ARTICLE: It's easy to shout out allegations on social media. Anyone and everyone can state their opinion repetitively, using buzz words to get more mileage. It's a burden and a blessing, enabling wrongdoings to be highlighted while simultaneously, allowing a space for fake propaganda and scandals. ‘Racism', for instance, was a word that immediately sprang out on Twitter when designer brand Elan released images from its Spring/Summer Lawn 2020 campaign.
It has long been Elan's practice to shoot its annual lawn collections in exotic locales around the world and this time, they had chosen to fly out to Lamu Island in Kenya. The luxury line was featured in images that traversed the many picturesque nooks within the island: carved doorways melding African artistry with Arabic influences, vivid flora, swirling calligraphy on walls, rustic marketplaces and a seashore, twinkling in the sun. Accompanying model Mushk Kaleem in the campaign was Gabriel Fords, a dark-skinned Nigerian model.
His skin colour prompted local Twitter to rear its head and exclaim ‘racism' and ‘cultural appropriation'! To be fair, there have been frequent times in the past when Pakistani fashion has been unabashedly racist. There have been campaigns where the indigenous population of a region has been carelessly placed in the backdrop, serving as a prop and badly-conceived images in which a glamorous woman has been pictured with a handful of poverty-stricken coolies carrying her designer luggage. Lost in its elitist bubble, local fashion has often blundered and been disrespectful towards particular cultures, ethnicities or economic statuses. This is probably one of the reasons why social media assumed that this was, once again, a case of cultural appropriation.
But was it? There are brands that have duly deserved the social media criticism that has come hurtling their way. But there are others, that have become a victim of fake propagandization. Khadijah Shah, CEO at Elan, Tweeted in retaliation to some of the critique, “The Elan campaign gives out a message of acceptance and racial harmony. We show an interracial couple discovering an island in Africa. The island itself has been ravaged by terrorism in recent years and bringing the focus back on its beauty will prove to be beneficial for locals … look within yourselves and sort out your inherent prejudices. Learn to love and embrace and look beyond color and race!"
Sifting through the campaign, it truly is an enticing travelogue unveiling a lesser-known destination. The architecture and natural beauty of Lamu stands out as does model Gabriel Fords. Gabriel is dark-skinned and attractive and Mushk and he make a striking couple in multiple images that show the two of them roaming the island. The culture of Lamu and Gabriel being a native of Africa do add impact to the campaign but is this cultural appropriation or just a celebration of the unexplored beauty of the isle?
In an official statement, Khadijah Shah stated, “… We realized we were pushing the envelope by using an African model for our shoot, given the kind of prejudices that exist in our society around color and race. However, as an industry leader, we also saw it as our responsibility to take a stand against such prejudiced and regressive ways of thinking. Earlier this year, when these images were first shared, as expected we received blowback on using a black model. Ironically, today we are being accused of the opposite: racism and cultural appropriation. We at Elan are guilty of neither charge. This entire campaign has been a celebration of love, diversity and inclusiveness. We hope that our followers and patrons can see it through a similar lens. We thank all of you who have stood by us during this time and supported our vision not just for our brand, but for a more inclusive and tolerant country."
Khadijah's words ring true. Images of Gabriel and Mushk clearly depict the two of them as a couple, peers at an equal standing spending time together. The island and its people don't serve as background candy and in fact, are very much a part of the overall narrative.
One picture that particularly got criticized showed Mushk, decked out in an elaborate lawn suit, walking through a narrow alley in a marketplace with the blurry image of a man in the backdrop. Wasn't this a way of contrasting the island's unsophisticated landscape with the glamorous Mushk? “Not at all," asserts the designer. “These pictures were shot in an area known as the African Magic Lane and none of the people you see in them are props. They are real shop owners and the donkeys are their own. Instead of asking them to vacate the area, we just shot the pictures as they were, in harmony with the surroundings."
The objection was also made that Elan had chosen to release a campaign at a time when the #BlackLivesMatter movement against racism is gathering force around the world. People felt that perhaps the brand was trying to cash in on the cause. “We shot this campaign in January this year. How could we have known that this particular movement would be gaining strength around the time of our lawn's release?" points out Khadijah. “We are working according to a timeline. Our lawn's initial release date had to get postponed due to the coronavirus lockdown. Now that we have rescheduled our plans according to the new release date, we can't stall the campaign images just because some people will think that we are manipulating the cause for our benefit!"
Needless to say, a campaign certainly shouldn't be delayed on the basis of social media critique. These are grueling times and designer brands around the world are struggling to survive. For a brand like Elan, its very popular annual luxury spring/summer lawn is a major source of revenue. Of course, it will not delay its launch plan because of a few antagonistic comments, particularly on social media where everyone is an armchair critic and unverified but sensationalist judgments are passed with great abandon.
Aside from being blamed for its ‘cultural appropriation' and ‘racism', words like ‘tokenism' and ‘exoticism' have also been used against the Elan lawn campaign. But a quick scroll through the dictionary reveals that these critics do not understand the definitions of some of these words. The dark-skinned Gabriel can hardly be considered a ‘token representation' when he is clearly playing a part in the overall story. The exotic beauty of Lamu is being celebrated and admired rather than being singled out and depicted as strange. Cultural appropriation derives its roots from the colonial mindset where the lifestyles and symbols of an indigenous population are depicted as inferior to one's own. But the Elan campaign seems to be a case of cultural appreciation, presenting imagery that supports cross-culture pollination, a meeting and merging of people from different cultures.
As social media controversies go, this one will also bide its time and then, be forgotten. But in the long run, bandwagoning on social media can have some very harsh consequences. It can quell creativity and make brands so cautious that they are no longer willing to push the envelope with their marketing. It strengthens a culture where it is easy to bulldoze brands and quell their efforts towards being out of the box.
Of course, social media also catches out the many atrocities within society and that needs to be appreciation. But when we get engaged in a heated online debate or begin following a certain hashtag, we need to be more aware of exactly what is being targeted – culturally offensive rhetoric or creativity?
(The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the newspaper)