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  • Writer's pictureJurnee Holland

Breaking Old Habits: Valentino Addresses the Lack of Diversity in Haute Couture

Valentino - Runway - Runway Show - Couture Fashion - Haute Couture - Paris Fashion Week - Couture Week - Colorful Gowns - High Fashion - Black Models - Diversity in Fashion - Fashion Models - Naomi Campbell - Akiima Ajak - Adut Akech
The Valentino Spring 2019 Couture collection presentation in January 2019

In case you're not sure, let's start with the question, what exactly is couture?

Haute couture as it is formally known, refers to the creation of high-end, exclusive, custom garments completely by hand through advanced time-consuming techniques. Couture clothes are always very individual and unique in nature. Certainly not something the average person, including myself, would pick up at a store.

Historically, couture has been a very exclusionary category in terms of whom was able to acquire these pieces. Typically the demographic who had access to and the resources to purchase such clothing were White. Thus, over time, the image associated with the couture client tends to be that of a White woman. This image has carried into recent times. As recent as 2015, Paris, a fashion capital and the birthplace of couture, was found to have the "lowest percentage of models of color on its runways" (Paper). Though things have improved, and this percentage has since doubled as of 2018 (Paper). Thus, taking place in Paris, the Valentino Spring 2019 couture show created a monumental statement regarding diversity in European fashion capitals as well as the high-fashion market as a whole.

Pierpaolo Piccioli, the creative director at Valentino, is someone who has always tried to honor the tradition and aesthetic of classic couture rather than designing modernized garments. Though, an aspect of the couture tradition which Piccioli has refused to accept is the previously mentioned White image of couture. Since the beginning of couture, Black bodies were simply not deemed worthy of inhabiting such clothes. Their appearance and social status did not lie within the realms of this kind of 'beauty' and 'luxury.'

Heavy on Piccioli's mind particularly when planning the Spring 2019 collection and presentation was the fact that "you never see a strong Black woman" (WWD) in the older, classic photos of couture. Without embracing diversity, couture remains antiquated and anachronistic. So, new and current couture collections can only begin to be interpreted with a modern eye when they are actually made for modern and diverse women.

Over 30 of the 65 models who walked in the show in January of 2019 were Black (Paper). An enormous percentage compared to the handful of 'token' Black models which are typically seen scattered throughout couture show casts. They included well-known faces like Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek, and Adut Akech, as well as rising stars like Janaye Furman, Akiima Ajak, and Hannah Shakespeare. The casting of these models to present such beautiful, intricate couture garments was but one important detail which was carefully considered for this show.

The Valentino Spring 2019 couture show reimagined couture as something which is no longer meant for only one group of people. It suggested that the classic tradition of imaginative garments can in fact be interpreted in today's world. Not just by tweaking designs, but by retelling the narrative of who is worthy. This seemingly obvious yet groundbreaking sentiment created a communal sense of emotion among the audience, as many even left in tears. For the Black models who walked in the show, it was described as an unforgettable experience (InStyle) and they were humbled to have been a part of such a historical moment. Model Adut Akech wrote on her Instagram page, "I can honestly say tonight was the first time I have ever been surrounded by so many beautiful black models and the feeling I felt tonight I can never explain in words" (InStyle).

To shop the illustration series inspired by this collection and runway show:


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