So Long Sabon: Perfume and Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

ZOHAR

The best Musk fragrance ever

I discovered Sabon about five years ago while aimlessly wandering the streets of NY. I was coaxed in by the beautiful smells and the floor to ceiling wood paneling filled with artisan soaps, body butters, and fragrances. I was invited to stay by the store clerks who guided me to the trademark stone sink in the middle of the store where they exfoliate, wash, and moisturize customer’s hands with a variety of sumptuous products. My first time in Sabon I tried a daily perfume called Zohar, a musk fragrance. If you know anything about musk, you know that the fragrance can be hit or miss. But the store clerk encouraged me to try it out for the day and see how I liked it. After an entire day with it just spritzed on my wrists, I loved it. It was fresh and persisted through the heat of a NY summer without ever faltering. A few days later I returned to the store and bought a bottle of Zohar. Since then I have regularly ordered Zohar online or visited the store in NY if I’m in the area, but for the last six months or so, Zohar has been out of stock online. I was in NY a few weeks ago so I figured I’d visit the store and buy a bottle as I had in times past, but such was not the case.

“We haven’t had any shipments come to the store in about six months,” the store clerk said. “Six months?!” I responded in exasperation. A first world dilemma was upon me for I was about to be without my favorite fragrance for an indefinite period of time. She told me to put my name on the waiting list and she would let me know when it came back in stock. That store was at 70th & Broadway and I walked down to the 57th and 6th Avenue location to see if I would be met by the same fragrance-less fate. I was.

“We haven’t had it for a long time, matter of fact, we haven’t had any perfumes for a long time.” At this point I had to ask, “Why?” The store clerk told me that the fragrance ships directly from Israel and sometimes the shipment gets held up in barrels at customs. My mind flashed back to the boxes the perfume comes in and the writing that indicates the manufacturer location in both English and Hebrew characters. Of course. Why didn’t I think about that? Who has time to deal with your exports when you are in the midst of a crisis such as is occurring now? Then the reality set in. It’s made in Israel. What then is my ethical responsibility? Do I continue to patronize Sabon assuming it means nothing in the grand scheme of things? Or do I stop patronizing Sabon until there is a lasting end of the violence and a return of the land to Palestinians–or an agreement to the two-state solution? Some might think these are big questions to pose over a little bottle of perfume but, to me, they are important to how I place my stake in the sand on this issue and they stem from a longer personal connection with the region.

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West Bank Barrier watchtower

In the summer of 2012 I traveled to the Middle East as part of a travel seminar for seminary students and lay leaders. We traveled to Jordan, the Sinai-region of Egypt, Israel, and Greece. During that trip we went to the West Bank along the barrier that separates Israelis from Palestinians. As our guide told us, Palestinians are shuffled through the barrier like cattle, sometimes people are arrested, and all the time Palestinian people are made to feel less than human so that the Israelis can maintain their sense of peace and security during the occupation. Hearing the stories about how people’s houses are demolished on a moment’s notice–and within moments of that destruction they are given bills to pay for a destruction they didn’t order, seeing the barriers and the water towers that are controlled by Israelis, and the graffiti painted on the walls with outcries for return, redemption, and a sense of freedom, it was hard for me not to choose a side. After all, I’m a black person in America who isn’t too far removed from the enslavement of my ancestors and the daily systematic oppression of darker people. I say this not to compare the struggles but to make an empathic connection. I know it’s not a black and white issue–in terms of simply marking one side good and the other bad–but I can’t ignore the overwhelming power one side has over the other and the ways in which that power usurps one very important dynamic, love.

 

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West Bank barrier in Bethlehem

