$4,000 Dresses Inspired By Violent Mexico Town

For fall, Rodarte presented a collection inspired by women factory workers in Ciudad Juárez. Juárez is the world's most violent place, outside of active war zones. Hundreds — some say thousands — of women have been murdered in Juárez.

Do you think fashion got this reference? No, fashion did not.

Style.com's Nicole Phelps, in her review of the show, said that designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy got the idea for their collection during a long drive from El Paso, Texas — which is just across the border from Ciudad Juárez — to Marfa. The Mulleavy sisters "became interested in the troubled border town of Ciudad Juárez; the hazy, dreamlike quality of the landscape there; and the maquiladora workers going to the factory in the middle of the night." Phelps notes they have "Mexican roots" and wanted to explore that heritage.

When this collection came out, something about how it was received by Style.com and the rest of the fashion press rubbed me the wrong way, but it took Minh-Ha T. Pham at Threadbared to put her finger on exactly why.

The difference between the lived reality of Juárez for women factory workers — many of whom are garment workers — and the aestheticized vision of models made to look like they got dressed in the dark (the irregular hours shift workers keep being, apparently, one real thing upon which the Mulleavy sisters seized), is just so striking. Women in Ciudad Juárez contend with casual violence, grinding poverty, and a higher risk of death than almost anywhere else on this earth — and they make our jeans. It's a little icky to ask them to "inspire" $4,000 dresses as well. Rodarte has done collections inspired by Japanese horror movies (they made dresses dyed so that they looked like they were bleeding), but there's a huge difference between aestheticizing fictional violence and aestheticizing real violence. It's discomfiting to think about the latter.

That being said? It's not the goal of art to make people comfortable. The Rodarte sisters are not stupid, and it's doubtful they see Juárez as merely a stop on the international inspiration train. They say they are truly saddened by the unjust situation in the region. It's entirely possible that the Mulleavy sisters intended their show — which featured models made up to look like ghosts — to "inspire" some thinking among fashion's chattering classes. Or perhaps to trouble their sleep. But that's not what happened at all; critics like Phelps downplayed the political dimension to the collection. (A lot hinges on that single use of "troubled.") Others ignored it completely. Christina Binkley of the Wall Street Journal wrote of the outfits, "They'd require a certain Bohemian personality to wear them," getting her regions entirely confused. And Cathy Horyn said only, "while some of the constructions were beautiful, the concept rapidly wore thin, and perhaps it was not developed enough."

In this video, Harper's Bazaar editor-in-chief Glenda Bailey talks about how much she "loved" the show. "It was a perfect mix of feminine and romantic. But what I also loved was the fact that it was like visiting an enchanted forest." Bailey also praised the collection's "very natural, very raw feel" and said the concept was "soft in its interpretation." If she or anyone else addressed maquiladoras and the women who work in them, those passages certainly weren't included here.

Key makeup artist James Kaliardos explained his inspiration came from "sleepwalkers" and "spirits" and pictures of his grandmother in the 1920s.

"They bring a fantasy to New York fashion week," Tavi Gevinson said of the sisters.

Natalie Portman said, "I just thought it was really beautiful with the light sand the shoes and the ghost makeup." Maybe the women were turned into ghosts because they were brutally murdered and their bodies were dumped in the desert and their killer(s) were never pursued by a dysfunctional and corrupt police force, let alone prosecuted? Just a thought.

Nadja Swarovski said the Mulleavy sisters "embody the American spirit" and create "couture with a twist."

There are some who'd argue that fashion is too weak a vessel for strong, challenging ideas, and that any attempt to use it to comment on the world at large is bound to fail. I don't agree. Failing to engage seems like the greater crime. But is it any surprise that when Rodarte's collaboration with M.A.C. was announced this week, with colors named things like "Quinceañera," "Ghost Town," "Juarez," and "Factory," people found it just a shade distasteful. M.A.C. today announced that part of the proceeds from the line will go to a local charity that works to help women in Ciudad Juárez; it hasn't decided which one yet.

LINKAGES: Maquiladoras Inspire Rodarte And Fashion Pretends Technology Is Not Its Friend [Threadbared]
MAC/Rodarte Nail Polish Collection Names Colors After Impoverished, Murdered Women [The Frisky]
MAC To Donate Portion Of Rodarte Collection Proceeds To Charity [The Cut]