Interrupting Paris Fashion Week

I wasn’t given very much information. Stumbling into the secretive meeting I’d been invited to, an all female brigade greeted me quickly as they pored over a hand drawn map of targets. Drawing on an apparently endless supply of cigarettes, peppered sometimes with wine, they debated logistics. It being Paris Fashion Week, they decided Gucci, Dior, Jimmy Choo and Versace would be some of the hardest.

Some puttered about worried, complaining about the well-being of a group of mostly black women possibly being approached by aggressive French police officers. Others were too busy calculating the number of fences to be jumped in front of certain locales.

But at 3:25 am, armed with black scarves, homemade glue, brooms and emergency safety routes, they were ready.

The women hurried towards what they saw as an act of guerilla art-fare.

Volunteers hailing from Sierra Leone, Germany, Haiti, Morocco and Greece recently teamed up in Paris to participate in an extension of the French photographer JR’s ‘Inside Out Project’. Titled “Burning Borders and Building Bridges,” blown-up photographs of young men from the Folorunsho Collective in Freetown, Sierra Leone were plastered across the luxury retailers of the Parisian Avenue Montaigne.

Folorunsho is a “sharity,” a term coined by creator Mallence Bart-Williams. The boys who make up this collective range in age from 14 to 20, and most were originally members of a band of societal outcasts from an area called “Lion Base.”

Mallence teamed the young men up with local artists, who taught them batik dyeing and traditional embroidery. A sneaker company united with Folurunsho and a collection of kicks were displayed in Paris’s premier department store, Collette. The proceedings from these are used by the boys in Freetown for what is for some their first housing, private tutors and nourishing food. With the help of friends, Mallence documented it all in a book, titled Lion Base, and a soon to be released documentary.

Under the glare of the full moon, in that eerie hour that links night to morning, the women revealed the faces of “producers” Heaven Gate, Long Life, Base and others to the consumers of Paris.

The project’s press release revealed a mirror image:

We confront two individuals that each have 5000 to spend: the woman going to Avenue Montaigne to spend €5000 on a luxury accessory meets [a young man] that has SLL 5000 to spend on his next meal. When building a bridge two extremes are what give it balance and make it stand and sustain.

‘To be or to have?’ is the question we want to raise … from Freetown to Berlin to Paris … ‘Who is rich or poor?’ All is a matter of perspective.

But whose perspective was being demanded on Avenue Montaigne? Any attempt to provocatively interrupt Fashion Week activities with subjects that might make luxury consumers feel momentarily uncomfortable is often excellent fodder for media outlets. A dispute between two fashion giants makes front page. The scarred face of an African young man serves as an opportunity for voyeurism. Never mind the fact that this young man is intimately known to those revealing him.

People kind of like being voyeurs, and without an obvious context to who they’re peering at, would have and probably did denote the images of the boys to the standard “poor African” archetype. Even with a thorough press release, attempts to complicate those images were handled by most, beyond some blogs, by not being reported at all.

* Shamira Muhammad is a freelance writer/journalist based in Paris, France. A recent graduate of NYU’s Africana Studies and Global Journalism program, she has reported across the African Diaspora on subjects as diverse as Jamaican bus conductors and US foreign policy in Africa. (All pictures, except the first one by Muhammad, are by Mallence Bart-Williams.)


4 thoughts on “Interrupting Paris Fashion Week

  1. I understand the intentions and like the initiative but don’t you think it might be a bit misguided? Plastering photos of nameless, suffering Salone men on the windows of Parisian boutiques seems to fall into the traditional role of Africa serving as the poor other to the white metropole, in this case white luxury consumption. People walking by might just see nameless Africans providing the role of the other, cementing stereotypes of helplessness while failing to provide context and the reality that these people are more than just images of suffering. But I don’t know and am open to disagreement. This post not meant to criticize, just to think about the best way of bringing these issues to the fore.

    • Joe, I understand your concern and I would tend to agree it wasn’t for two reasons.
      Firstly the picture they chose is not the stereotypical sad/crying-face we are used to see – which is something that I personally appreciate. Secondly, there’s no straightforward message in those pictures, which might just lead people to ask the simplest question “what’s that?” I guess sometimes that’s all that matter, asking a question.

  2. The simplest question to some and this dialogue we are having are part of the open-ended potential of a campaign like this. It might have been that simple to the people who started the campaign or they might have been trying to spark outrage, confusion or whatever reactions so this dialogue can be had. Whether or not what is happening here with us is an unintended consequence is almost irrelevant in the grand scheme of things because what matters is that we, especially post-#Kony2012 for most, are more aware of the pitfalls of [social] media based campaigns and the power they have TO spark these conversations. We wouldn’t be having this one here if there was nothing to react to. But ultimately what actions can be done to follow the conversations lest we become or remain clicktivists and armchair critics.

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