This picture has been my Facebook cover photo for the last two years because it represents the one thing the IP conflict and the world needs, love. I don’t care how cliche it sounds, it’s true. You can’t say that the Israel, a nation of people who live under the belief that they are God’s chosen people, are acting out of love. How does love order the destruction of people’s homes, kill women and children and hundreds of civilians, and cling to selfish desires? How does love see violent retaliation as a reasonable response without recalling that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind? Love is missing. Love of the land which would require gracious stewardship and sharing. Love of humanity which would demand an interest in the preservation of lives in general but especially those of children, our future. I see love missing on both sides even though I am also clear about the position that I am taking. I have a heart for Palestine–DO NOT READ THIS AS “I HAVE A HEART FOR HAMAS.” I take seriously what it means to speak of this conflict as a “humanitarian crisis” and watch the bodies–largely Palestinian and children–pile up. As a Christian I can’t idly stand by and say I believe in what or how Israel is fighting to not share land. I won’t be scared into the silence that many have taken up on this matter. I’ve seen too many Christians and people of color stay silent when they have more in common with Palestinians than not. I know no one wants to take sides because people are scared or they feel they don’t now enough about the conflict but I implore everyone to arm themselves with wisdom, knowledge, and most importantly, love. Maybe the loving way is not to choose a side–or to stop buying perfume–but it is to do more than sit idly while lives are being taken and communities are being destroyed on the daily. And this brings me to my concluding point, the point that started all of this.

My decision to stop buying Sabon products is what I feel I can do at the moment–aside from prayer and staying abreast, it’s my version of divestment. As Americans we know how to pour into our leisurely and luxury goods without much thought as to where they come from, who it supports, and who that money can help–and chances are most of us can only afford to buy our luxury/leisurely goods or donate to charity, not both. It’s true that I don’t know if Sabon has a vested interest in the conflict in Gaza but as long as it remains an Israeli-based business–with more stores in Israel than anywhere–I can no longer be a patron. We vote with our money even when we remain silent and on this day I choose not to remain silent and personally divest from Sabon. Instead I will look toward donating money to causes supporting Palestinians and Gaza because however this conflict ends, Gaza will need to be rebuilt; Palestinian women, children, and family will need resources to start over again; and some semblance of peace will need to be restored. (Shout outs to a friend who compiled this list, it’s not exhaustive and as she suggested, everyone should do their own research, but it’s a start to putting our dollars in the places that need them most over putting them toward the things we want the most.)

Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund

ANERA-American Near East Refugee Aid

United National Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East

Muslim Aid: Gaza appeal 

Medical Aid for Palestinians UK

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The Issues with the Abercrombie & Fitch Brand Readjustment

Yesterday many Facebook feeds lit up with filmmaker Greg Farber’s campaign against clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. Karber’s contention against A&F begins with his problem with CEO Mike Jeffries who intentionally doesn’t sell plus size clothing because he doesn’t want people who wear plus-sized clothing to wear his clothes. Jeffries says, “We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends,” he told Salon.com in 2006. “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” This landed Jeffries on Farber’s shit list, but the impetus behind his campaign is the fact that combined with not wanting to sell clothes to a particular type of person of a particular size, A&F burns all damaged and unsold clothes instead of donating them. So Farber has set out to find A&F clothes by any means necessary–save for going into a store to buy it–and give those clothes to people who are homeless. At once this seems like an admirable task because people who are homeless are getting clothes which equals them getting help in some people’s minds, but there is something else here, issues that only appear if people stop cheering for homeless people getting “shitty clothes”–as one of my friends put it.

#1: The Exploitation Issue: Karber’s primary interest in this campaign is to rebrand A&F by giving their clothes to people who are homeless, thus the people who are homeless become a means to an end and not an end in themselves. It is rather hard to tell if Karber would have started a campaign to provide people who are homeless with clothes if it wasn’t for his labor of love to shame Jeffries and A&F at large. And, what does it mean that he filmed these people who are homeless for his benefit and not theirs? It’s difficult to praise this because after the cameras stop rolling those people are still homeless just with different clothing and Farber goes back to his house and gets to edit their lives and get us all in on his campaign.

#2: The “Does this Mean Homeless People are Uncool?” Issue

Jeffries believes that certain people aren’t cool enough to wear his clothes, namely people who are plus-sized, but Karber ventures to guess there are other people who aren’t cool enough to wear his clothes. People who are poor or homeless are the other target audience because they aren’t popular nor do they have shiny, happy faces like your average A&F model. So Farber goes to find uncool people who are homeless to give A&F clothing to. In a way, Karber’s video can be interpreted as his subscribing to the very notion he is trying to reject. Is his giving clothing to people who are homeless playing a part in the ascription of the label “uncool”? Or is he saying that homeless people are cool enough to wear Abercrombie because of their intrinsic value as people? Furthermore, why spend so much time trying to get people who are homeless into clothing from A&F when you can just get them clothes, period? Or, better yet, get them into opportunities.

