Designer Sparks Racial Controversy in Brazil With Afro Wigs

PHOTO: A model wearing a steel wig that is supposed to represent Afro hair, walks the runway during Ronaldo Fraga´s show as part of Sao Paulo Fashion Week on March 19, 2013 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Pedro Agoas/LatinContent/Getty Images

Activists in Brazil have accused the celebrated stylist and fashion designer Ronaldo Fraga of perpetuating negative racial stereotypes during Sao Paulo's Fashion Week.

Along with makeup artist Marcos Costa, Fraga chose to complement a series of designs inspired by soccer in the 1930s by placing elaborate steel wigs that were meant to represent Afro hair on the heads of mostly white models.

The wigs, social activists argue, were a disrespectful and ill-advised addition, which could be associated with "Bombril hair." The term is a common racial insult that alludes to a brand of steel wool sold in Latin America.

"This practice does not help to raise [racial] awareness in the Brazilian population because it uses a negative stereotype," Jacira Silva, an official from the Office of Special Promotion of Racial Equality of the Federal District, said in reference to the steel hairpieces.

"This Ronaldo Fraga is brilliant," one Twitter user ironically remarked. "He thought about steel hair on a white woman to honor black people? I would have simply called black [models]."

Marcos Costa, Fraga's partner in the show, dismissed the criticisms, arguing that they had come up with the metallic wigs as way to pay homage to the black soccer players of the 1930s.

"The idea for the look of the show was to highlight the beauty of the kind of hair that can be molded like sculptures, no matter whether they are curly or not," Costa wrote in a statement that he posted on Facebook. "It was also a way of subverting a prejudice rooted in Brazilian culture. Why do black people have to smooth their strands? They are beautiful [as they are]."

Fraga, meanwhile, carefully rejected the public's reactions. The days following the scandal he said he was surprised by the way people had attacked him, and on Thursday he staged the fashion show once again for the students of the Centro Educacional Unificado, a local trade school.

Fraga kept the steel wigs on his models heads and said that he was surprised that his show had sparked such criticism.

"When I woke up and I saw this accusation of racism, I thought, 'People, what happened, what world is this?'" Fraga said at the end of that show.

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