Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

When PR Goes Wrong: The MAC-Rodarte Fiasco

DEATH WARMED OVERSo not long ago now, the cosmetics manufacturer M·A·C and fashion label Rodarte teamed up to… no, really. Sell cosmetics, I was going to say. And then I was going to add their own phrase, "inspired by." But then I just had to stop for a second, because it ain't easy to complete this sentence, because what the sisters Mulleavy of Rodarte were allegedly "inspired by" is the border city of Juárez, Mexico. As Style.com's Nicole Phelps explained back in February about the Rodarte Fall/Winter 2010 collection, "[T]hey became interested in the troubled border town of Ciudad Juárez; the hazy, dreamlike quality of the landscape there; and the maquiladora workers going to the factory in the middle of the night." For serious.


The show ended with a quartet of ethereal, unraveling, rather beautiful white dresses that alternately called to mind quinceañera parties, corpse brides, and, if you wanted to look at it through a really dark prism, the ghosts of the victims of Juárez's drug wars.

The names of the M·A·C Rodarte cosmetics that were to go on sale this fall-blush, lip gloss, eyeshadows and nail polish, and so on-included "factory," "Juárez," "Ghost town," "del Norte" and "quinceañera."

Maybe it was overreacting, to be appalled by this news? Maybe the Mulleavys and their colleagues were not really really intending to glamorize the violence and bloodshed and horror of life in that sad and dangerous town. Oh yes, well then, take a gander at the models-and the makeup.


All hell started breaking loose, a lot of bloggers wrote about it and then, around the 16th of June, M·A·C and Rodarte issued these statements! That are crazy!

Just thinking about the number of people who have to have been involved in this product development, who have to have known about it, is disturbing. Did any of them speak up, as this product was being designed, packaged, prepared for market? Did anyone figure out to say, this stuff we are making here, that you put on your FACE, you know, it looks like blood. It suggests carnage, blood, in the desert, blood of abducted, raped, strangled women? Does it suggest that to you, a little bit?

Apparently, no.

M·A·C Cosmetics Statement:

We understand that product names in the M·A·C Rodarte collection have offended some of our consumers and fans. This was never our intent and we are very sorry. We are listening carefully to the comments posted and are grateful to those of you who have brought your concerns to the forefront of our attention. M·A·C will give a portion of the proceeds from the M·A·C Rodarte collection to help those in need in Juarez. We are diligently investigating the best way to do this. Please be assured that we will keep you posted on the details regarding our efforts.

Rodarte Company Statement:

Our makeup collaboration with M·A·C developed from inspirations on a road trip that we took in Texas last year, from El Paso to Marfa. The ethereal nature of this landscape influenced the creative development and desert palette of the collection. We are truly saddened about injustice in Juarez and it is a very important issue to us. The M·A·C collaboration was intended as a celebration of the beauty of the landscape and people in the areas that we traveled.

Okay, yes! Fine. We made our makeup look like blood because it is a celebration of the beauty. So, now that's cleared up, right?

No! OMG, people were still mad!! So on or about July 19th, M·A·C announced that they were going to change the names of this stuff, that you put on your face, and also "donate $100,000 to an organization that helps women in Juarez."

And then everyone calmed down-oh wait! No sorry, still no! Fury still raging unabated for entitled materialist horrorshow! Finally, on Friday, M·A·C issued another a press release explaining that now, all profits from the M·A·C Rodarte collection will go to "a newly created initiative to raise awareness and provide on-the-ground support to the women and girls in Juarez."

Evidently they went clear to Mexico in order to try to recover a shred or two of dignity; even the tone of this press release grows humbler:

…M·A·C and Rodarte are deeply sorry that this makeup collection was so offensive to the people of Mexico and concerned global citizens.

This announcement follows a meeting last evening in Mexico City with M·A·C executives and Mexican government officials, including CONAVIM (Comisión Nacional Para Prevenir y Erradicar la Violencia Contra las Mujeres/National Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence Against Women.)

During the meeting, held at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this collective group committed to working together on the overall direction of the new initiative to help the women and girls of Juarez and to raise global awareness of their plight. M·A·C executives reiterated their deep regret and reinforced that it was never M·A·C's or Rodarte's intent to minimize the suffering of the women and girls of Ciudad Juarez.

