The Hot as Hell aesthetic is unapologetic. Launched in 2015 by former Victoria’s Secret, Armani Exchange, and Guess designer Sharleen Ernster, the brand hawks string bikinis, a ton of lacy numbers, and other sexy pieces that come sustainably made and without padding. But for its runway presentation, held Friday night during Miami Swim Week, an apology is in order.
The fashion industry has a long history of screwing it up when it comes to non-European or American cultures. In 2015, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City hosted its annual Met Gala themed around its exhibit “China: Through The Looking Glass,” actress Emma Roberts landed herself in hot water. For her ode to the long, varied history of China’s aesthetic, she wore chopsticks in her hair. It was problematic, to say the least.
Roberts felt the backlash on Twitter before she made it onto the red carpet and removed the chopsticks from her hair. But Ernster and Hot as Hell were not as fortunate. As the models filed down the runway, girl after girl wore a pair of sticks stuck through her bun. And though in Asian cultures there are instances of sticks worn in the hair, those are dedicated hair sticks, not chopsticks. Chopsticks are eating utensils. Remember when Ariel from The Little Mermaid found the “dinglehopper” and twirled her hair up, showing her ignorance of the human world? Remember when everyone looked at her, shocked, when she began to comb her hair with said dinglehopper at the table, not realizing it was a fork for eating? That was practically the scene at the W Hotel during this runway show.
But it wasn’t just the chopsticks. Chinese characters came painted on a few of the looks, chopsticks were included in the audience's gift bags, and customized fortune cookies were placed on seats. It all rang about as authentic to Eastern Asia as General Tso’s chicken. Plus, there didn’t appear to be any models who appeared to be of Eastern Asian descent.
Designer Sharleen Ernster on the Swim Week runway.
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Hot-As-Hell
That last fact might be the saddest of all, considering the show casting’s otherwise applaudable diversity. Hot as Hell debuted maternity wear and children’s wear this season, and cast pregnant women, tots, and women far beyond the age of most of Swim Week’s models. The range of skin tones was encouraging as well. But to leave out the people from whom you seem to source your inspiration is a reprehensible gaffe. We have a name for that: cultural appropriation.
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The show was a big point for Ernster. It was only the brand’s second presentation, and the first in which it showed off its newly expanded range: swimwear, lingerie, bridal, children’s wear, and maternity. That’s a lot of categories in only a short period of time. And it wasn't all culturally inappropriate. The show featured high-waisted bottoms, a definite high point and no doubt a must-have for Miami party girls. And the custom Adidas bombers punched up the range with a bit of something extra. Still, it was difficult to get over the insensitive reliance on Chinese stereotypes.
Oddly, the show’s news release doesn’t even mention the words "Asia" or "China," only referring to “oriental prints.” That doesn’t absolve Ernster from fault, though. One hopes this is the first and last time this young brand makes this mistake.