January 19, 2006

Politically incorrect fashion I: Race

No, I don't mean a t-shirt with a Fred Reed slogan on it.

Having caught last night's Project Runway 2, the fashion designer competition show, allow me to admit one of my guilty TV pleasures: the couture-based reality shows. I never miss Isaac Mizrahi's talk show; I less frequently tune in to What Not to Wear; I'll watch a few minutes of How Do I Look? just to catch half-Italian host Finola Hughes; but I haven't bothered with Queer Eye for about a year. And for the curious: I happen to be one of the few straight guys who are interested in such things. What really strikes me as I watch these shows, PR in particular, is that, for all its cosmopolitanism and obsession with female beauty, the fashion world is largely ruled by gay men of European extraction. Let me clarify: I refer only to the visual design aspect -- not, e.g., the journalistic work that goes into promoting or criticizing a designer's work. In an intellectual climate dominated by "kill the Canon" fashion statements, the world of couture shows clearly just how much European -- and Asian -- males rock! Part I will consider race, part II sex, and part III sexual orientation. Full disclosure: straight, male, 3/4 northern European & 1/4 Japanese.

I don't have access to the ethnic background of all the members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, but a quick check of global designers hot enough to be featured on Vogue's website shows that there are few if any of sub-Saharan African origin. Indeed, on both seasons 1 and 2 of PR only 1 of 12 and 1 of 16 designers, respectively, have been black, although season 1's Kara Saun (straight, black, female) deservedly went to the finals and only slightly lost to Jay McCarroll (gay, white, male), indicating that as everywhere, overlapping bell curves don't imply zero members of the lower-average group succeeding -- just that the ratio of higher-average members to lower-average members will increase the further one goes out into the tail. Make no mistake: IQ, or at least the visuospatial subcomponent of it, matters a lot here. You try creating a mental image of a garment that fits and flatters the human form, while adhering to some coherent concept, mentally rotating that 3-D image to see what it would look like from various angles and during movement, reasoning hypothetically about which additions or subtractions would have which effects, and then keeping track of all these things while executing your wearable sculpture!

Predictably, many of the Big Names belong to those of European extraction. However, the pattern is more subtle than that. There are very few Eastern or Central European designers, even though these areas have given us many great works of literature and music. Also fairly absent are the Scandinavians (although they have produced many great furniture designers), as well as the English -- the UK's three Big Names are ethnically Turkish Cypriot (Hussein Chalayan), Irish (Alexander McQueen), and English (Neil Barrett, though he's from Devon, a county next to Celtic Cornwall). Most of the avant-garde types are from Belgium (the "Antwerp Six"), France (Jean-Paul Gautier), or Austria & Germany (Helmut Lang, Karl Lagerfeld). France and Italy vie for status as fashion center of the world, with the French tending more toward the notion of nonchalant "chic" (the original Christian Dior and Yves Saint-Laurent), and the Italians more toward a sensually imposing presence (the original Gianni Versace). And while there aren't many Big Names from Spain, superstar designer John Galliano (who currently designs Christian Dior) is half-Spanish from Gibraltar; and a number of mostly-white Hispanics are included among the Canon, such as Oscar de la Renta and Narciso Rodriguez. The Iberians also tend to emphasize sensuality like the Italians. America's most important designer is Tom Ford, a non-Hispanic white whose exact origin I'm unable to locate, and who until recently designed the collections for both Gucci and YSL. Now, how much of this variation within the intracontinental European racial group is due to genetic differences, I couldn't say -- culture could matter for sure, but it's striking that the centers of fashion design in Europe also largely overlap with the historical and current centers of the visual arts, architecture, and furniture design, so the cultural feedback loop (or whatever mechanism is proposed) would have to operate at a much higher level than simply fashion design.

