At 20, I was wedged in an awkward state after moving from South Korea to California. I was wiggling in a cocoon, emerging to form a stance, trying to stick up for all the things that I could never stand up for while I was growing up. I was also at an especially impressionable stage, more so than my teen years had ever been.
Somewhere along the transition, I stumbled onto a Los Angeles based brand Wildfox Couture, known for its California Dreaming aesthetics. Their campaigns were inundated with gorgeous young blonde women enjoying the beach, riding in convertibles, and partying in a glorious abundance of pastel pink. And even though their style was radically different from my goal of generally looking like a grim reaper, I was eager to find something new to identify with, to join their enviable lifestyle.
Through various social media outlets, Wildfox continuously let us in on their fun-loving, tight-knit young LA crowd. Half of Wildfox, cofounder Kimberly Gordon, had quit her day job and started the brand with her childhood best friend. Kim, who continuously identified herself as a feminist, spoke out on her blogs about the fashion industry’s impossible ideals that hurt young women, garnering support from women who related to her “believe in your dreams” mantra. The celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Katy Perry also responded to Wildfox’s soft sweatshirts, one of which claimed, “Shopping is my cardio.” Another claimed, “Swim all day, dance all night, fall in love, pizza.”
I, too, followed Wildfox for years, enamored by the carefree, romantic life that the brand projected. But whenever I obsessively scrolled through their tumblr, the phrases on Wildfox’s t-shirts often confused me. The shirts claimed, “How bad can a good girl get?” “Ask me, I might.” “My boyfriend’s a prince.” On a recent instagram post, Kim called her own t-shirt “slutty.”
I tried to push away the gnawing feelings. Even though Wildfox’s designs were not my cup of tea(and that language, because there’s no such thing as a slut), I must clarify that I am all for women choosing to be whomever they feel comfortable being. I am the first defender when people choose to bring down certain females in the media for portraying a “female archetype,” because I think everyone has the right to be who they are, and it is having a choice that matters.
In my opinion, however, the image Wildfox portrayed was that of girls getting what they want through their pretty faces, pretty bodies, waiting for the boys to call, lusting after being the objects of male gaze. The “Wildfox girl” seemed to be in a state of perpetual childhood, being called “girls” even in their thirties, twirling their hairs and biting their lips in the pictures, waiting for their princes to come. And though I was proud and impressed by the brand’s dedication to ethical and local production of clothes, I felt conflicted because I felt as if pushing an image of a brand that denotes feminism and female power came with a responsibility to upheld such image with care, honesty, and research.
Of course, I am willing to be corrected. I am cautious to call people out for not being feminist enough in my book, because it furthers the policing for women who already face so much scrutiny in their daily lives. And we are not going to satisfy every one and their mother’s definition of feminism. But my confusion with Wildfox only intensified when Kim posted numerous pictures taken by Terry Richardson on her blog, and I asked her via Tumblr what her opinion on him was.
Richardson is known for his overly exposed photographs portraying women in a degrading manner, to put it lightly. It is known that the model Charlotte Free, famous for her pink mane, has worked both for Richardson and Wildfox. Free, who closely communicates with Wildfox through social media, has previously said in an interview blaming the victims of Richardson, calling them “stupid bitch.” Free, just like Wildfox, has been vocal about feminism. Mark Hunter of Cobra Snake, who has shot Wildfox’s campaigns and is close to the brand, has also posed with Terry Richardson, imitating his infamous thumbs-up.
Kim responded to my question on Richardson, saying, “I don’t judge professionals.” I can certainly see how people can separate the art from the artist, even though I rarely can. But her response left a bitter feeling in my stomach, as she herself had previously spoken about her friends being in the model industry and the harsh environment that cripple them. The models like Charlotte Free or brands that absolve Terry Richardson continue to ignore the issues of women in the industry while profiting from their work. And this is a tradition that has been going on for too many years, for too long. I submitted another ask in her inbox, asking her to clarify. Kim took her initial response down from the blog immediately and did not respond further.
The biggest incident that sealed my conflict with Wildfox took place in 2013. In August, Wildfox’s CEO Jimmy Sommers faced sexual assault charges on the grounds that he had repeatedly molested a young girl aspiring to be a model in LA. The alleged victim, Meghan Chereek, was only 17 years old at the time of the alleged molestation, and he 43. Chereek claimed that Sommers promised her modeling work for Wildfox in exchange for sexual favors, telling her, “Nothing is free.”
When this article was revealed on Jezebel, Sommers’s spokesperson responded to say, “She was a Sunset Boulevard stripper… so we won’t dignify her with more responses,” claiming that she had said she was 19 at the time. Since then, Wildfox has never made a statement about it, and Jimmy Sommers still remains, to this day, a CEO of Wildfox.
Can a brand that markets so closely to young women(and now even children), saying, “Don’t you know, Wildfox is you” be so mum about an issue that has plagued women in fashion industry for ages? On Kim’s tumblr, hundreds of messages from young women gush to her that her brand is their “biggest inspiration,” some even claiming that they aspire to move to Los Angeles and model for them.
But Wildfox, or even Charlotte Free, is certainly not alone in this ignorance. It is no secret that women’s magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar continue to employ Richardson, issue after issue, refusing to comment on various petition to ban him from the industry. Celebrities like Beyoncé, who identify themselves as a feminist, continue to take pictures with Richardson. Lana del Rey and Shailene Woodley, who often market towards young women encouraging female power, are quick to say, “I’m not a feminist,” citing reasons that show that they do not have a clear idea on what feminism means. Lena Dunham, who has identified herself openly as feminist, also faced controversy after her photo shoot with Terry Richardson, forcing her to apologize. Lady Gaga, who has sung about strong women, recently worked with R. Kelly, who had been arrested in a child pornography case and a series of alleged sex crimes. Should we all pretend that these famous people didn’t know any better? That they could all pretend like it’s nothing until it is someone they know?
Underneath the ritzy and exclusive facade of celebrity and fashion, Richardson and Sommers’s cases seem to have died down. Nobody from Harper’s Bazaar, or Vogue, who previously worked with Richardson, has commented on the allegations. Neither has Wildfox. This is not unlike the controversies in Hollywood surrounding big-time directors Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Allen and Polanski are continuously protected by their celebrity peers, some of whom even filed petition on Polanski’s behalf to bring him back to the States because “he is a great director.” Polanski was convicted of drugging and sodomizing a 14 year old girl, but the celebrities we idealize have no problem pretending like this is the norm.
In a world where speaking out about such incidents are frowned upon and grant you the nickname of a “hater,” I can’t help but wonder: can people continue to profit exclusively from women and yet not take a strong stance on feminism? Feminism, after all, is a “radical” idea that women are human beings. And even if a brand or a celebrity takes a strong stance on feminism, which I definitely commend them for, how much should we be willing to believe about them as they continue to turn a blind eye on issues in the industry, and refuse to educate themselves? In the end, we have no way of knowing how much of them are truly inspirational behind the scenes. Love yourself, female power, they claim, pulling a thick curtain between us and them.