Aamna Aqeel – is the Pakistani designer’s controversial fashion shootracist, bigoted, self serving or merely misguided?

Published in The Express Tribune

Aamna Aqeel racist photoshoot
Aamna Aqeel vehemently denied allegations of racism
KARACHI: It’s not easy producing a memorable fashion shoot; pictures of pretty women wearing pretty clothes can get boring fast. The best fashion shoots are engaging, compelling and imaginative; they require talent, hard work and vision from the designer, stylist, photographer and model. Of course, if you can’t manage all of that, the other way to ensure you get noticed is to make a fashion shoot so controversial and tasteless that getting media attention is guaranteed.

Designer Aamna Aqeel’s latest shoot titled “Be My Slave” falls squarely into this category. Obviously designed to shock, it shows a model being pandered to by a dark-skinned child slave. The images are repulsive with racist and colonialist overtones. The fact that the slave in the advertisements is a child, makes the images that much more inexcusable.

Aqeel has barely been designing for two years. She won some critical acclaim at the fifth edition of Fashion Pakistan Week held recently in Karachi, but she remains very much an emerging designer with a lot to prove. It seems that she’s decided, by hook or by crook, it’s time to get noticed.

Vogue’s controversial shoot from December 2011 – Photo Express file photo

Fashion loves to be provocative and sometimes it seems nothing is taboo. French Vogue did a shoot with sexualised images of models as young as 10, Vogue India did a feature with impoverished Indians carrying Burberry umbrellas and wearing $100 Fendi bibs. A Bulgarian magazine 12 did a shoot called “Victim of Beauty” showing bloodied, bruised models that appeared to glamourise domestic violence.

In each case, the magazines had an explanation to give, that they were trying to highlight the use of child models, or attempting to say fashion was for everyone or trying to show the juxtaposition between horror flick make-up and beauty. In each case, the real reason was simple: commissioning distasteful fashion shoots to ensure media coverage and boost sales.

Aamna Aqeel's racist photoshoot
The shoot in no way conveys Aqeel’s purported anti-child-labour stance

When contacted, Aqeel vehemently denied any racist angle to the shoot at all. According to her, the choice of a dark-skinned Baloch child was purely incidental. “He works in a garage and wanted some work,” she said. Obviously the parents of usual child models wouldn’t have agreed to the shoot. The pampered little cuties who advertise soap, toothpaste and biscuits on TV may not have looked right for the part but even if they had, no one would have let their child play such a degrading role.

Aqeel’s argument is that she wanted to spark a debate on child labour. She says she is involved with a children’s charity and wanted to highlight how ‘society madams’ employ child labour in their homes. She is educating and supporting the child used in the shoot — it seems the least she can do after exploiting him in this fashion.

It’s facetious of the designer to claim that she was trying to stimulate a debate on child labour. The model wearing her clothes is clearly comfortable with her dominant position. She is not made up in a way that shows her to be the villain of the piece. The use of a dark skinned child in a shoot entitled “Be My Slave” certainly reeks of racism, however much the designer may deny it. And if anything, the shoot seems to condone child labour.

Aqeel went on to deny that this was a publicity-seeking move on her part and says she is happy at the pace her brand is developing. Her purpose for this shoot was apparently not to publicise her brand, but to raise public awareness of a social issue. Apparently, she feels so blessed with her success that she wants to give back to society and feels that it’s every individual’s duty to do what he or she can to make life better for the underprivileged.

The shoot was entitled "Be My Slave" for Aamna Aqeel
The shoot was entitled “Be My Slave”

To me, Aqeel’s stance stinks of hypocrisy. Designers do fashion shoots to sell a vision of their brand and to raise their profile. I wonder at the magazine that published the pictures. The stylist and photographer may have had to bend to the designer’s vision but the magazine had no such compulsion. I feel ashamed to be involuntarily publicising the shoot but we need to speak up against vile images of racism and exploitation. There are some taboos fashion shouldn’t break.

Except where stated otherwise photos by Shabaz Shazi for Aamna Aqeel
Copyright 2015 Karachista. All rights reserved
Salima Feerasta
Salima Feerastahttps://karachista.com
Salima Feerasta is chief editor of Karachista.com and one of Pakistan's top fashion and lifestyle journalists.

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