Cultural Couture

Campus catwalks redefine the relationship between minorities and fashion

Danni Xie

Eleganza, Identities, and Project East all participate in worldwide trends of cultural appropriation in couture, but they also redefine the relationship between fashion and the minority community.

Lavieties Pavilion, Annenberg Hall, and Northwest Science Building are not exactly obvious venues for the blaring music and flashing lights of your average fashion show. The models are not from the pages of Nylon or the set of America’s Next Top Model, but from the room next door and your Wednesday section. Nonetheless Eleganza, Identities and Project East annually take advantage of these spaces for fashion shows to raise funds for charity and alter the perceptions of minority communities on campus.

Operating under the umbrella organization of Black Community and Student Theater (Black C.A.S.T.), Eleganza—which takes place this coming Saturday, April 24—stands as the oldest and most established show at sixteen years old. Recently, two more fashion shows with specific ties to minority communities debuted: Identities and Project East. Under the auspices of the Asian-American Association (AAA), Identities constructed its latest runway and show in Annenberg this past Saturday, presenting its first annual Leadership in the Arts Award to acclaimed Asian-American designer Vera Wang. The more independent Project East put on its most recent show in November 2009 to exhibit the work of exclusively Asian and Asian-American student and professional designers.

Eleganza, Identities, and Project East all participate in worldwide trends of cultural appropriation in couture, but they also redefine the relationship between fashion and the minority community. The particular aesthetic goals of these shows vary based on the nature of their individual relationships with ethnic communities on campus—yet all three remain committed to pursuing charitable ends despite funding complications. The product is a wholly new breed of fashion show.

INTRINSIC TO THE INDUSTRY

A certain degree of cultural hybridization appears inherent in many designers’ projects. Modern fashion has been inextricably tied with appropriation—the browsing of and borrowing from other cultures and time periods. Until recently, this meant mainly European couture houses and designers adopting and tweaking patterns, techniques, and textiles from other regions.

The terms of appropriation have changed and become more varied and complex with globalization, according to Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) Professor Giuliana Bruno, who teaches VES 285x, “Visual Fabrics: Film, Fashion and Material Culture.” One type of appropriation is a sustained dialogue—or positive tension—between different cultures and experiences that creates something new and vibrant. For Bruno, this cultural synthesis is significant because it shows a society’s and an industry’s willingness to come to terms and engage in dialogue with changing times.

Jacqueline M. Boltik ’11, who sits on the board of the Harvard Vestis Council—a student organization devoted to exhibiting Harvard student designs—would agree. Although Vestis itself has no specific ties to minority communities, Boltik can understand the aesthetic sense behind these connections. “Even if you look at major designers and their influences for a certain design or collection, it comes from different cultures and perspectives,” she says. “They’re not necessarily bringing a focus on diversity or minorities, but making use of a practice of the industry. Maybe, the two are even inseparable. In this sense, I think this collaboration between minority groups and fashion is just a natural fit.”

Eleganza, Identities, and Project East engage in the same kind of cultural synthesis on a smaller scale. By interweaving the minority communities and the fashion industry, these three shows disengage the former from its customarily passive role as a source of influence for the latter. They carve a new, active role for their respective communities to influence the perception and message of fashion on campus.

THE MESSAGE SEWN IN

Each show independently seeks to redefine fashion from the Eurocentric and narrow-minded industry that it has been. “When you think of fashion, you think of wealth and skinny white models on a runway. I think fashion can be isolating and not easily relatable for a lot of people,” says Angela Su ’12, one of three executive producers of Eleganza.

In an attempt to include the entire student population, Eleganza itself showcases diversity in both its featured cultural performances and the race, sexuality, and body type of its models. This year the show will open with the Asian-American Dance Troupe and close with a step performance from the Black Men’s Forum and the Association of Black Harvard Women. By uniting various forms of the arts, Eleganza aims to be a dazzling multicultural show rather than a presentation of fashion alone.

Though the event will showcase more couture pieces than in previous years, much of the clothing can be worn on an everyday basis—particularly pieces donated by well-known designers like Nicole Miller—according to Beatrice H.N. El-Hage ’11, the executive producer responsible for fashion.

Carmen V. Feliz-Taveras ’11, another executive producer, says, “I think more people see fashion as a voice for everyone and anyone. It’s something that is tangible. Everyday you can wake up and get dressed, giving yourself a means to express yourself.”

While Eleganza seeks to democratize fashion, Project East tries to maintain and celebrate its elusive haute couture nature. The designers are either high-end stars like Derek Lam and Vera Wang or students at the prestigious art colleges Parsons, The New School for Design, or Rhode Island School of Design. These clothes represent avant-garde thesis projects of student designers and the seasonal collections that debut on fashion capital runways.

“It is more of a platform through which extremely talented individual designers could express themselves than the collective expression of the community,” says Tamara J. Harel-Cohen ’10, a co-producer this year.

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