letting it slide as just another case of the same old shit?
EL (Hair stylist): I chose to respond as the whole facade of not being able to properly do black hair or representing black people in the media properly is becoming laughable. I believe companies do it on purpose so that the public will scream ‘cultural appropriation’ and draw more attention to their brand, but I’m tired of it. They need to find a new tactic or if they genuinely do not know how to do these things properly, hire one of the plenty of people that do.
CP (Photographer): I’m tired of the same situation. It’s getting boring. At some point, sitting back and hoping brands will learn from other brands mistakes isn’t gonna do anything, especially when they aren’t. Having the opportunity to join BLACKONBLACK to present a powerful response in a creative way was important to me!
JL (Creative Director): BLACKONBLACK has just relaunched this year and from the start, we have been built on the foundations of uplifting and centering creatives of colour. We feel like the recent buzz around diversity has been a massive distraction to the true issues in the industry and representation behind the scenes. We have a network of amazing creative individuals who make boundary-pushing work out of nothing. Given a space in the teams of these brands, we could see the production of such amazing campaigns and shows. We wanted to make a mark and show up these brands - we used a £30 wig, hired a crusty £24 studio and came together with a small team of young creatives and produced, what I think, is a high-quality, disruptive campaign. COMME THE F*CK on is a message to all brands and CDG is just a vehicle to start that conversation.
What is COMME THE F*CK ON saying in response to the catwalk, and the appropriation of Black culture in general in high fashion?
EL (Hair stylist): Our reaction was to illustrate how easy it is to do black hair on a black model and get amazing results, basically setting an example to these brands. Literally saying “come the f*ck on, it’s not that hard” and it’s not! We completed this with 4 ‘amateurs’ on a little to no budget and yet look at the product!
JL (Creative Director): COMME the F*CK ON is our way of inciting a new form of consumer-led critique in the industry, one that does not serve brands by giving them free publicity alone, but one in which they are mocked, as they mock their consumers. We want to encourage the making of racist (and exclusionary) brands a laughingstock and create a world where it is embarrassing to be the center of discussions like this. Diversity in the creative industry is not just about representation on screen or in shows. True diversity also includes the teams behind the cameras, the strategists and directors who can save brands from flops like this, intentional or not.
CP (Photographer): It’s saying that if you’re gonna do something, do it properly. Don’t cut corners otherwise you’ll have to face the embarrassment of making offensive mistakes afterwards. COMME the F*CK ON, to me, communicates how important cultural representation is and shows there’s a fine line between appropriation and appreciation. Look how nice culture looks when it’s executed properly!
Hair & Make-Up: Edith Longdon
Photography: Chiian Pope
Model: Israel Runsewe
Creative Director: Joycelyn Longdon
Design: Lilian Qu
Words by Aisha Ayoade