There was a standing ovation at the close of Valentino SS16. My fashion-editor head completely understood the reaction: Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri’s show was exquisite. The pair had embarked on a journey to “wild, tribal Africa” and the collection featured fragile Masai-style beadwork, embroidery, leatherwork, batik-printed parkas, feathery adornment, Zulu mask embellishments, and primitive, white terracotta chokers created with the jeweller Alessandro Gaggio.
The 89 looks were a triumph of craftsmanship and elegance, the gowns inarguably beautiful. “Now, they’re just showing off,” announced one editor as yet another immaculate tunic — this one stitched with a river of tiny silver ingots with a multi-split panel skirt — glided past. As a celebration of savoir faire it was unsurpassed.
My ethical self, though, felt less easy. The sight of so many white-skinned girls, their flaxen hair all twisted into cornrows, walking to the beat of the jungle drum seemed less OK. But why?
The designers described Africa’s “imperfect purity” as an essential feature of 20th-century avant-gardism, and said that they had “nourished this same energy” here. Moreover, cultural appropriation is nothing new. In 1967, in Yves Saint Laurent’s “African” collection, the designer wove raffia skirts and conical bras inspired by the Bambara people of Mali to create his haute couture show. It made a star of Saint Laurent. In Alexander McQueen’s 2000 “Eshu” collection, models wore great stacks of neck rings and hairy, scary Yoruba masks. It starred the Sudanese model Alek Wek. In Jean Paul Gaultier’s “African” couture show in 2005, models were dressed in enormous afros.
One could argue that fashion is a crucible of global influences and that designers should draw from wherever they wish. Would I flinch at an “Irish” collection of Donegal tweeds, Aran knits, Catholic crucifixes and tam-o’-shanters? Or what about those “oriental” shows in which models are cloaked in kimono silks and wear chopsticks in their hair? The catwalk is morally fraught enough before race and religion are added in and this, after all, is an industry that has seen shows about such subjects as “Chic Rabbis” (Jean Paul Gaultier, 1993) and homelessness (John Galliano for Dior couture, 2000), and applauded them all. The line between meaningful appropriation and commercial exploitation is incredibly hard to define.
And so I clapped along and decided to see the show as a lot of very pretty dresses with a rich cultural history. One buyer described the collection as seeing “money before my eyes”. It will sell by the lorry load.
For more reports from the shows, go to our fashion weeks page on FT.com