Hey, Quick Question: What Was the Deal With the Skin-Tone-Altering Beauty Look at Balmain Couture?

Diet Prada and social media commenters aren't shying away from calling it out as blackface.
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Cindy Bruna on the Balmain Couture Spring 2019 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

Cindy Bruna on the Balmain Couture Spring 2019 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

Welcome to our column, "Hey, Quick Question," where we investigate seemingly random happenings in the fashion and beauty industries. Enjoy!

Balmain closed out Couture Week in Paris on Wednesday, marking Olivier Rousteing's first-ever couture collection (and the French house's first couture showing in 16 years). The asymmetrical, voluminous and bauble-adorned pieces he sent down the runway amounted to a pretty weird "futuristic freak-fest," as Alyssa so aptly put it. But 24 hours later, it's the beauty look — not the fashion — that has people talking.

At first glance, the makeup look for the show struck many viewers as alien-like, thanks to the thick, white paint that covered some models' faces, bodies and hair. But upon further reflection and examination people came the realization that, while many of the white and Asian models were indeed painted all-over in the stark white, a number of the Black models were made up in an ebony-colored paint that, for many, was too close for comfort to blackface. (Which, reminder to the Megyn Kellys out there, is indeed deeply offensive and tied to a long history of racism.)

A model on the Balmain Couture Spring 2019 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

A model on the Balmain Couture Spring 2019 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

On Thursday, fashion industry watchdog Diet Prada called the look "curious" in an Instagram caption, going on to elaborate: "White and Asian models were washed all over in white makeup while some black models were painted darker (a few appeared to remain untouched). Notably, Cindy Bruna, who is of Italian-Congolese descent, was rendered a deep shade of ebony. Instagram is abuzz with blackface accusations, but was Olivier trying to achieve something more conceptual?"

A model on the Balmain Couture Spring 2019 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

A model on the Balmain Couture Spring 2019 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

Social media commenters quickly headed to both Balmain and Rousteing's Instagram feeds in order to raise similar questions about the intentions behind the beauty look in the "comments" sections beneath photos from the runway.

"Painted, yes painted a model darker. If you wanted that contrast, there are many models that NATURALLY have that look. But no, @olivier_rousteing would rather paint some one darker. #Blackface" wrote one Instagram user. 

"Why were some models painted darker than they actually were? You could have just hired actual dark skinned models!!! Just wow ... these models were painted darker and airbrushed around the neck area," wrote another.

Makeup artist Val Garland, who was behind the look, provided some (though not much) insight about the inspiration on her own Instagram posts. Beneath two photos from the show — one of a model with the white paint and another of a model with black paint — Garland provided similar, hashtag-heavy captions that included #statue and #statuesque. Perhaps Garland's intention with the makeup was, in fact, to channel a living art-type of sculptural influence.

A model on the Balmain Couture Spring 2019 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

A model on the Balmain Couture Spring 2019 runway. Photo: Imaxtree

As for Rousteing himself? He has yet to give any indication as to the thinking behind the paint, or how he and his team determined which models would get the skin-altering treatment. The show notes regarding the collection simply state that Rousteing sought to answer the question: "What is couture in 2019?" The designer goes on to explain that designing a couture collection gave him "the immense luxury of stepping back for a minute — a chance to clear my mind, dream and revel in a moment of unfettered creativity." Maybe, though, he shouldn't have taken quite so far a step back.

For what it's worth, Rousteing, who is of mixed race and was raised by white adoptive parents, has said that he does not identify as Black or white — "just human" — and has been outspoken about diversity on the runway, saying in a 2016 interview: "I think the industry needs to start working harder. When you see critics talking about a show that has no [models of] color and they call it 'modern'? I wouldn't call that modern, I'm sorry. We have the chance to represent the world and how we want that world to be."

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