GooGooSha’s Fashion Disaster

by Joshua Foust on 9/9/2011 · 11 comments

The dischordant moralism of indulging wealthy tyrant’s daughters continues to roil the culture industry. Recall if you will the freakout over Sting performing in Kazakhstan earlier this year. It was slightly misplaced outrage, to say the least. Now, the long-scheduled appearance of Gulnara Karimova, Uzbekistan’s tyrant’s daughter, at New York’s Fashion Week, is spawning similar outrage. A sample, from the New York Post:

Daughter of murderous dictator to unveil spring line at Fashion Week

So long, torture victims. Hello, fashion victims!

The pampered daughter of the murderous dictator of Uzbekistan — a reviled tyrant who once boiled a political foe alive and has killed, tortured and enslaved thousands of his countrymen — will unveil her new line of spring creations during Fashion Week at Lincoln Center.

You can probably guess how it ends. Human Rights Watch has gotten in on the action. “There’s nothing fashionable about lending a high-profile platform to the senior official of one of the world’s most repressive governments,” Steve Swerdlow, HRW’s Uzbekistan researcher is quoted as saying.

Well, that’s true, but let’s be real for a moment: GooGooSha, as she’s known, showed designs at Fashion Week last year — right before the annual conscription of children into Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, no less! There was hardly the preening outrage over her appearance then. And while Mercedes-Benz certainly deserves jeers for not mentioning her descent from Uzbekistan’s dictator in their bio, Karimova’s appearance is no last-minute surprise.

So, when fashionistas suddenly band together to exclude GooGooSha from her runway show next week, it’s not out of line to ask: why now? What makes this week, right when all the preparations, travel, and arrangements have already been made and it’s far too late to undo any damage or expenses in setting up the show, so special? Each of the people opposing GooGooSha’s fashion show, including promoters IMG, had the opportunity to oppose it last year. It is only when the press shine a light on what a monster she is that people place their hands over the mouths and express their morals.

There is a serious debate to be had about the nature of the West’s relationship with Uzbekistan, which has been somewhat fraught, rightly, since the moment the collaboration began in earnest in 2000 or so. While the human rights industry gets angry at the relative silence from official circles in DC about Uzbekistan’s human rights record, it’s not as simple as a Senator or even organizer saying “I disapprove of your human rights record.”

There is history and context to publicly shaming these governments, even blowback (as when the U.S. lost access to the Uzbek government in 2005, undermining the very human rights activism it hoped to advance). The is an ebb and flow to U.S.-Uzbek relations, starting very warmly in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, but cooling during the earliest stages of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. They warmed quickly, helped along by generous U.S. rents for the Kharshi Khanabad airbase south of Tashkent, then cooled again during the “colored revolutions” the U.S. helped to spawn in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. In 2005, the Andijan massacre caused a sharp break, and ever since there has been a slow, steady warming again. This is complicated stuff, and much as we can and do express concern for the rights of normal Uzbeks, the sad, cynical fact of the matter is, the U.S. has bigger concerns to worry about.

It’s no secret Uzbekistan abuses its citizens. What is a secret is why people only get outraged when shown publicly to associate with Uzbek abusers. The latest flap over GooGooSha’s fashion adventures is surprising only to people who’ve never bothered to learn about it. It should be a non-story, the subject of mild tut-tutting from foreign correspondents at the silly gushing that passes for fashion “journalism.” But it’s not. Whether Mercedes-Benz craves will determine how this story pans out, and whether Gulnara Karimova is sent home to her lavish embassy-palace in Madrid, where she serves as ambassador.

Update: After refusing to stay out of her runway show, IMG has decided to cancel it. So that’s that.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Bakinets September 9, 2011 at 12:55 pm

The reason it is different this time is that some effort has been made to explain to fashionistas what Gulnora is about. Indeed they had never bothered to learn about it in the past. But now this community — which may not be very interested in politics but clearly has liberal instincts — does know about it, and they don’t like it very much. I don’t see why the lifting of scales from the eyes of the fashion world, one this one issue, is something to be so dismissive of.

