monif c

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An open letter to Monif C

To whoever is in charge with marketing the new swim collection:

After years of struggling with how I viewed my body, I decided to accept all of me. Brown skin, stretch marks, thick thighs–all of these led me to the world of body love and plus size fashion. One of the very first brands I was exposed to on my journey of acceptance was Monif C. The flawless design and sexily believable models got me hooked. As soon as I had the money, I bought my first swimsuit that I felt comfortable and confident enough to go without shorts.

Part of my loyalty to the brand is due to the face of the company, Monif Clarke. In a world where “CEO” conjures up images of boring old men, she’s a breath of fresh air. Seeing how her company quickly rose as the standard of an international industry was one influence on my decision to change my major from Undecided to Business with a focus on Entrepreneurship. I had been unsure on what to do with my career, thinking that I was getting an education to work for someone else. But seeing another woman of color succeeding in fashion, arguably one of the most racially biased industry to continue existing, I have never been more sure of my career path.

Another important factor that keeps me checking up on the website, Facebook page, and Twitter account is the opportunity extended to other women of color through modeling. I love seeing models of color like Mia Amber, Fluvia Lacerda, Denise Bidot and Anita Marshall because I grew up in an American culture where models are usually white and skinny and a Filipin@ culture where models are systematically whitewashed and liposuctioned. Monif C doesn’t apologize for their models’ or customers’ bodies, whether it comes to race or adipose.

Fashion has not been the friendliest business for people of color, not just because of lack of representation but also because of cultural appropriation. From American Eagle trying to pass off shirts as Native American and Dolce and Gabanna’s blackamoor jewelry, cultural appropriation places motifs from a culture out of context and objectifies the identity of ethnic and racial groups. Part of this is due to the lack of representation of PoC in the business. So, it’s somewhat surprising to see the new swim collection titled “Island Gypsy.”

“Gypsy” is applied to many nomadic peoples, but it is most often associated with the Romani people. They have been characterized as thieves and temptresses. In America, the term “gypsy"  has come to mean a care-free lifestyle, more connected to the Earth. This is an example of romanticization of a culture by Americans. While it seems to stem from "positive” stereotypes, the effects are clearly negative. Such use of the word gypsy treats the Romani identity as a monolith by erasing individual experiences of people within the culture. Also, the usage ignores the reason of why the term came to be associated with the care-free lifestyle. The Romani are historically nomadic but only because they are forced to be by governments that treat them as illegal immigrants and fellow citizens who treat them as foreigners. But all that is remembered is that they are nomads, so “Gypsy” became a word that means world wanderer.

Some may see the company’s use of Gypsy as harmless. But Gypsy is an ethnic slur. While some Romani may use it to reappropriate the term, it is off limits to the rest of society. Reappropriation and reclamation belongs to the group that the term was used against. In the hands of anyone else, an ethnic slur is a hurtful scourge that reminds an ethnic group of its suffering due tocolonization, enslavement, genocides, ethnic cleansing, discrimination, and/or racism. People might reason that “Gypsy” is supposed to refer to a style or idea and not the people, but I can’t imagine someone saying “Spic,” “Flip,” or “Gook” in front of me and explaining that they are talking about an idea rather than my people.

Taking up “Gypsy” showed a huge amount of ignorance on the part of the country. It treats a slur the way one would treat the word “hipster.” But one doesn’t get uprooted from the place she is living on because she is a hipster.Hipsters don’t suffer forced sterilization or exclusion from the public education system. Also the word implies that all people belonging to the ethnic group have the same personality as the glorified stereotype. Like Margaret Cho said, you can’t pick and choose what you like about a culture and leave the burden of inequality behind. I could ignore the name of the collection. I could buy another bikini like I planned. I could reason that the name of the collection has nothing to do with MY purchase. But there will be a number of people who see the word “Gypsy” and picture an exotic, noble savage, an image that is inflicted on almost every non-white ethnicity. And their purchases and my purchase will be lumped into a graph that shows that racism sells, regardless of the cost. I could turn my eye away from that.

But as a woman of color, I can’t.

I have been a returning customer for about a year, and I hope to continue buying from this company. But if good marketing to Monif C means relying on stereotypes and painting inaccurate portraits of an ethnic group, I won’t. As beautiful as your clothing and swimwear are, I can’t keep a clean conscience while my money is proof to your company that using “Gypsy” in the way it was used was a good, profitable idea. There are a lot of aspiring designers with exciting, new looks who haven’t resulted to exotifiying cultures.

I know much thought was put into the promotion of this line as “Island Gypsy.” But as a leader in an industry that seeks to dispell stereotypes, Monif C has a unique opportunity to fight off the cultural appropriation that is so prevalent in the straight-fit segment of fashion. I urge you to change the name of the line. It may take a couple hours of photoshop, html editing, and title changing, but the time and monetary cost does not outweigh the cost of racism and stereotypes.

On appropriation of “Gypsy”