Q&A with Justina Mutale founder of Positive Runway, organisers of the LGBTQ+ Pride Fashion Week
By Amelia Curwen
Society is increasingly commercially braver, which is largely thanks to the LGBTQ+ community, and has been assisted by individuals within the fashion industry that have taken risks with their art and taken advantage of their notoriety. Whether in the luxury market or on the high street, queer influenced commerce and art demand more than just a promotion, campaign or a season worth of spotlight, they deserve a standard of inclusion and fair distribution of proceeds; a seat at the table and a piece of the pie.
Whilst the fashion industry is overwhelmingly made up of people who either assign as queer or support the rights of LGBTQ+ people, the shackles of a less diverse past, can call into question its claim to be devoid of appropriation entirely; which is why organisations that are offering a fashion platform undeniably steeped in holistic LGBTQ+ culture are rightfully staking their claim.
POSITIVE RUNWAY is one such organisation that produces a fashion-centric all inclusive, diverse, LGBTQ+ Pride Fashion Week show that tours the world working with beauty queens, models, fashion designers, music artists and celebrities from film, music, television, sport and other arts as influential advocates in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS. This community development initiative aims to bridge the gap in the global efforts to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS by speaking the same language as the young generation in order to get the message across. POSITIVE RUNWAY has representation in over 35 countries in 5 continents spread across the globe and this year on July 1st Pride Fashion Week made its London debut, hosted by Underbelly Festival at the Southbank.
Justina Mutale is founder of Positive Runway and the Justina Mutale Foundation, an organization dedicated to educating and empowering black African women; an Honorary Ambassador for Gender Equality and spokesperson for the International Women’s Think Tank; and in 2012 was bestowed with the honour of ‘African woman of the year’. I had the immense pleasure to be able to ask Mutale some questions about the complex intersection of appreciation and appropriation of fashion and LGBTQ+ culture and the importance of organisations like Positive Runway as a stage for undisputed inclusivity.
How far do you think fashion is an appropriator or an appreciator of LGBTQ+ culture?
A lot of trends seen on the runway are heavily influenced by queer sub-cultures, or queer icons breaking boundaries from past, present & future.
From the bisexual trouser wearing boldness, of the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Ma Rainey, to the explosion of disco nightlife, the rise and exposure of kink, and of course the ballroom scene of the 1980s, LGBT history has provided many visual stories of identity expression.
A lot of highly celebrated fashion designers are in fact from the LGBT community, so you could argue fashion provides a platform of appreciation on a ground level.
However, a quick google of the most celebrated queer designers will often bring up lists of mostly white gay men, such as Alexander McQueen, Gianni Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, and Valentino.
When you look at that issue, where only certain identities are influencing decisions on what aspects of a community makes it onto the runway, and in what context, that is where the appropriation and appreciation line becomes complex. And that's only looking at the direct influence of gay designers, when looking at heterosexual designers that's a whole other discussion.
Has fashion played a role in appropriating Ballroom culture?
I think that depends on who you are asking, on the one hand, the mainstreaming of drag via RuPaul's Drag Race means new demographics are consuming LGBT culture, particularly in a way they never did before.
When certain aspects of a culture become a commodity, people not always within that family want to profit from it. This then harms many aspects of that culture, were suddenly those without full knowledge or experience want more, and not always with good intentions and nuance.
On the other hand, ball culture has had a massive resurgence, if you know where to look there are balls happening in London and around the world regularly, and the embrace of the TV show Pose shows a reinvigorated interest in ball culture like never before.
Over in America, The Met recently held a vogue battle featuring Anna Wintour as a judge, as well as icons and current legends from the world of ballroom. Met with celebration and criticism, again the lines between appropriation and appreciation depends on who is involved behind the scenes, as well as the faces promoting these events and their aims.
Could Pride Fashions develop into a permanent, week-long fixture in the global fashion calendar to specifically showcase designers from the LGBTQ+ community?
That is the dream! If we felt our styles and goals were being catered for in the current fashion scene, then there would be no need for us to launch, but the response from the designers and models who poured into our casting suggests otherwise.
We're also so proud that Pride Fashion Week provides a platform to celebrate the work of Positive Runway - our global catwalk dedicated to stopping the spread of HIV/AIDs.
Beyond just being a show with a runway, we also provide much needed sexual health awareness, fundraising, and discussion surrounding HIV/AIDs awareness with our guest speakers and activists.
Our performances from The Cocoa Butter Club also adds to our ethos of celebrating the minorities, and providing othered bodies the autonomy and creative control of their own narrative.
As you can with our many ways of informing, inspiring and igniting discussion, awareness and celebration, whilst we are excited for our launch day, there is so much more room for fashion and sexual awareness to be explored.
Further details of the event:
- Proceeds from the event will be donated to support the education of young women and boys in Africa, who are orphaned by HIV/AIDs
- As mentioned in the press release we're extremely excited to have the 'Angelic Troublemaker' Bisi Alimi walking the runway, he is an incredibly important gay activist from Nigeria with much of his story detailed in this piece by PinkNews
- There will also be a guest speaker appearance from, Elaine Cunnea, Head of Counselling at NAZ Project London- a charity "delivering culturally-specific sexual health services to those historically left behind".
- Unlike many events which claim to be LGBTQ+ inclusive, but seem to only cater towards the L & G in the community, our lineup includes models across the spectrum. We also had a clause that of all the designers taking place all body types must be catered for.
- Performers of colour showcase The Cocoa Butter Club will also be providing some exciting performances
- While London Queer Fashion Week does exist, this takes, place during London Fashion Week, whereas Pride Fashion Week positions itself as something that can be enjoyed amongst the official Pride In London.