By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
NEW YORK -- Designer Tracy Reese opened her spring 2007 fashion show on Sunday by sending two dancers down her runway. Bodies pressed together, they twirled to the rhythms of the tango.
Reese selected warm and saturated hues, mixing shades of raspberry with coral and mustard. The prints celebrated the whitewashed houses of a barrio set on a steep hill or the dizzying geometry of a field of palms. Uneven pleats on a butter-yellow jacket called to mind crepe paper streamers or the naive ruffles decorating a pinata.
It was a glorious collection that vibrated with color, music and colliding images -- some based in fact, such as Cuba, Spain and Mexico, and others created fully in the imagination.
A few hours later, designer Diane von Furstenberg presented a collection of streamlined urban silhouettes, including her signature wrap dresses, in bold colors. When showing a simple cap-sleeve swing dress in a fiery shade of fuchsia or a marigold-colored shirtdress that practically glowed, she used black models -- those with deep ebony skin who could wear intense shades without being overwhelmed by them. Her palette seemed custom-made to be especially flattering to people of color.
Reese is black. Von Furstenberg is white.
The fact of their race is not something that would ordinarily be considered. They do not focus on racial themes in their work. They are not known for an ethnocentric aesthetic. They do not send racially charged political messages down the catwalk. But the race card has been played.
Coinciding with the start of the spring runway shows here, the Museum of the City of New York debuted "Black Style Now." The exhibition opened Saturday with a cocktail party that attracted more than 1,000 guests, most of them black. That made for a striking fashion moment, as there were more black people at that one event than one typically encounters during the whole of this city's fashion week.
The exhibit, which runs through Feb. 19, examines modern black fashion and the way race influences aesthetics. This is a subject that is rife with political, social and cultural pitfalls. The most significant hurdle is the virtual impossibility of taming such an enormous topic into something at once manageable, thoughtful and entertaining.
The exhibition was curated by Michael McCollom, a fashion design veteran, and Michael Henry Adams, a historian. Part of their mission is to draw attention to black designers. But the fundamental goal is loftier: "We're very interested in the genesis of what's going on in fashion, where it's trying to go. Will it make it?" McCollom says. "We look at black style not just as fashion but also as a sense of being. It's not just design, it's attitude."
That point of view leaves one pondering what to make of a designer such as Reese and a show like the one mounted by von Furstenberg. Is Reese's race enough to justify including her eclectic sensibility in an exhibition that seeks to define a cohesive black style? Is there something about one's race that leads to the creation of a certain kind of silhouette? Is Reese's spring collection, which draws its inspiration from Latin culture, an example of black style simply because she is black?
Could von Furstenberg's collection, with its strong colors shown to such advantage on black models, be defined as an example of black style even if the designer is white?
The exhibition raises these questions but never answers them. And to some degree, it leaves one with the uncomfortable feeling that the whole debate is an indulgence in stereotypes masquerading as social and cultural theory.
The exhibit expends most of its energy on a simpler topic: hip-hop. But even that is not fully considered.
It moves briskly from the sepia-tinged era of the 1920s to the days of disco, where it lands briefly on the groundbreaking work of designer Stephen Burrows. It acknowledges landmarks, such as the launch of Essence -- one of the exhibition's sponsors -- and the first black models to appear on the covers of Glamour, Vogue and GQ. It moves on to the 1980s and a visitor can see examples of work from designers including Willi Smith and Jeffrey Banks. But it does not tackle the more controversial work of Patrick Kelly, who incorporated pickaninnies and golliwogs into his designs.
All of that history, however, is presented as a mere prelude to the arrival of hip-hop and its celebrity frontmen.
In this exhibit, black style is defined as hip-hop style. It argues that the designers who preceded its arrival prepared the way for its birth. Those who came after it -- or who do not work in that aesthetic -- are rebelling against it. Without hip-hop, there would presumably be no way to define black style. The "authentic" black experience is inextricably linked to hip-hop.
This argument is akin to suggesting that the "youthquake" of the 1960s is emblematic of "white style." Could love beads, miniskirts and go-go boots accurately explain the range of "white" fashion -- from the New Look to grunge?
The exhibition suggests that black style and hip-hop style are essentially the same. It perpetuates the prevailing sense that an insult to hip-hop and its adherents -- as in Jay-Z's dispute with the producers of Cristal champagne -- is an insult to blacks in general.
The exhibition does not give time to non-black designers Tommy Hilfiger or Marc Ecko, both of whom have been influential in creating and popularizing the hip-hop aesthetic. It was Hilfiger, after all, who in 1996 put Coolio, Naughty by Nature's Treach, Method Man and Sean "Diddy" Combs on his runways. That was way back when Combs was still Puffy and before he had become a fashion mogul in his own right.
The curators argue that black style is not simply a garment but the way it is worn. And this is certainly accurate in the case of brands like Kangol and Adidas. The clothes remain essentially unchanged from the original design. Instead, it's the attitude, the swagger, the creative combinations that link it to black men.
Gone missing from the exhibition is emphasis on the critical concerns raised by the wearing of ostentatious diamonds, expensive sneakers and styles inspired by prison inmates. Those areas are only briefly discussed, and while Adams hopes that they will be dealt with more fully in public programs associated with the exhibition, one leaves the museum galleries with the sense that there is no controversy, that there is no debate over whether style and swagger have surpassed education and personal responsibility in importance.
At the entrance to the exhibition, there is a gallery lined with black-and-white portraits of icons including Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Sidney Poitier, Satchel Paige, Marian Anderson and Jackie Robinson. It's impossible not to notice the way they wear their clothes. Back in their day, attire -- the tailored suits, the crisp pocket squares, the church hats -- was equated with dignity. In the hip-hop era, the overriding message of clothing is bravado. The exhibition doesn't look below the surface of all the ghetto-fabulous bling on display to examine the question of how that transition occurred and why.
"Black Style Now" tells a story about the evolution of a black aesthetic. Hip-hop is the central element in that tale. The main characters are celebrities -- Diddy, Beyonce, Kanye West, Jay-Z and a host of other entertainers. They are the ones imbued with the power and the creative influence. Tracy Reese is included in the exhibition because she is a black woman. But she is not a practitioner of hip-hop design. And so in this tale, she is merely -- and unfortunately -- a footnote.