Karlie Kloss Apologizes for Appearing in Yellowface for “Vogue’s” Diversity Fashion Shoot

Model Karlie Kloss appears as a geisha in a recent Vogue photoshoot.

Model Karlie Kloss has apologized for appearing in yellowface for a photoshoot for Vogue magazine.

In the most recent issue of Vogue magazine, Kloss appears styled in full-out geisha drag — complete with kimonos, black wig, and winged dark black eye liner — and poses alongside pagodas, waterfalls, and even a sumo wrestler. And of course, irony of ironies: this putrid revelry in offensive Orientalism appeared in Vogue‘s “diversity” issue. That issue has already been slammed for the lack of body or skin colour diversity in the seven models chosen to grace its cover; and that’s even before anyone opened the magazine up to the photoshoot featuring Karlie Kloss (pictures after the jump)

Kloss, whom (it goes without saying) is not Japanese, appears in apparent yellowface in the Vogue fashion spread, which is only the latest effort by the West to appropriate Asian culture to create and commodify a made-up exotic fantasy of a foreign East. This Orientalism is problematic because it treats culture as costume in order to cast Asia as nothing more than a distant orbiting star of the West: as if the East exists only to tantalize, to excite, to be explored, to be conquered and to be consumed. Orientalism is, therefore, entirely incompatible with any effort to acknowledge the social, political, or cultural agency of Asian people. We cannot be people if we are expected to exist only as figments of the West’s imagination.

Some speculate that the photoshoot by photographer Mikael Jansson was intended to reference a 1966 shoot with German model Veruschka von Lehndorff. But, that seems an overly charitable cop-out: in fact, Vogue has a long and storied history of styling non-Asian female models in fantastical “geisha-inspired” gear and over-the-top chinoiserie as part of highly offensive Orientalist fashion spreads.

An image that appeared in a 2012 issue of Vogue Russia.
An image that appeared in a geisha-inspired spread in Vogue Netherlands.
A disturbing image by photographer Terry Richardson for Vogue Paris.

Let’s be real: Vogue has a long history of racial insensitivity, cultural appropriation, and exploiting Orientalism to appear edgy. We can all agree that the fashion industry can be problematicBut, I think we can also agree that Orientalism and yellowface — in an issue ostensibly about diversity! — is clearly unacceptable and racist.

Kloss issued an apology on Twitter yesterday for her part in Vogue‘s deeply ill-conceived fashion shoot.

There has been no word yet from Vogue itself regarding the controversy.

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  • RizingZan

    There is a difference between westerners who genuinely like Japan and those who are not very genuine. I am pointing out those that are not very genuine. And I don’t know what the TV shows have to do with this because you can basically make anything with that. Okay, there are people who only really watched anime, read manga, and claim they “love” Japan.

  • bonesupren

    Asian Americans are not Asians. We are speaking for no one but ourselves.

    But you are. You are speaking for Japanese culture and attempting to regulate its use — even when on Japanese soil as was the case with this photoshoot, even though the culture is not your own. We Japanese are much more open. We want all people of all races in all situations (yes, even not serious) to enjoy Japanese and Japanese inspired dress and costume. We are very open minded. About the only thing we do not approve of is the attempt of others to restrict its wearing.

    This is especially problematic for kimono culture. The people of Japan know that for kimono to survive, we must encourage its popularity not just in Japan, but overseas as well.

    If we let Asian American activists have their way, kimono will end up like Native American headdress: a dead culture, something you see in a museum, not living and evolving.

    To use popular American activist catchphrase: “you’re killing us.”

    Some in the kimono industry in Japan (I attend a textile trade event in
    Yonezawa this Friday) have even talked about skipping promotion of kimono events in America due to the kimono controversy in Boston. The kimono people are older, and feel very sad seeing Asian Americans attack other people trying to enjoy our culture. We may do more events in Europe such as France and Italy instead, as people are more open minded regarding freedom of expression.

  • MelaninManson

    This is, at best, a horrible argument.

    No one really cares about Japanese open-mindedness. Culturally permissive Japanese have nothing to do with the commodification inherent in marketing Western products with Japanese aesthetics. Further, whatever supposed indifference Japanese people may or may not express toward the use or possible misuse of their cultural heritage for private gain in Western societies, no one may justly ignore the substantive harm imposed on the Japanese diaspora who live within these Western cultures.

    Put another way, it’s all well and good if people believe that Japanese cultural artifacts exist for public manipulation, but to export that view beyond Japan’s borders to a sort of globally accepted ideology presents cultural imperialism, nothing more.

    To suggest that “the Japanese people “want all people of all races in all situations (yes, even not serious) to enjoy Japanese and Japanese inspired dress and costume” is one perspective. There are others. But if people really believe in the ‘Japanese open-mindedness’ promoted in this conversation, there must also remain room to critique said open-mindedness, as it is clear that every use of Japanese aesthetics in the West does not express or allow for the inherent humanity of Japanese people, or Asian Americans generally.

    Asian Americans need not suffer the high honor of low pantomime and consider it just because members of a population a world away express cultural decline fears. It is not just to export culture use standards internationally, as if everyone’s political position in relation to the cultural use in question is identical.

  • bonesupren

    Funny you should use the word “cultural imperialism” because we think when Asian Americans tell us what people on OUR land can and can’t do, and punish and shame them for their behaviour here in Japan that we allow and approve of (freedom of artistic expression), that is true cultural imperialism.

    We do not force anybody to wear (or not wear) Japanese clothes. It is a choice. Is freedom of choice and expression “imperialism”? Nonsense.

  • bonesupren

    I’m sure you also know there are real white people geisha and maiko (though very rare I think only two or three) that work or have worked in Kyoto and Tokyo for legitimate houses.

  • MelaninManson

    We’re not talking about freedom of choice. We’re talking about the assumption that what one group considers free choice should apply universally.

    The argument you made above requires people in the West to regard criticism of Japanese cultural appropriation as impermissible. You cite fears about disappearing kimono culture as basis for the “You’re killing us” admonishment to Asian Americans who’ve expressed how Japanese cultural appropriation affects them. All of this is, at best imperialist.

    Speaking only for myself, one of the real upsides to a global economy is the instant transfer of ideas across borders. None of that transfer however, should be considered moral simply because it is possible. Japanese people are free to set their comfort level with cultural appropriation, just as they are free to absorb persuasive criticism on the subject.

    Because there’s really no excuse for justifying Orientalism. Just because some find this worthy of support does not mean they are correct.