They said/We said: Blackface is used on models at Ottawa Fashion Week. Innocent mistake? Or racist offense?

Photography via The Ottawa Citizen
Photography via The Ottawa Citizen

Montreal designer Andy Nguyen’s Fall 2012 fashion show may have stood apart, but for all the wrong reasons. Shown last week in Ottawa as part of the local fashion week, the 22-year-old designer sent white models with painted blackface down the runway.

Originally intended to intensify the use of black light at the show, rather than make any racial or political statement, Nguyen tells the Ottawa Citizen: “it was nothing against any race. […] I’m sorry if it caused people to think that.”

With designers constantly pushing the boundaries of fashion, where should the line be drawn before art becomes offensive? Liberal party member Rachel Décoste seems to think Nguyen has stumbled across this boundary: “Would the swastika be less offensive because it was pink? These are symbols that represent oppression that people have suffered through for centuries,” she said. “There’s no way to turn them into a cutesy, artsy-fartsy fashion statement.”

Fashion week spokesperson Gabrielle Raina Plouffe says no complaints were made about the show, and given that the Ottawa audience gave Nguyen a standing ovation, perhaps not everyone thinks the painted faces were meant to be offensive.

Décoste is appalled that “Nobody said anything. And that disturbs me even more. […] It’s disappointing to see that this is still going on.”

Should artists have a greater responsibility to understand how the public interprets their work? We can’t help but wonder if he learned nothing from that scandalous “blackface” shoot featuring Lara Stone in French Vogue?


Julie Lalonde, feminist and francophone activist: “Blackface at Ottawa Fashion Week during BLACK HISTORY MONTH. #Humanity Fail.”  [Twitter]


Lesa Hannah, beauty director: “Runway makeup can totally veer on the side of crazy town—look at the red faces Pat McGrath did for Viktor & Rolf Fall 2011. However, a designer can’t ignore the fact that something like blackface will upset people and while Nguyen may be making what he feels is an artistic statement, he should be prepared for and accept outrage from the public for it.”