The Mulleavys, to be clear, are very good at what they do, and yet they still stumbled. This is only a matter of my humble opinion, but I think it’s fashion that’s the problem here. For one thing, fashion is obsessed with iconography. And the fact is, iconography cuts awfully close to stereotype, most of the time. An icon is a distillation; it preserves only the essentials of someone or something, and cuts out all the mess. But the mess is the part, say, where the outfit the “chola” is wearing doesn’t define her. Her defiance and confidence are not the only things she feels about wearing that outfit on the street. The mess is the part where she’s a full human being, not a stereotype to be manipulated and wielded as a way to sell clothing.
And as another matter, there’s just something about the nature of clothing, I think, that is always going to leave it open to this kind of criticism. Clothing is, by its nature, an ephemeral statement: put it on, take it off, there’s something inherently flippant about it. You can’t make a lasting statement about the long history of a style of dress in something that within 12 hours will be in the laundry hamper, or on someone’s floordrobe.
There is, probably, some way to negotiate this no-win situation. One that leaps to mind is having your models be actual representatives of the culture you want to celebrate, rather than treating their style as something white women can try on for a day or two until the next trend comes along. That would smack much more of actually valuing the look rather than wanting to own it yourself. But that would require fashion folk to be aware in the first place that it is not their god-given right to mindlessly take whatever they’d like from everyone else, and that might just be too tall of an order.