Are These Fashion Ads Racist or Harmless?

Michael Kors' spring 2012 collection was named "Afriluxe." It was inspired by the “rustic modernism of the Lebombo Lodge,” a reportedly $1,500 per n
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Dhani Mau
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Michael Kors' spring 2012 collection was named "Afriluxe." It was inspired by the “rustic modernism of the Lebombo Lodge,” a reportedly $1,500 per n
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Michael Kors' spring 2012 collection was named "Afriluxe." It was inspired by the “rustic modernism of the Lebombo Lodge,” a reportedly $1,500 per night resort in South Africa, and featured dirty-looking earth tone caftans and cargo pants and cashmere sweaters with holes in them. After Donna Karan's ad campaign for her Haiti-inspired collection came under fire, we should have predicted that Kors' collection also had the potential to make for an awkward ad campaign scenario. And we would have been right.

This first image from Kors' spring 2012 campaign, seen above, emerged on the Fashion Spot yesterday. We reached out to the Michael Kors team to confirm whether it's a legit ad, but haven't received a response yet. In the meantime, we noticed a few similarities to Karan's:

White models (Yes, Adriana Lima is Brazilian but is considered white by most Brazilian standards) in expensive clothes that were inspired by the underdeveloped area in which the shot takes place, and in which they are clearly just visiting. Both ads also feature dark-skinned males in the background who are meant to be locals--put there to help round out the environment. In Karan's ad, they're locals from a devastatingly impoverished country. In Kors' ad, a man plays the role of the safari guide, but also appears to be a model wearing pieces from Kors' collection. That he happens to be the only black person in the ad might be a point of contention, or it may simply be seen as realistic.

The response to Karan's ads was varied. Some accused her of being racist, while others argued that the juxtaposition of a privileged white model next to impoverished Haitians was misguided, and still others gave Karan, who has done a substantial amount of charity work to help rebuild Haiti and been outspoken in her passion for the country, the benefit of the doubt.

We reached out to a few colleagues to hear their thoughts regarding Kors' ad. Clare Sulmers, founder of urban fashion blog Fashion Bomb Daily, which describes itself as "the number one online destination for sassy multi-culturals with a penchant for all things fabulous," gave us her take:

My gut reaction is: it's a beautiful ad. Like the Donna Karan ad, it's a little perplexing to see the random African man in the background. If he's an ode to Africa, great, but (from my blurry image--forgive me if I'm wrong), it appears he's definitely a non-model, non-key player in Kors's African super luxe fantasy.I would have personally loved to see Liya Kebede, for example, modeling this. Why not? She's lithe, beautiful, and African. But who knows? Perhaps Kors will release more images with a diverse cast.

Kors pays homage to Africa in the ad with one lonely African man who appears to be an aide or guide of some sort. This idea is very trite; not the most creative; and definitely seems antiquated and a throwback to colonialism. I wish creatives would evolve and put forth new imagery instead of continuing to seemingly harken back to this largely painful and controversial time in African history.

On the other hand, Tiffany Lorde, editor of Beauty is Diverse, didn't see anything wrong with either of the ads:

I personally don't find either of them racist . Adriana Lima and the models in the Michael Kors campaign are not doing anything in particular in the photo that would make it come across as racist.

These aren't the only instances of fashion shoots being criticized for depicting people of color in stereotypical or derogatory way. Examples of past campaigns and editorials with similar themes include this Prada ad with a dark-skinned person weirdly far into the background while a white couple features prominently in the foreground. There was also this Vogue Australia editorial in which Isabel Lucas poses with a group of African bushmen. And who could forget Gisele Bundchen and Lebron James' American Vogue cover, which saw an outpouring of criticism for perpetuating racial stereotypes.

Whether there is racism in these ads is up for debate. I can see both sides of that debate; but also, what I feel many of these images lack is inventiveness. There are endless ways to depict people of all races other than the predictable or thoughtless ways presented not only here, but in a lot of fashion photos, regardless of their subjects' race.

What do you make of these ads?