So, if the strategy of giving 100% of their profits to charity also fails to repair their shattered image, one is forced to wonder whether M·A·C and Rodarte are planning to step in and do something about Mexican police corruption, next. After that, if necessary, maybe they can turn their attention to the crooked elections, and finally the drug cartels.

The cliché view of fashion insiders as shallow and uninformed remains completely undisturbed by this fiasco. The disconnect between the actual facts on the ground in Juárez and these surreal press releases and the reactions from the fashion press they spawned could not be more eye-crossing.

Nobody at Rodarte seems to have objected to anything about the Style.com review of their show back in February, which directly referenced Juárez; there was no outcry from the fashion press at that time, that I could find. It's only when M·A·C started passing out the press releases to a larger public that a multitude of hackles went up. Indeed, the objections of quite a number of "concerned global citizens" have been met with outright mockery on the New York magazine fashion blog The Cut and elsewhere.

This is a pity. In times past there have been very cultivated, well-informed men and women in charge of the schmattas. I'd go so far as to say that the ideal of the fashion world used to represent a union of taste and intelligence; and really, is is possible to have one without the other? Where is the Cecil Beaton of today? The Christian Dior, the Diana Vreeland?

And is it remotely possible that the Mulleavy sisters were trying to make a Guernica-like statement with their art? It is possible. Except… they've responded to the criticism by backpedaling furiously, which says something about the authenticity or seriousness of the original statement. So maybe it's as simple as it looks: for Rodarte to exploit the catastrophe in Juárez in order to sell dresses and makeup demonstrates the dehumanizing effects of a debased, pathologically materialist society that has evidently gone clean off the rails. It would be easy to make that observation and dismiss the whole affair.

It's worth asking, though: what is really going on when violence and horror are appropriated in order to create a consumer product? Because quite often the makers of newpapers, books and films are involved in creating consumer products based on real horror, just as these raggers tried (and failed) to do.

To take this comparison to an extreme, let's consider the novel 2666, by the late Roberto Bolaño. This book, like the M·A·C Rodarte makeup, is both a comment on the Juárez femicides and a consumer product.

The Part About the Crimes, the fourth section of 2666, is something like a catalogue of the femicides, deliberately dry, without poetry. It's more or less a list of bodies, with details of their height, their hair color, their clothes, written with a police-procedural air. It is punishing to read, the longest part of a long book, written in deliberately ugly, dull prose; this, from a man capable of the utmost inventiveness, wit and penetration. So what's the difference between selling eyeshadow "inspired by" these terrible events, and writing a novel about them?

I submit that the difference is one of vanity. Rodarte was posing alongside the victims of Juárez, in a way, asking you to be shocked and titillated by the real live goth corpses, the disturbing juxtaposition of horror and beauty. But nothing was meant to change in Juárez or anywhere else as the result of this aestheticized rubbernecking. Bolaño, on the other hand, wasn't asking anything at all (aside from asking that you read his book.)

2666 isn't a call to arms. It offers nothing in the way of judgments, let alone solutions. There's no self-aggrandizement, no style; the author of 2666 has erased himself right out of the picture, leaving just a mirror of the human condition for you to look in. This is a matter of telling the truth, a deliberate avoidance of the "sensational." Where Rodarte attemped to steal the terrible emotions evoked by the fact that hundreds, maybe thousands of girls have been abducted, raped and murdered in Juárez, and trivialize (and then, "monetize") those emotions by turning them into eyeshadow, Bolaño asks that you stop being horrified, and just look at the truth; nothing more. What happens afterward is left for us to determine.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

26 Comments / Post A Comment

Clearly you don't know that many people who work in fashion. I don't think I've ever met a more stupid, fluffy, ill-informed and somehow bull-headed class of people in my entire life.

True story: A few years back, Donna Karan got really inspired and wanted to base a collection around this Mexican opera singer/painter she'd just heard of, named Frieda Callas. The few people at the company who were worldly enough to recognize who she was actually talking about tried to correct her on her mistake, but she would hear nothing of it. She would correct them loudly and testily, saying, "no I'm talking about Frieda…Frieda Callas. The opera singer and painter."

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

I am going to be telling this story all month. Thank you.

barnhouse (#1,326)

That is a breathtaking story.

jolie (#16)

Needs more John Murray.

jolie (#16)

Better, thanks.

