The Truth of Lagerfeld’s Idea of China

by Guest Contributor Minh-ha, originally published at Threadbared

Several days ago, Karl Lagerfeld, head designer and creative director at Chanel, debuted Paris-Shanghai: A Fantasy, a short film made to accompany the Chanel pre-Fall runway show. The 22-minute short was projected on an outdoor screen amid the Shanghai cityscape. (The film clip is below.)

Cross-overs between fashion and film are nothing new. Indeed, Paris-Shanghai isn’t Lagerfeld’s first foray into filmmaking either. Last year, he made his directorial debut with a 10-minute silent film called Paris-Moscow. Another designer/filmmaker is Tom Ford who just released his first film, A Single Man, a feature-length adaptation of a novel (with the same name) by Christopher Isherwood. And while The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover was not produced or directed by a fashion designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s contribution to the 1989 acerbic comedy film on the pleasures and perils of (all manner of) consumption undeniably exceeded his role as head costume designer.

Lagerfeld’s latest film has Lithuanian model Edita Vilkeviciute playing a very tightly-wound Coco Chanel who travels to 1960s Shanghai in her dreams. (Vilkeviciute also played Chanel in Paris-Moscow.) There, she meets two “Chinese” youth in Mao-style suits, played by Danish supermodel Freja Beha and Lagerfeld’s French male muse, Baptiste Giabiconi. Both are adorned with Mao-style outfits and heavy kohl-lined eyes. While the Beha character admits that she doesn’t “know much about Western designers,” she admires Chanel’s jacket and is soon invited to try it on. Chanel then offers the Giabiconi character a men’s jacket to try on. As Beha and Giabiconi happily embrace each other in their new jackets and hurry to admire themselves in the mirror (speaking fake Chinese), Chanel beams smugly at the camera, “You see, everyone in the whole world can wear Chanel.”

As with French Vogue‘s earlier blackface editorial featuring Dutch model Lara Stone, yellowface and other dominant forms of racial masquerade highlight and reaffirm white thin female bodies as the signification of universal beauty. Despite defensive assertions by, among many others, Carine Roitfeld (with regard to the French Vogue editorial), Tyra Banks (in her “apology” for the racial drag photo shoot on America’s Top Model), and now Lagerfeld that racial performances by white models/actors is “avant-garde” and “post-racial,” such performances are ridiculously retrograde and reproduce historical racial hierarchies in which white bodies (imagined as racially-unmarked and thus universal) are superior to racially-marked bodies. It is from this location of universality — what Nirmal Puwar calls “the universal empty point” — that white female bodies like Beha’s and Stone’s “can play with the assigned particularity of ethnicized dress without suffering the violence of revulsion.”

Lagerfeld seems to anticipate this critique when he argues that his short film represents “the idea of China, not the reality. It has the spirit of, and is inspired by, but is unrelated to China.” Without meaning to, Lagerfeld describes precisely one of the core truths of Orientalism (a system of Western knowledge that, as Edward Said explains, “had since antiquity [imagined the Orient as] a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”). Lagerfeld’s China, like the Orient Said discusses, is a European/American invention.

More from Said’s groundbreaking book, Orientalism:

“[The] Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience. Yet none of this Orient is merely imaginative. The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.”

In the example of Lagerfeld’s film and its accompanying runway show, the material effects of the cultural enterprise of Orientalism is clear. Lagerfeld’s production of an idea about China, articulated through Western epistemologies and white bodies, sells both Chanel fashions and the Chanel brand. As Vilkeviciute/Chanel puts it: “You see, everyone in the whole world can wear Chanel.” The implication being that if “Chinese” people who are imagined as located in a time, place, and culture so far removed from (and thus alien to) fashion’s modern Western cosmopolitan center can desire Chanel fashions then anyone can. Thus, Chanel’s dream is the neoliberal dream of increased global markets for Western commodities.

Orientalism is distinctive in the Western cultural archive of racial projects because it operates not simply through the hatred of but also the fantasies about the other. Orientalist objects — and this includes Oriental people like the yellowfaced characters in Lagerfeld’s film and those in so many of Hollywood’s classic films — are, to quote Homi Bhabha, “at once an object of desire and derision.” The writers Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan have also described this racial ambivalence in terms of “racist love” and “racist hate.” The desire for the other and the desire to consume otherness are subtle forms of “genteel racism” that have become preferred modes of cultural representation in this multicultural or post-racial historical moment. I want to note that while genteel racism is specific to this historical moment, it emerges from a legacy of patrician Orientalism (the production of otherness through its exoticization and eroticization) that has always been an integral part of U.S. history. Jack Tchen observes in his book, New York Before Chinatown, that George Washington and other founding figures sought distinction and respectability through the consumption and display of Chinese and Chinese-style goods like porcelain, tea, and silk.

It may be difficult for Lagerfeld and others in fashion who practice and endorse blackfacing or yellowfacing (as well as their supporters) to accept that these cultural modes emerge from and reproduce histories of racism, Orientalism, and xenophobia because Lagerfeld does not fit our image of the virulent racists we remember from sensationalist talk shows like Jerry Springer. Also, aesthetic practices seem far afield from more recognizably racist practices like cross-burning, for example. And it is not my contention that genteel racism and overt racism are the same thing.

What we have been seeing in fashion magazines and on runways are cultural practices of “boutique multiculturalists,” to borrow a phrase from Vijay Prashad: “boutique multiculturalists like the faddishness of difference . . . they reduce different ways of life to superficial tokens that they can harness as style, but refuse to engage with those parts of difference with which they disagree.” Prashad argues (and I would agree) that boutique multiculturalism is more pernicious than overt racism because it covers over or “occludes the structures and practices of actually existing racism” by aestheticizing their histories.

While Lagerfeld stumbles upon the truth of Orientalism, it is clear that he doesn’t understand its material and political effects. Locating Paris-Shanghai among classic Orientalist productions like The Good Earth (in which Luise Ranier won an Oscar for her yellowface portrayal of O-Lan) and Madame Butterfly (Mary Pickford famously played the Japanese geisha Cho-Cho San in the 1915 silent film), Lagerfeld explains, “People around the world like to dress up as different nationalities.”

What Lagerfeld misses, though, is that yellowfacing (as with blackfacing) is not simply about playing at difference but about reaffirming and securing traditional meanings about racial difference that are constituted by their asymmetrical and contrasting relationship to the universal ideal of whiteness.