Another summer, another onslaught of ridiculous lawn. Fashion is fashion and that’s all right, you do what you like with your money, but when did the advertising for lawn become a song and dance that has to be bested each year? There used to be the good old days when you’d just stand in front of screen and have photos taken on set. Now nothing less than Elysium will do. It’s amusing, given our schooling and it’s utter neglect of anything Not Science Subjects, to shoot campaigns in locations the average person may or may not be able to find on a map- who cares if your model is waving a dupatta on a beach in Cuba when nobody can really tell where she is? Okay, one is trying to go high fashion in a saturated market so you need that extra panache to lend an aura of chic desirability to a product that is otherwise just a three-piece explosion of print. One could also argue exposure, elevating the boring, aesthetics. But how on earth do you explain the newest blast-of-bigotry that has hit our billboards this season?

You don’t, actually. The brand in question has issued a meandering statement about eco-tourism and supporting Masai women, referring to Guardian articles for academic support. It seems a strangely naïve stance to take for a company that credits itself with reinventing the Lawn Campaign and has already courted controversy with a campaign in 2012, which showed coolies at a train station carrying a glamorous SanaSafinaz model’s extremely expensive luggage. They provided the same kind of stark contrast the 2018 campaign does: poverty versus luxury. Every time fashion attempts this, it falls flat on its tone-deaf face, whether it’s Vogue or SS, but somehow some marketing-wallahs or campaign leads just don’t seem to learn.

For the uninitiated, the ad campaign is located in Kenya, which is a country in Africa. In Kenya is a wildlife reserve called the Maasai Mara, where the Maasai people, an indigenous tribe, also live. This is where the lawn campaign was shot. Ordinarily that would have been rather lush and beautiful; zebras and giraffes running free, sunsets that silhouette spindly trees on the savannah, incongruous models wearing a kilo of fake pearls and enormous sunglasses and tasseled lawn shirts scowling in the sun. It would have been what one expects from a modern lawn campaign from a big-name fashion house: glamour for the sake of it, vibrant colours, some pretty images to eyeball when you’re driving past the billboard or flipping through a weekend magazine. The problem happened with the way they have included the Maasai in the campaign. In one photo, a model is leaning on a cheerful Kenyan who is looking the other way, in another a Maasai man wearing maroon robes is standing behind a model, holding an umbrella over her head. Yet another has a phalanx of similarly robed, necklaced Maasai men forming a backdrop to a sulky model who again has her back to them.

This is unacceptable for a host of reasons, beginning with the obvious: the history of slavery in the world, which was based on the abduction and torture of black people. It also ties in extremely closely to the history of colonization, which was essentially a handful of white countries taking over most of the black/brown world and creating a narrative where white was privileged and powerful, and people of colour were reviled, criminalized and subjugated in their own land. As a post-colonial people, with a history of hundreds of years of British suppression and citizens of a country born from one of the bloodiest massacres in history, it is unacceptable, shocking and plain dense that this ad campaign even made it to the public eye.

It doesn’t matter whether you paid the participants properly or your intentions were kind—in this day and age, intentions mean nothing when the outcome is so obviously problematic. It isn’t good enough to say “but we meant well”. That’s what the British said to us, too: this is for your own good, we mean well. You are not well-intentioned, you are making money. On its own, that isn’t a big deal, that is how markets work. But making money by playing the same old songs of bigotry, racism and classism? That’s pretty odious. It’s not even a case of the Empire writing back, a taking back of narrative control from the colonial oppressor. This is classic, good old selling out: it’s what lots of people did back in the day when wearing a suit, speaking English and anglicising your surname meant you would do well in the world. The British are gone but the mentality remains, and it is such a sad waste of an education if this is the best we can do.

This is basic, bog-level social science class 101: do not reinforce oppressive narratives—especially ones that were once used to subjugate you—on other people. Don’t photograph black people holding umbrellas over anyone’s head. Don’t refer to Kenyans as “Africans”—would you call a Pakistani “Asian”? Is the continent a country? Don’t use people as exotic props, whether they are Rajasthani women, Maasai men, Kailash girls at festival or Thai boat people. If you would like some local colour, then engage as equals, not lofty privileged people being kind to the poor yokels. Photograph your models actually interacting with locals, the “breaking bread” you claimed to have done with them. Advertising and marketing are extremely potent and effective channels to “speak” to a market. In Pakistan, we are already so prejudiced and ignorant when it comes to speaking about class and race, and high-end brands are hugely responsible for influencing attitudes. When French Vogue decided to not use too-thin models, it was a turning point in the fashion industry’s attitude to body size; imagine the conversations that could happen when our fashion industry started asking intelligent visual questions? Generation is leading the vanguard, and it would do the industry a power of good if the High Fashion crew began to think about it too. Social responsibility isn’t just about giving money to a few schools. For an industry based on the body, it’s high time there was more introspection and thought put into the dynamic of clothes and the consumer beyond trite paragraphs on catalogues.

 

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

m.malikhussain@gmail.com