Jared (#1,227)

"Fashion was never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver, provocation of death through the woman, and bitter colloquy with decay whispered between shrill bursts of mechanical laughter. That is fashion." – Walter Benjamin

KenWheaton (#401)

Ah yes, "Raising Awareness." The first and last refuge of some idiot in serious damage-control. They also "Contributed to the Conversation," I'm sure. And "Furthered a Dialogue."

semiserious (#2,430)

At some point the art world got mildly caught up in celebrating back story, inspiration and other things not really apparent from work over, sometimes, the actual visual impact of the work itself. A little after it seems more of the fashion world started seeing itself at art, and thought "inspiration" was really important, too.

Some fashion designers talk about how they travel the globe for "inspiration," which is probably a nice way of getting to write off trips. Plus tipping off fashion writer hacks on the BS backstory gives them something to actually write about. It's a lot better than saying "well, we kind of just ripped off so-and-so, threw in some desert colors, and called it a collection."

Sometimes, though, it's better to let the work speak for itself and shut up about what inspired it.

katiechasm (#163)

I agree, I hate when you have to read paragraphs upon paragraphs about some artwork just to understand what the artist was trying to get across. Just make it look cool!

sox (#652)

All illicit damages incurred by way of the fashion world aside, "a man capable of the utmost inventiveness, wit and penetration" is just exactly what I am looking for.

Choire, when will you be setting up that Awl rendezvous board to accompany the job postings? Can you stick this up there when you do? Thanks!

sox (#652)

but with proper italics closure, obvs.

Sask Culture (#6,586)

You probably don't want what Bolaño has to offer these days. My guess is that he's smelling pretty bad by now.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

It's a good thing the fashion world is completely irrelevant to all but a very small, navel-gazing section of society.

katiechasm (#163)

And everyone who wears clothes.

Danzig! (#5,318)

Clothes-wearers need the fashion industry like music listeners need major labels.

Leigh Anne Jones (#6,588)

I want to be sympathetic to the Rodarte sisters' intentions, but I find it difficult knowing that they had not originally planned to set aside any profits for any purpose benefiting Juarez. Anyone at Rodarte who wants an example of a respectful way to pay tribute to a murder victim could check out the British firm Illamasqua, which sells a black eyeliner pencil called SOPHIE in honor of a goth girl who was beaten to death by strangers who didn't like the way she looked. Illamasqua donates part of the profits from the sale of this product to the foundation that honors this girl, whose name was Sophie Lancaster.

Aatom (#74)

This does not bode well for the upcoming Chloe collection based on the Gulf oil spill. It is, after all, the new black. Sorry.

barnhouse (#1,326)


the Loud Coast (#1,362)

I was walking in downtown San Francisco late at night and saw a large ad in a department store window for fragrance called "Opium" featuring an extremely glamorous, high-fashiony looking opium den, while immediately outside the window were actual heroin addicts. The disconnect between the fashion mindset and the real world was made abruptly clear.

blily (#1,411)

I usually "get" this kind of thing right away, but not in this case. I mean, it's not like they did a "Bhopal" or "Chernobyl" collection. Juarez has long been a pretty well-known border town, and the recent spate of murders, while tragic, do not define it. I struggled particularly to understand the outrage over the names of the cosmetics, which, as quoted, are totally standard aspects of Mexican culture. "15th birthday party" and "factory employee" aren't particularly insensitive to the victims of crimes — it's not like they did a "bloodstain" lipstick or "bruise" eyeshadow or "rape" perfume. I think the Rodarte designers were honestly taken with the look and feel of the place, and unaware that for some people it's synonymous with horrible crimes — because for them it wasn't. I don't think their failure to anticipate that reaction was especially insensitive.

Bettytron (#575)

There is a 17 year history of violence and murder of women, primarily factory workers. It is not an isolated incident. It is a huge, scary issue, and yeah, one that comes to mind when you put "women" and "Juarez" and "factory". It is absolutely insensitive. Check out the coverage of Juarez on this very site for more.

vespavirgin (#1,422)

The lost 6th book of 2666: The Part About the Fashionistas.

gregorg (#30)

Sorry, but "a road trip… from El Paso to Marfa" is better known as "driving 3 hours from the airport to Marfa." I'm guessing after they got there, they found out everything had already been knocked off by other designers.

iantenna (#5,160)

1998, freshman year, i was in love with a mulleavy sister. she was really quite insufferable but she dressed nice and we had overlapping record collections.

Thank you for writing about this. The MAC facebook page keeps erasing my comments about it.

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