Kenzo’s “Music is my Mistress”: Reinventing ‘African cinema’ through fashion film?

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One of the fashion industry’s problems has always been the underrepresentation of different ethnicities. Even though the awareness is there, many catwalk shows are still predominantly white, an issue which is only slowly changing. The same holds true for the canon of film, which is mostly decided by (straight) white men. In an interview with TorontoVerve, Toronto International Fashion Film programmer Kiva Reardon said: “If you have a knowledge of female filmmakers, queer filmmakers, African or Asian filmmakers, some people won’t give them the same culture capital. They’ll say, “Oh, that’s nice niche knowledge.” No, it’s not. You’re just seeing it through the prism of something white and male.” Kenzo’s new fashion film challenges this canon.

Directed by Kahlil Joseph, a young black filmmaker with a reputed background in music videos (such as Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, Flying Lotus’s clip for “Until the Quiet Comes,” and Shabazz’s “Black Up.”), the new fashion film for Kenwo Music is my Mistress sketches a non-linear portrait of multiple characters interconnected through various fragmented storylines. Kenzo states that “In this shapeshifting new film, Music is much more than mere sound and rhythm. This story casts music herself as the central character of an unfolding drama across cultures, space, and time.”

Despite the search for an African princess against a backdrop of Shabazz Palaces’ hip-hop music, intermixed with with quotes of Senegalese film director Djibril Diop Mambéty, the film does not claim black culture as its subject as much as it does the abstract notion of music. Joseph’s creation of “visuals riffs on music” results in “emotional filmmaking that spares us the self-conscious folklore of something like Beasts of the Southern Wild by not imagining what blackness feels like but what it is” (more). In an interview with i-D magazine Joseph explained:

“Almost all histories in black cinema aren’t really representations of us, I think most people who know black people on any level know that to be true. (…) But I think this underrepresentation is also an amazing opportunity for us. (…) Once we start making movies in the same way that we make music, it’ll be undeniable. Once we’re able to represent ourselves—not even represent ourselves but to express ourselves—in the way that we feel and we think, then I don’t even know what to say. I don’t even know what that’s gonna look like!” (more)

The influence of Mambéty’s work is proudly represented with the quote “I believe that Africans, in particular, must reinvent cinema.” In the same conversation, Mambéty has said that “one has to choose between engaging in stylistic research or the mere recording of facts. I feel that a filmmaker must go beyond the recording of facts. (…) It will be a difficult task because our viewing audience is used to a specific film language, but a choice has to be made: either one is very popular and one talks to people in a simple and plain manner, or else one searches for an African film language that would exclude chattering and focus more on how to make use of visuals and sounds.” (more)

The fashion film, still in its experimental phase, is constantly researching different ways to translate fashion on screen, and therefore provides an interesting framework for the exploration of ‘African cinema.’ Fashion needs innovation, authenticity, and unconventionality, and uses film as a medium to extend fashion as a creative practice (and the other way around). At the same time, Mambéty is interested in doing stylistic research to create a new visual style that is more intuitional and driven by emotion. A high fashion brand like Kenzo supporting and stimulating this development makes a political statement in the fashion industry, demanding more equality in its domination by tall, white-skinned models. At the same time, it presents the brand with a very interesting piece of filmmaking, promoting and associating Kenzo fashion with originality not only in terms of aesthetics, but also a progressive socio-cultural standpoint.

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