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PH Fashion Week made a campaign out of ‘Black Lives Matter’—what were they thinking?!

Is this a cultural statement, or is it just plain tone deaf? 
ANCX | Aug 14 2020

Is this the most tone-deaf statement to drop since Cynthia Villar advised healthcare workers to just work harder? Granted, the senator uttered the statement only last month, making Philippine Fashion Week’s newest campaign the latest entry to a long line of WTF social media moments soon to be forgotten. But let’s talk about it for a minute. 

The directors behind PFW decided to offer their spin on the Black Lives Matter movement and released a series of stylized fashion photographs featuring Black male model Gerson Rodriguez. In the photos, he carries a bag with a very trendy, oversized flight tag that says BLACK LIVES MATTER. He wears the hashtag over his eyes and the acronym penciled over his eyebrow, while the words I CAN’T BREATHE is printed on an extra-large scarf that is, you guessed it, bound around his neck and mouth. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Philippine Fashion Week (@phfashionweek) on

The names of those who died at the hands of American police graphically text-wrap around the model like a war memorial. Most egregious perhaps is the fashion video that features the sound of heavy gasping as Gerson poses with the accessories. Watching this left me confused and disturbed, and if I were a Black person I’d probably be retraumatized.

On Blackout Tuesday last June 2, I, along with many other Filipinos, posted a black square on Instagram to show solidarity with the cause. A friend in New York immediately commented that using #blacklivesmatter only adds to the noise, explaining how someone truly interested in knowing more about the issues would only end up seeing a bunch of black squares under the hashtag. 

I took down the square, realizing that posting it was just virtue signaling without contributing anything useful to the conversation. Also, it wasn’t a conversation that I was part of. We don’t see Americans posting black squares to protest our anti-terror law or the police abuse we are actually experiencing here.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Philippine Fashion Week (@phfashionweek) on

Is the PFW campaign a case of virtue signaling and performative allyship? Is it trying to take advantage of the movement’s increasing popularity and urgency, or is it something else? 

In a statement posted on the PFW IG account, executive director Tina Herrera says, “This is not a fashion campaign. This is a Cultural Statement Campaign. This is not a political agenda. This is a human agenda. We are not selling anything so we are not capitalizing on any item or merchandise.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Philippine Fashion Week (@phfashionweek) on

Fair enough. Tina Herrera grew up in California, and as an Asian-American and an immigrant, she is personally invested in minority communities. When she served as executive producer of Status Magazine, a publication that leaned heavily on the hiphop and street culture of the US, she helped put several influential Black artists on the cover, like Pharell, A$AP Rocky, Chance the Rapper, and The Weeknd. At the one-time 7107 International Music Festival held in 2014, she brought in Kendrick Lamar to co-headline with the Chili Peppers. So, no one can accuse her of not actually supporting the Black community with concrete action. She walks the talk.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Philippine Fashion Week (@phfashionweek) on

But it gets problematic when Herrera’s advocacy is expressed through fashion, and in particular Philippine Fashion Week. Putting “BLM” all over clothes and accessories turns it into a logo, and a logo turns it into a brand. The danger lies then in reducing this epochal social movement to a fashionable but empty statement, much like wearing a “feminist” T-shirt made by exploited Bangladeshi garment workers. 

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And why is PFW appropriating a movement that is largely centered in the US? The organization, which has “Philippines” it its name, would make a bolder statement by addressing an issue that’s burning our own country. Or they could just leave out of it entirely. They may not be selling any BLM merchandise, but they’re selling its cool.