FIT graduate Junkai Huang was not the one to cancel for his racist accessories

By Camay Abraham

Updated May 18, 2020 at 05:09 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

What happens when our thirst for clout takes over common sense? We end up cancelling the wrong people.

An incident occurred during the first week of New York Fashion Week Autumn Winter 2020. The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) held its MFA fashion graduate show on the fourth day of New York Fashion Week and ended up making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

On that day, recent FIT graduate Junkai Huang showcased his own collection which featured models wearing plastic enlarged ears, bushy eyebrows, and giant red lips. These facial accessories were said to celebrate what society considered as “ugly features” but were seen as racially charged. The fact that this happened in the US accelerated the uproar as blackface has been historically performed there for too long. Many students protested against having those accessories in the collection while the African American model Amy Lefevre refused point-blank to wear them after being pressured to.

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It shouldn’t be down to the models to have to refuse wearing blatantly racist accessories on the runway, especially not in a show thrown by an institution like @fitnyc. In an alumni show celebrating their 75th anniversary, MFA graduate Junkai Huang showed a collection that was meant to highlight the “ugly features of the body”. The choice of exaggerated bright red fake lips and “monkey ears”, as well as the school’s response, are leaving us shaking our heads. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Nearing a breakdown, African-American model Amy Lefevre (@lefevrediary ) spoke up about the accessories, but was told by staff it was “ok to be uncomfortable for only 45 seconds”. It’s one thing when it’s a pair of tricky heels, but quite another when you’re made up to look like racist caricatures from the not-so-distant past. Multiple complaints had been made in the days leading up to the show as well, with several people objecting. One anonymous student who was witness backstage, said the show’s producer @richardthornn told the group to “back down and get away” when they brought up the issue again. The accessories didn’t end up making it onto Lefevre, but that didn’t stop them from going down the runway on other models. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ In a statement to the NY Post, FIT president Dr. Joyce F. Brown emphasized allowing the students the “freedom to craft their own personal and unique artistic perspectives as designers, to be even what some would consider to be provocative”, but said they would investigate further. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ In a time when luxury brands are taking swift action by pulling offensive products and implementing diversity councils in response to similar scandals, it’s a shame to see a learning institution dragging their feet. Shouldn’t they be the ones broadening insights for the ones who will lead fashion in the future and not reinforcing the same aspects that have made the industry notoriously problematic? ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ • #fit #fitnyc #suny #cuny #fashionschool #college #mfa #mastersdegree #alumni #fitalumni #fashiondesigner #design #designer #runway #model #blackface #racism #monkey #grotesque #sexdoll #bodyimage #lumpsandbumps #wiwt #ootd #runwaymodel #nyfw #fashionweek #dietprada

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The story broke out via Diet Prada, the Instagram page popular for calling out designers and fashion brands on various matters, ranging from plagiarism to social injustices. As soon as the page posted pictures of Huang’s collection, people started defaming the designer for his ignorance. According to Diet Prada, observers stated that Huang didn’t seem to understand the historical significance of his accessories’ features, and didn’t decide to use these himself, instead he was pushed by the chair of the MFA fashion design department, Jonathan Kyle Farmer.

Screen Shot spoke to Ryerson professor and former educator for Gucci, Parsons and Pratt, Kimberly Jenkins who further explained this story in its full context. As the founder of the Fashion and Race Database, Jenkins aims to expand the narrative of fashion history and challenge misrepresentation within the fashion system. Here’s why she decided to have a closer look at the FIT incident and what she found.

What made you want to be involved in this incident with FIT and Junkai Huang?

I hadn’t really planned to be involved initially and figured it was another case of cultural and historical ignorance. The twist was that there was indeed ignorance involved, and when I heard about what really happened, I wanted to speak out.

What was going through your mind when deciding to speak publicly about it? 

I was just concerned about seeking and speaking the truth and supporting students and the model involved.

After this happened, what were your thoughts about call-out culture, social media and how it affects an individual? 

I hadn’t fully formed my opinion or ‘final verdict’ on call-out and cancel culture just yet, but once this issue was exposed—and hit quite close to home—I wanted to be part of advocating for critical thinking and what I consider ‘slow information’. Slow information meaning, if we were to adopt the paradigm of ‘slow food’ and ‘slow fashion’, we care about the information we take in, we want the information to be nourishing, and, when possible, build a connection with it. That means we try to read stories in full, consume stories or engage in discussions that are generative and positive, and we try to understand both sides of the story.

FIT published an open letter stating its accountability for what happened. Do you think these steps would have taken place had it not been for social media, as well as your involvement, showcasing the fuller context of the situation?

I don’t think so. I think the new letter of accountability was influenced by social media posts (perhaps including mine) and the urgent, vocal statements put forth by the students at FIT.

Although Diet Prada was one of the first to break this story, what are your thoughts on media platforms telling ‘incomplete’ stories without full context? 

Diet Prada has, in my eyes, become another news or media platform. The more powerful and visible they became in terms of followers, the more they have a persistent motivation to live up to their mission to call people out. This has led to fast and loose information—the very information style I do not advocate for—as it’s nearly impossible at this stage for an Instagram account with over a million followers to carefully follow-up on and revise past stories, even if it means damaging reputations and careers along the way.

What’s worse is that with a following that large, it’s nearly impossible to facilitate a productive discourse in the comment threads, you wind up with reactionary comments that respond to the latest thing Diet Prada saw or heard and questions left unanswered. The result is possible misinterpretation and misinformation that can run rampant, possibly inspiring real life aggressions that spread beyond the context. Meanwhile, Diet Prada moves on to the next story for you to worry about and you’ve already forgotten about the last one.

After this incident, what do you think is the future for higher education in fashion?

Radical change in terms of curricula and to re-examine what the educators and leaders know. As with any business or organization, we, unfortunately, cannot rely on leaders under fire to embrace a moral imperative (‘doing the right thing’) on their own. Oftentimes there needs to be a push for systemic change by the people impacted by a business or institution’s egregious oversights and complicity with the status quo.

Most people have focused on the obvious outrage caused by the accessories depicting blackface as well as on the model Amy Lefevre. Not many talked about Huang’s lack of awareness or the rest of his collection. This story was centred on him, yet the most important thing, which was the collection, did not get the recognition it deserves.

As a society it seems we value cancel culture more than fact-checked information. We’ve somehow started believing that we can act as social media vigilantes, and we’ve forgotten along the way the power that our words can have. As stories get churned out faster and faster, we don’t take the time needed to think and absorb the information being presented to us. We are so focused on releasing and consuming stories that we’re forgetting about slow information. We’re starting to forget, and probably have already forgotten, that there are people behind these clickbait headlines.

We have to remember that our words really do impact others and learn again that every story has two sides—the ones being highlighted may not always be the entire truth. Media sets the tone of who the public rally for and who they crucify. Next time one of these stories comes out we should all think twice before dragging someone’s name across the internet.

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