However, far from being a white boys network, the fashion design world boasts many East Asian designers, especially among the more avant-garde. While the West spiraled further downward into the sartorial quagmire that was the 1980s, three Japanese designers -- who had been working since the 1970s -- offered an intellectual, minimal, and monochromatic alternative, which by the end of the decade became the life-preserver to which the moribund Western fashion world clung to pull themselves out of the zaniness of the '80s and into the sleekness of the '90s. Those three -- whose approach was dubbed "Hiroshima Chic" -- were Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake. Hanae Mori also proved influential. Among more recent designers, Asian-Americans Peter Som, Anna Sui, and Vera Wang deserve mention. And on the current season of PR, 3 of 16 are Asian-American (Guadalupe, Chloe, and Diana). So, contra Richard Nisbett, far from reflecting their mastery of ideographic scripts, their excellent visuospatial skills appear to have a substantial genetic component. Indeed, the higher average IQ that East Asians enjoy largely derives from having much higher visuospatial skills (despite not-too-hot verbal skills), a pattern evident among Korean adoptees in Belgium as well (Ctrl F "belgium-koreans"; 2nd item), who certainly don't read ideographs or follow an Asian diet.

Still, one generally brainy, high-achieving ethnic group is curiously... well, not absent, but represented merely on the same order as they are in the general population -- Ashkenazi Jews. (Blacks, by contrast, are underrepresented.) The ethnic group with the highest average IQ (about 115), they also show lopsidedness like Asians but in another direction: higher verbal & quantitative skills, but middling or slightly below-average visuospatial skills. Gregory Cochran, Henry Harpending, and Jason Hardy theorize that this reflects a selection for such skills in the social niche that the Ashkenazim occupied during roughly 900 AD to 1750 AD, namely as money-lenders, estate farmers, etc. And sure enough, "Jewish fashion designer" doesn't just sound odd. While Ashkenazi Jews comprise only about 2% of the US population, they account for about 28% of our Nobel Prize-winning scientists. But the only Ashkenazi Jewish name among the Canon of couture is Calvin Klein (maybe Donna Karan). While Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, and Michael Kors (half) may go down in the annals as well, they won't do so in such percentages as Nobel winners. Two other highly regarded Jewish designers are Diane von Furstenburg and Isaac Mizrahi, host of Isaac. However, as the latter's surname indicates, he is not Ashkenazi but Syrian; and though I cannot find data on von Furstenburg, she is half-Greek, suggesting her Jewish parent may be Sephardic as well. Just as we may not soon see a Japanese Woody Allen, we may have to wait some time for an Ashkenazi Yohji Yamamoto.

As a concluding sidenote, the design world more impressively showcases the talents of East Asians than the world of science or fine arts. With such great visuospatial skills, they might be expected to have discovered geometry, or to have dominated much of the history of painting and sculpture. Yet, as Charles Murray points out in his Human Accomplishment, Asians aren't so overrepresented among Big Names in the sciences and arts. In fact, he says he began the project hoping to unearth their underestimated accomplishments. As it turned out, though, those darned Europeans have had far greater influence. What Murray missed as an academic, though, was the practical, profitable world of design, where IQ still matters: fashion design, graphic design, architecture / interior design, furniture design, and so on. In fairness, Murray stopped investigating once he hit 1950, so his surprise at the lack of Asian Big Names might have changed had he looked up to the present -- not just in the design world, but also in the sub-area of the fine arts world which is arguably the most practical and profitable: film. East Asian directors, directors of photography, and cinematographers could give Franco-Germans and Mediterraneans a run for their money any day when it comes to the purely visual and spatial aspect of artistic filmmaking. This is again probably due to the visuospatial flavor of g, since we note a relative dearth of visually artsy Ashkenazi or black filmmakers, both of whom tend to focus more on the verbal aspect of storytelling.

Take-home message: IQ matters just about everywhere; and when investigating IQ, it's important not to leave any area unmined of data.


  1. Along somewhat similar lines, take a look at Oscar nominees for Best Cinematography over the decades:


    As far as I can tell, they are all men, although that's partly to do with how heavy cameras and lights are. It's hard to get a job as an assistant if you can't lug heavy equipment, so women have a hard time getting started in the field.

    A very high proportion of European born cinematographers to American born ones -- film is the universal language and all that. My impression is that there are a lot fewer Jews in the cinematographer ranks in, say, the screenwriting ranks. This might have something to do with verbal vs. visual orientation.

  2. I know this post is a little old, but don't forget about Jimmy Choo.


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