by Dominique Michelle Davis (photo credit: Dominique Michelle Davis)
The 2015 Chicago Fashion Week presented a runway showcase called “Fashion Focus: Style Bias, Street Style.” The event was held downtown at Block 37. This was my first year attending this particular event for Fashion Focus Chicago. What intrigued me about this event was the platform to highlight and promote Chicago street style, local designers and boutique owners. In addition to presentation of collections there were performances by Huey Gang.
Artist Alexander Swain designed what I found to be the most intriguing collection. The collection included the repetition of multicolored patchwork as a detail in many of the garments, paint splatters on vests and pants, and really wonderful accessorizing on men’s and women’s looks, including some really chic hats and a unique make-up looks on many of the models, some of whom appeared to have face jewelry and other make-up looks that gave texture to the face. Among my favorite looks was the long patchwork shirt dress (pictured above).
What I found most provocative was a garment with an illustration of a caricature in black face. Initially this detail gave me pause, and I wondered about the inspiration behind this collection given this reference of what is racist iconography. The look was a shirt with the face of a person that accessorized with bandanas and handkerchiefs put you in the mind frame of the antebellum south and the ways gingham bandanas and head scarves were often depicted as being worn by the Mammy figure, a representation of enslaved Black women and free domestics as popularized in films like “Gone With the Wind” wherein Hattie McDaniel played a character named Mammy, a role for which she became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1940.
My awareness of Swain’s artistic commitment to fashion being seen as on par with other visual arts, and the other ways in which race and diversity were so deliberate in this runway presentation, made it clear to me that this reference of a painful racist iconography was not a haphazard reference, but deliberately trying to evoke a conversation about the complex relations between race, art, and retail or commerce.
Despite the ways Swain’s historical reference transported one to the past, the music kept one consciously anchored within and aware of the present. To that point, in 2015, in light of the culture of frustration, distrust, and anger many people (including African American Chicagoans) feel for Chicago’s political scene, and with Chicago widely known to be one of the most segregated cities in the United States, this collection was timely in its provocative commentary. Alexander Swain’s collection spoke volumes and created the appropriate context for intersecting conscious art and fashion. I would definitely rock his collection and add a piece from his collection to my wardrobe.
In addition to Swain, other collections presented in the showcase include the following fashion labels: Ameerah Vania, The Albert Ray Collection, Royal Apparel, Bornmade, House of Lerenn, Daniel Jacob, Urban Threads Studio, Stefan Meier and Aqua Vita.