Racial diversity: Fashion’s blind spot

As fewer black models show up on the high-fashion runways, complaints rise about racism

New York TimesAugust 21, 2013 


Iman, a former model, at her office in New York, Dec. 18, 2012.


The fashion industry faced a reckoning five years ago over the lack of diversity among the models on designer runways. Reacting to complaints that many shows and magazines included only white models, Vogue, in its July 2008 issue, featured an article that asked, “Is Fashion Racist?”

This came shortly after Franca Sozzani, 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, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, urged members to be more aware of diversity in casting.

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, says the numbers are hardly encouraging. After a notable increase in 2009 that followed extensive media coverage, the representation of black models has remained steady until this year, when they accounted for 6 percent of the looks shown at Fashion Week in February (down from 8.1 percent the previous season); 82.7 percent were worn by white models.

In Europe, where Phoebe Philo of Cline, Raf Simons of Dior and many others have presented collections using no black models, the opportunities have been even less favorable for minorities.

“There is something terribly wrong,” said Iman, one of the most iconic models in the world. Her experience in the fashion scene of the 1980s and ’90s, when designers Calvin Klein, Gianni Versace and Yves Saint Laurent routinely cast black models without question, was starkly different than that of young nonwhite 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 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 realize 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 there have been no obvious repercussions. Despite a history of polite and often thoughtful discussions in the industry, there are many designers and casting agents who are blind to black models, or unmoved by the perception that fashion has a race problem in the first place.

While some developments have been viewed as positives, others have revealed a simmering tension, with models Jourdan Dunn and Joan Smalls complaining of not getting jobs because of race, and finger-pointing among designers, casting agents and stylists.

On July 2, while attending the couture shows in Paris, Edward Enninful, a successful stylist who has worked for magazines for 25 years, revived the debate about race and fashion on Twitter 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 2nd row? racism? xoxo”

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. While the matter was resolved to his satisfaction, he said, he was not convinced diversity 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.”

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, naming Dior, Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton and Chanel.

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 he had since received complaints from executives who work with Dior and elsewhere and received 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.”

Looking for diversity

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 criticized 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 email that the company looks for diversity. “There are only a handful of top-level, professionally trained models of color 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 emphasize that season’s aesthetic.”

Maida Gregori Boina, casting director for Calvin Klein and Dior, said Costa has pushed for more diversity, “but we don’t want to book a model because we are obliged.” The Dior casting, she said, was the result of the multicultural concept of the collection, not the criticism, and she wanted more minorities in the show.

“Unfortunately, you’ve got what you’ve got in the agencies,” said Boina, who is half black. “…But it has to be part of a movement that includes the entire fashion industry.”

Is it laziness?

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.”

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