AJK September 9, 2011 at 3:16 pm

I have to agree with this to an extent. There’s no reason to hold 2011 responsible for 2010’s mistakes. Awareness is slow, and structural change is even slower. At least now, when Islam Karimov dies eventually and Gulnara makes a run for power, there’s a chance people will remember her as some sort of Frankenstein’s Imelda Marcos/Eva Peron monstrosity.

Nathan September 9, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Nitpick: We didn’t pay for K2. This turned into an issue 2004 or so on as the Uzbeks complained that we seemed ungrateful and unfair in criticizing them so heavily compared to our treatment of Kyrgyzstan, who was charging us rent for Manas.

Metin September 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm

This is not something to be pleased about. HRW should be ashamed for actually campaigning against Uzbek art and fashion instead of serving the noble cause of protecting human rights. This is very short-sighted, populist and ineffective.

Turgai Sangar September 19, 2011 at 5:07 am

‘Uzbek art’… What Uzbekistan are you talking about then? The real Uzbekistan? Or the of the degenerate золотая молодёжь and the more imbecile segment of the expatriates in Tashkent?

A Fashionista September 10, 2011 at 1:45 pm

A couple of things.
First, HRW was savvy. Media attention is tuned in to Fashion Week, they smartly used this platform to open the eyes of many (not just fashionistas) whose concerns rarely focus beyond hemlines. Proof? Even you felt you had to run something. Good for them.
Second, No flap was raised last year, mostly because IMG is only interested in showcasing interesting work and also making money. While her work is rather derivative and uneven, it fit a certain bill looking for fashions from international designers.
Third, Staging a show at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week is very, very expensive. Start at 50k and work up from there. I suppose papa’s money paid for this. How long HRW is going to chase this down remains to be seen. But it does then beg the question: What’s the daughter of a despot to do?

Bakinets September 10, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Just want to point out it was not just HRW — actual Uzbeks resident in the US were protesting at Fashion Week and handing out flyers, and had made clear that they would continue to do so daily until Gulnara’s show. I have heard that IMG sent someone out to tell them they would be arrested — the NYPD showed up, confirmed their permit to protest and that they had every right to be there.
Her show getting cancelled is of course meaningless in the grand scheme, but imagine the mental and emotional shock for poor Gulnara! She clearly did not have a clue that something like this could happen. I have no idea how this will effect her behavior; her father’s view of her ability to succeed him; and the views of others in the Uzbek elite; but it will not be without impact. Again calling into question the point of the initial piece — this was indeed a consequential event, in the end.

arthwollipot September 11, 2011 at 8:57 pm

If nothing was done about this last year, then surely it is a good thing that something has been done now? Isn’t that an improvement? I would be applauding fashionistas for acting now, rather than chastising them for not acting last year.

Michael Hancock September 12, 2011 at 11:24 pm

I’m not sure that Joshua is merely chastising the fashionistas. The element of this post that is most important is the question: What is different now? Why hasn’t this been an issue in the past? Something has changed – and it isn’t the improvement of network television news or the expansion of the human sense of decency and justice.

Also – whatever happened to that warrant for Gulnora’s arrest? I thought there was a sentencing after she absconded with her children (10 or so years ago) after her marriage ended in divorce. Was there a settlement? What’s the statute of limitations on kidnapping? Or does diplomatic immunity cover that?

Shannon September 12, 2011 at 2:03 pm

I agree with comments about the tone of this posting. I was happy to hear the show was cancelled, and also agree that HRW played this one very well. Thanks for the info Bakinets.

AS September 17, 2011 at 7:08 pm

I think the reason is pretty obvious…most people don’t care what is happening halfway around the world in some place they never heard of until it shows up in New York with gucci sunglasses (and then the outrage, the outrage!)

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