BERHIE: Fashion Industry Complicit in Luxurious Style of Dictators
Cardamom, Spice and Human Rights
Published: Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Updated: Thursday, April 19, 2012 17:04
Fashion commentator Simon Doonan remarked earlier this year, “The only stylish politicians are dictators.”
The eerie pervasion of Doonan’s words is apparent in the fashion world’s acceptance of Earth’s greatest human rights violators because of their ability to pair an ostentatious pair of Prada sunglasses with a power suit better than Vogue’s Anna Dello Russo.
Famed political sartorialists range from cape-loving Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to the wives of popular Middle Eastern monarchs, including Queen Rania of Jordan and Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned of Qatar. The close-knit relationship between the global fashion industry and the world’s dictators has become a problem that must be addressed.
In some cases, such as Queen Rania and Sheikha Mozah, humanitarian efforts are apparent. The former is known for working to increase access to health care for the people of Jordan and the latter for her aid efforts to Somalia during the famine last summer. Others, like first lady Asma al-Assad of Syria, however, have been celebrated by the fashion industry despite obvious human rights transgressions.
Only a year ago, American Vogue published an unpalatably positive profile on Asma al-Assad, wife of dictator Bashar Al-Assad, titled “A Rose in the Desert.” The article harps on the first lady’s Western upbringing and education and depicts her as a woman fully engrossed in strengthening Syrian democracy. She grew up in London, worked as an investment banker for J.P. Morgan in Europe and the United States and now runs her household democratically, according to the article, which Vogue recently removed from its website.
Last week, The Guardian published a series of private emails between Bashar al-Assad, his fashion-savvy wife Asma, other family members and close friends. The emails shed light on the inner workings of Syria’s first family. In one email, Asma jokingly refers to herself as “the real dictator” in the family.
The cavalier messages are troubling especially as the family has come under international scrutiny since March 2011, when the Arab Spring ignited anti-government protests in the country. The Assad regime, disguised as a democratically elected government, has harshly cracked down on political dissidence and made efforts to quell the movement from making real progress in Syria.
The United Nations reports that more than 9,000 have been killed in the unrest in Syria and thousands more displaced. This past February, the UN officially condemned the Assad regime and called for peace. Last week the UN finally brokered a cease-fire between the regime and the dissidents, but Assad’s willingness to shed more civilian blood to cling to his power has cast shadows amongst the pockets of hope in Syria and throughout the international community.
Although the first sons get to vote whether they have salmon or macaroni and cheese for dinner, the Syrian people are denied the right to choose their leader. The Vogue piece reported that Bashar al-Assad won the presidency with a “startling 97 percent of the vote,” perhaps with inexcusable ignorance or cynical ingenuity.
Vogue also likened Asma al-Assad’s style to the understated elegance of French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy among others, explaining that “[she] dresses with a cunning understatement.” “Understatement” is a slight stretch for a woman whose known uniform includes the cherry-red soles of sky-high Louboutin heels coupled with a Birkin bag and its five-figure price tag.
The Syrian government and the fashion industry have presented the first lady as a woman of the people. Many say she wears jeans and walks the streets of Damascus like a seasoned local. Some compare her style to the chic affordability Kate Middleton offers in the United Kingdom or the maternal sophistication embodied by Michelle Obama when she pairs high fashion with a J. Crew cardigan.
Yet Asma al-Assad’s style is out of touch with the people. While Kate Middleton and Michelle Obama consciously wear British and American brands, respectively, to help industries at home, al-Assad’s clothing is exclusively from the biggest names in European fashion. The crudeness embodied by her bright red soles are another reminder that Syria’s first lady is nothing like her counterparts in France, England and the United States.