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Thursday August 29, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Thursday August 29, 2013 MYT 1:49:25 PM
by eric wilson
Nothing has changed: There remains a startling lack of ethnic diversity among models on major designer runways in the fashion industry in the United States and Europe. – AFP filepic
Despite a history
of thoughtful discussions within
the industry, there are still designers and casting agents who remain curiously blind to black models.
FIVE years ago, the fashion industry (in the United States and Europe) faced a reckoning over the startling lack of diversity among the models on major designer runways. Reacting to complaints that many shows and magazines included nothing but white models, Vogue, in its July 2008 issue, featured a substantial article that asked, in its headline, “Is fashion racist?”
This came shortly after Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue, published a provocative issue using only black models and feature subjects; Bethann Hardison, a former model and agent, initiated a series of panel discussions on the subject; and Diane von Furstenberg, the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, urged members to be more aware of diversity in casting.
And since then, almost nothing has changed.
The New York shows are as dominated by white models as they have been since the late 1990s, roughly at the end of the era of supermodels. Jezebel, a blog that has been tracking the appearance of minorities in fashion shows since the debate erupted, noted that the numbers are hardly encouraging. After a notable increase in 2009 that followed extensive news media coverage, the representation of black models has remained fairly steady until this year, when they accounted for only 6% of the looks shown at the last Fashion Week in February (down from 8.1% the previous season); 82.7% were worn by white models.
In Europe, where Phoebe Philo of Céline, Raf Simons of Dior and many others have presented entire collections using no black models at all, the opportunities have been even less favourable for minorities.
“There is something terribly wrong,” said Iman, one of the most iconic models in the world, who later created a successful cosmetics company. Her experience in the fashion scene of the 80s and 90s, when designers like Calvin Klein, Gianni Versace and Yves Saint Laurent routinely cast black models without question, was starkly different than that of young non-white models today, when the racial prejudice is all but explicitly stated. The increased appearance of Asian models over the last decade, for example, is often described specifically in terms of appealing to luxury customers in China.
“We have a president and a first lady who are black,” Iman said. “You would think things have changed, and then, you realise that they have not. In fact, things have gone backward.”
The most astonishing aspect of the persistent lack of diversity – to Iman, to Hardison, to the models who apply for castings and are told, “We already have our black girl” – is that there have been no obvious repercussions for those who still see colourless runways as an acceptable form of artistic expression.
Despite a history of polite and often thoughtful discussions within the industry, there are still many designers and casting agents who remain curiously blind to black models, or unmoved by the perception that fashion has a race problem in the first place.
Part of that problem, Hardison said, is that “no one in power slaps these designers around.”
“All I want to say is, you guys have a lot of explaining to do,” she said. “If you are going to be bold enough to do it, then, please be bold enough to explain it.”
Beginning at Fashion Week in September, Hardison is organising a social media campaign to bring public scrutiny to specific designers who do not use black models. By making consumers aware of the designers who do not embrace minorities on the runway, she said, “I wonder if that would make them have second thoughts about buying the shoes, the accessories and the bags.”
Several events this year have suggested that fashion, an industry that views itself as socially progressive, is not much more enlightened than the cast of Big Brother.
While some developments have been viewed as positives, others have revealed a simmering tension, with models like Jourdan Dunn and Joan Smalls complaining publicly of not getting jobs because of race, and finger-pointing among designers, casting agents and stylists over who is responsible.
On July 2, while attending the couture shows in Paris, Edward Enninful, a successful stylist who has worked for magazines for 25 years, posted a message on Twitter that instantly revived the debate about race and fashion, but also underscored how sensitive the subject can be for those working to make changes from inside the industry: “If all my (white) counterparts are seated in the front row, why should I be expected to take second row? Racism?”
In an interview, Enninful, who is the fashion and style director at W magazine, and is black, would not disclose which designer he was alluding to in the message because of the political fallout. But, he said that while the matter was resolved to his satisfaction, diversity in fashion has increasingly been an issue and he was not convinced that it is improving.
“Change always takes time,” Enninful said. “The fashion industry needs to breed a whole different way of thinking. We need more diverse people working in all facets of the industry.”
It is not only the models who need to reflect diversity, he said, it is the image makers who set the trends that the rest of the industry will follow, too. “What is happening on the runways is the result of a very Eurocentric aesthetic that has taken over for the last 10 years,” he said, “and that has excluded other races.”
Increasingly, the frustration with the influencers is spilling out into public view. Kyle Hagler, a senior executive manager at IMG Models, spent years promoting Smalls, who is black and Puerto Rican, before she became the top-ranked model according to Models.com. “Unfortunately, you do have people in positions of power who do not appreciate an idea of beauty outside of their own,” he said.
In March, James Scully, a casting director whose clients include Tom Ford, Derek Lam and Stella McCartney, went public with a scathing critique of shows that did not reflect a diverse casting last season, specifically naming Dior, Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton and Chanel.
“I feel the Dior cast is just so pointedly white that it feels deliberate,” he said in a BuzzFeed article. “I watch that show and it bothers me – I almost can’t even concentrate on the clothes because of the cast.”
Scully said that he had since received complaints from executives who work with Dior and elsewhere, but also an enormous amount of support from strangers who commented online. “I found the response among some of my peers to be very disappointing,” he said. “But in the last 10 years, I have found the only time you get any action is when you actually do something and you call someone out.”
In July, when Simons presented his latest couture collection for Dior, the show included six black models, prompting speculation that the change came in response to Scully’s remarks. In the same week, Prada, which has long been criticised for casting very few minorities, released a fall campaign featuring Malaika Firth, the first black model to appear in its women’s advertising in nearly two decades.
Calvin Klein, once a vastly diverse show, has frequently been faulted for its mostly white casting, including by Scully, who said the company sometimes hired one black model “to not get in trouble.”
Francisco Costa, the women’s creative director, responded in an e-mail that the company looks for diverse faces in its casting. But, he wrote: “There are only a handful of top-level, professionally trained models of colour at a particular level out there now, and they end up being booked by other fashion houses and can be seen on dozens of runways each season, which is counter to what we are looking for. We try to present a unique and interesting cast with as many exclusives as possible to create and emphasise that season’s aesthetic.”
Maida Gregori Boina, the casting director for Calvin Klein and Dior, said that Costa has pushed for more diversity, “but we don’t want to book a model because we are obliged to.” The Dior casting, she said, was the result of the multicultural concept of the collection, not the criticism, and she actually wanted more minorities represented in the show.
“Unfortunately, you’ve got what you’ve got in the agencies,” said Boina, who is half black. “I am conscious I have to do more. But, it has to be part of a movement that includes the entire fashion industry.”
The old arguments within the industry – the designers say the agents don’t send them black models, and the agents say the designers don’t want any black models – increasingly seem insufficient when luxury fashion has become such a global business, with untold numbers of consumers watching the shows online. It now becomes noteworthy when a label like Dsquared creates advertisements using only black male models or only Asian female models.
“There are not only white people around the world,” said Riccardo Tisci, the Givenchy designer, who has been heralded for representing a range of races, ages and genders in his marketing. Of those who cast only white models, he said: “I think that is called laziness. People sometimes think, ‘It’s easier, we’re used to it.’ ”
To designers who say they cast white models for aesthetic reasons, their critics would ask if that means they don’t think their clothes look good on black people.
This is important, said Veronica Webb, who encountered the same excuses during the years she walked the runways in the 90s, because “this is where a lot of young women get their idea of beauty from.”
“When you see someone that looks like you,” she said, “it makes women feel beautiful, and it makes women feel they belong.” – IHT
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