What's with Valentino's 'Africa' inspired ad campaign?

Valentino's 2016 campaign shot in Amboseli National Park in Kenya.

Valentino's 2016 campaign shot in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Photo: Steve McCurry/Valentino

Another week, another culturally tone-deaf campaign delivered up by the fashion industry.

Valentino's latest ad campaign features a predominantly white line-up of models sporting cornrows and dreadlocks wrapped into buns. The inspiration, according to creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, is "wild Africa", with images shot in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, chosen in part due to its close proximity to hotels for the crew to stay in.

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Why are fashion brands so bad at discerning the difference between cultural appropriation and appreciation – and why does it seem as though they're making no effort to fix things?

This is hardly the brand's first brush with the theme. Last year, Valentino had the interwebs in uproar when it styled models in cornrows for its pre-fall 2015 lookbook.

They followed this up with an '"Africa"-themed spring 2016 runway show, again featuring an overwhelmingly white cast (only eight out of the show's 87 looks were given to black models) clutching luxury leather handbags while modelling bone necklaces, Masai beading, Kikuyu textiles, feathers and fringed jackets hand-painted with geometric designs made to look "primitive, tribal, spiritual, yet regal". (Their words, not ours.)

The soundtrack? African bongo-inspired drumming. As one writer noted on Twitter, "Returned from my shower to find Valentino putting cornrows and dreadlocks in their white models' hair … Stop doing this shit. Just stop."

Valentino never set out to be malicious. They intended the shoot to be an anthropological study of sorts, recruiting National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry – famed for his iconic 'Afghan Girl' portrait  – to helm the lens.

"He's not a fashion photographer; he's a culture reporter … we wanted to shoot not a fashion vision [of Africa], but more of a cultural vision — and not in a studio with an elephant," notes Piccioli.

The collection is meant to be a tribute to the intricate, captivating quality of African prints and materials, but in executing the concept, they've subscribed to that predictable Vogue trope of using native people as a backdrop for white models wearing a European brand's clothing.

Sure, not everything inspired by another culture is cultural appropriation, but here, the sampling of cultures is a one-way street, tinged with an uncomfortable power dynamic as glamorously styled white models take to the front, while local villagers appear candidly in the background. The collection also rather audaciously takes African motifs and combines them with Grecian elements, parading a belief that elements of rich cultures can be borrowed and commodified into luxury goods without consequence.

Embracing different cultures is certainly a good thing, inspiring open-mindedness in the way we dress and beyond. But it comes across as off-colour when designers make money from 'chic'-ifying certain clothing styles, hairdos and decorative elements specifically associated with one group by transferring them to privileged white models. Crediting "wild Africa" as the source of inspiration makes anonymous the people who were originally responsible for the designs. And the collection's original source of inspiration becomes decontextualised even further when the designer chooses very few models of colour to wear the garments on the runway.

Of course, there are ways to make good. The difference between celebration and appropriation can often be as straightforward as inclusion. As editor Shiona Turini commented, "Black culture is often the inspiration, but black people aren't part of the conversation. When we're included, we're able to help make a more well-rounded product — runway show, beauty story, hair tutorial, or editorial."