by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse
A few weeks ago, while walking along the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a well-known strip for the burgeoning fashionista or the credit card terrorist, I stopped dead in my tracks. Though normally oblivious to any movement around me on the streets near my office, especially as most of the foot traffic in midtown is comprised of the steps of awed tourists or jaded ladies who lunch, the one story-tall photo to my right as I approached the corner of 49th street compelled me to give pause. I had been rendered still by the image of a South Asian-American man dressed in red, black, and white wearing a turban. His right hand lifted to adjust his sunglasses in cool indifference, the handsome face was an unusual one—at least to be seen on an advertisement on Fifth Avenue.
Upon closer inspection, I learned the name of the bearer of these model good looks. “SONNY CABERWAL,” the sign read, “PRACTICING SIKH AND ENTREPRENEUR SPEAKING OUT AGAINST RACIAL PROFILING.” Caberwal, the North Carolina-born Duke University and Georgetown Law graduate and owner of Tavalon Tea Bar in New York City, was part of Kenneth Cole’s new campaign “We All Walk in Different Shoes.”
Cole, a New York based fashion designer known for his humanitarian efforts and philanthropy, was the first member of the fashion community to enlist in the global fight against HIV/AIDS in 1985, a time when little was known about the virus and even less was known about the people struggling to survive it. Cole decided to base his current campaign on the motto “25 years of non-uniform thinking” and what has become his most famous mantra:
“What you stand for is more important than what you stand in. To be aware is more important than what you wear.”
Via the Kenneth Cole website, one can learn about the individual participants in the campaign, all activists in their own right, ranging from the stories of partners – one a married lesbian couple, another a film-making duo comprised of an Israeli and a Palestinian—to the powerful stories of individuals, including those of Caberwal, whom I mentioned previously, Regan Hoffman, the HIV+ Editor-in-Chief of POZ Magazine, Aimee Mullins, Paralympic athlete and actor, and Patrick Sammon, the President of the Log Cabin Republicans, a group for conservative gays and lesbians. The real-life models for this campaign are of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, levels of physical ability, sexual orientations, and political leanings, but exist as evidence that anyone can look good in Kenneth Cole.
Though cynics could easily argue that this is simply an attempt by the Kenneth Cole label team to garner attention for their wares, the campaign takes the fashion industry a few steps ahead, primarily because it not only lends itself to encouraging activism and social progress, but also because it blatantly acknowledges that one can receive attention for a clothing or accessories line without relying solely upon an emaciated and predominately white fleet of models. I stopped in my tracks that day on Fifth Avenue because I was so shocked to see an Asian-American male involved in a fashion ad, but I still noticed the clothes. Despite what seems to be a popular belief in the fashion industry, his tan skin did not take attention away from the impact of the colors and fabrics upon it. Nor did Delmon Dunston’s wheelchair distract me from noticing his electric blue sleeveless shirt. In fact, his wheelchair, with its silver and black casing, allowed for a more dynamic color contrast. The clothing and accessories were enhanced by the models Cole’s team had chosen.
So as thousands of designers and modeling agencies around the globe continue to reject models of color, of size, or of varied physical abilities, Cole has provided his buying audience, or even those who just stop to admire the advertisements as art pieces, the opportunity to judge beauty for themselves.
To read more about the models chosen for this campaign, please click here.