#3 The Bigger Picture Issue

What struck me about this entire situation is not what Karber is doing but what Jeffries and many other clothing retailers are probably doing in burning damaged or unsold clothes. I thought to myself, “Shouldn’t there be a law against this or some legislation passed that requires retailers to donate unsold or damaged clothes?” It makes no sense to me that clothes–including the damaged clothing–are burned when millions are going without. Resolving this issue might put clothes on the back of many people who are poor or homeless. But “might” is the operative word because the reality of the situation is, people who are poor or homeless don’t need more clothes, they need opportunities. So what about fighting for them to get jobs at places like A&F–notice I said “like” and not “such as”. There are bigger battles to wage in the fight against poverty and homelessness.

Finding all the A&F clothing that isn’t already on the backs of attractive, All-American kids and giving them away to people who are homeless is nice and admirable, but it is just a drop in the bucket of the homelessness issue. And what I’m offering here are some of the issues I saw with Karber’s concept. I think it’s close but no cigar, but maybe I am being too critical. What do you think?

Black Girl Fashion Strike

I have described myself as an intellectual wallflower and a social butterfly, but you should also know that I am something of a “single black female addicted to retail.” Maybe that is an extreme title because I don’t really spend my spare time shopping as much as do sleeping or eating, but I do love clothes. I am particular about what I wear and who it comes from, yet I am far from a label whore, just very label conscious. I don’t own any Louis, Gucci, or Prada but I can spot them from a mile away and I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope to own at least one item from each of these and other designers. But I read something today that makes me want to defer my dreams, indefinitely.

“Chanel Iman Still Hears, ‘We Already Have One Black Girl, We Don’t Need You Anymore'”

This headline from an article published in Jezebel.com focused on an interview that supermodel Chanel Iman did with the Times of London. Chanel Iman, one of the most beautiful models in the business–not “one of the most beautiful models who is black” but beautiful, period–told the Times that she still gets excused by designers because they have reached their black girl quota. For obvious reasons this is upsetting to her because the designers getting their one black model looks like a filling of a race quota instead of looking for beautiful women to wear beautiful clothing. The article goes on to document the dearth of black models in runway and print advertisements of some of the most popular fashion houses and shares word from some of the best casting agents in the business. From the latter we hear that some fashion houses–like Gucci–are looking to cast a particular type of beauty and it just so happens that that beauty is always white. Advertisers stand behind the business fact that “black models don’t sell.” At runway shows, people are lucky if they see one black model. The one black model has become the standard at some shows such as Calvin Klein who features one every other season. Of course designers themselves contrive excuses for why there aren’t more models of color based on the fact that black woman, non-white Hispanic women, or Asian women all have different body types (translation: we aren’t trying to make clothes that fit real women with shape of any kind). But none of this is new. Black models have complained about their treatment for years and their change hasn’t come.

I read the article and wondered, “What could make these designers, advertisers, casting agents, and anyone involved in the industry change their ways? And it hit me, “What if black women who, statistically speaking, are big spenders when it comes to apparel, accessories, and other non-essentials, stopped buying products from all of these designers who fail to represent them?” You vote with your money and to continue giving it to the people who don’t think enough of your beauty as a black woman is to vote “Yes” to a system of oppression–yes I went there. How is this a system of oppression? Consider it this way, the majority of black women spending their hard-earned money on Louis, Gucci, and Prada can barely afford it. And the ones who can afford it seem more interested in acquiring something that is a status symbol which proves to themselves and everybody else that they’ve “arrived.” In both cases, women are coming up off of millions of dollars to buy into a system that doesn’t see their intrinsic beauty as women, let alone as black women. Instead these designers are more than willing to profit off of the big-spending black woman and thriving off of tokenism. These women buy their designer goods, but the money in no way, shape, or form put back into their communities. The “one black girl is enough” response is not acceptable and as long as they have a quota for how many black women they put in a show, or continue to look for a particular kind of beauty that just happens to be white, we can’t continue to give them our money. Until every woman is able to see herself in a Burberry ad or on the runway of Calvin Klein–every season, or on the runways of Gucci, Prada, Fendi, Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, etc, consistently, she should guard her wallet fiercely and take her business to someone else.