I recently stumbled across a short film that reframed my understanding of what it means to be subversive in the fashion world today.
The film, “Act da Fool,” was directed by Harmony Korine for the Proenza Schouler Fall 2010 collection and features five delinquent youths in the parking lots and schoolyards of Nashville, Tennessee.
“Everyone gon’ die sooner or later. That’s why I love cigarettes sooo much,” says the narrator of the film as the scene switches from an empty shopping cart in a trash-strewn field, to a shot of one of the film’s five girls rocking a high-waisted Proenza Schouler skirt and $1000 platform pumps while spray-painting the word “CORE” onto a dumpster.
Filled to the brim with such racy content, it is clear why responses to the short film have come in a mixed bag. The film has been described as both “poignant” and “hegemonic,” “demeaning” and “deeply honest.” But the movie has sparked the most controversy over its portrayal of an all-black cast in a low-income neighborhood, which some view as exploitation.
“The advertisement masked as a short film … was commissioned and created by White men with no visible understanding of the real conditions in communities of abject poverty,” Sharon D. Toomer wrote for blackandbrownnews.com.
Others have objected that the designers are feeding into normative socioeconomic stereotypes by featuring so few black women on the much more glamorous high fashion runway.
But “Act da Fool” has a very different significance for Proenza Schouler designers Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCullough.
“The movie is about these girls that are searching for themselves and for some sort of happiness,” Hernandez said in an interview on the company’s website. “They’ve been beaten down, they’ve been disenfranchised and yet they still find something to believe in.”
Indeed, the film vacillates between irreverence and hopefulness, a kind of escapism and banding-together of its five characters. As they drink and vandalize, they simultaneously question religion, identity and the source of meaning.
“I ain’t goin’ to church no more. Church can suck it,” the narrator says. “I think the stars hold the secrets. The stars be shining at night, bright as hell. They say, ‘We love you girls; we really do. Just be good to one another. You can make it out this dead-end town.’ And I trust the stars.”
This juxtaposition seems very much in line with Korine’s other work, which includes films that both idealize and degrade society’s outliers. His films feature youth in controversial situations, most notably “Kids.” The 1995 award-winning production revolves around sexual promiscuity, drugs and HIV in urban adolescent New York, and was referred to as “one of the most pivotal films of our youth” by the design duo at Proenza Schouler.
If anything, “Act da Fool” falls on the tame side of the spectrum of Korine’s resume.
“It’s about girls who sleep in abandoned cars and set things on fire. It’s about the great things in life. The stars in the sky and lots of malt liquor,” he said of “Act da Fool” on several fashion blogs.
Each viewer must form her own opinion about its ethics. But one thing is clear: the film has reintegrated an important element into the fashion universe — that of social commentary.
Fashion has pushed the boundaries of the absurd with the likes of Lady GaGa, Alexander McQueen and the dark dreams of Gareth Pugh. But in a world where Katy Perry hosts the MTV Music Awards in a circus-inspired dress complete with carousel-skirt, it becomes difficult to shock. If fashion wants to be part of a larger dialogue, it must aim for cultural criticism that does not only surpass our reality, but comments on it. Fashion needs to aim at subversion: the ability to recast our notion of identity, society and the industry itself.
Korine’s film seems to be a step in this direction, allowing Proenza Schouler to off the cloak of indestructability and incorporate real social themes into its work. Its audience may not enitrely praise the film, but at least it sows the seeds of discourse. Hopefully these “fools” will pave the way for more controversies, more worthwhile conversations, in the future.