A Problem Worth Solving

· Features, Runway · , , , , ,

Fashion Month just concluded, and according to Business of Fashion, out of the 3,875 model bookings only 797 were models of color. This means about 79.4% of the models who walked in the recent shows in New York, London, Milan, and Paris were white. Only 10.2% were black, 6.5% were Asian, 2.3% were of South Asian, Indian, and/or Middle Eastern descent, and just 1.6% were Hispanic or Latina. Though technically an improvement, there is only a three percentage point difference from the spring 2015 ready-to-wear shows a year ago. And whitewashed runways lead to whitewashed editorials and ad campaigns; out of the 611 covers published by the 44 biggest magazines in fashion in 2014, just 18% featured people of color, while about 90% of advertisements featured white models.

We’re going to drop the objective journalistic act for a second and say that this is bullshit.

It seems like every season, founder of the Diversity Coalition, Bethann Hardison speaks about the importance of diversity in fashion, attempting to educate the industry’s image-makers in hopes of making a noticeable change. Yet just as often as these people vow to do better, they seldom follow through. It’s disappointing, disrespectful, and frankly, it’s disgusting.

This season, things seemed a bit more promising, with New York Fashion Week starting things off on the right track. Sure, the show lineups could’ve been better, but we saw plenty of models of various different races and ethnicities, making for a somewhat more accurate representation of the multicultural and multifaceted makeup of the city. But with each show, things started to slide backwards, only getting worse as the show circuit went on. London was a major letdown; the city typically does a halfway decent job, but some of the most noteworthy shows featured only a couple of models of color. Even Burberry – typically one of the most diverse shows of the season overall – fell behind this time around. Of course, it’s rare that Milan would favor anything but white models, while it’s not a huge surprise to see Parisian labels exclude models of color, either. The season even concluded with the ultimate face-palm moment of cultural appropriation at Valentino. With cornrows worn by the mostly white cast in the African-inspired collection. Out of 90 plus looks, only ten were shown on black models.

We can’t deny that there are major improvements to be made in terms of diversity; that’s what this whole discussion is about, after all. But this has been an interesting season for models of color, many seeing improvements in certain areas despite the industry’s drawbacks. We can start by looking at Lineisy Montero. Since debuting at Prada last season, the Dominican stunner with razor-sharp bone structure and a spritely presence has dominated the industry. We can’t even begin to name the shows she’s walked in this season…seriously, you name it, she’s probably walked it. Meanwhile, the fashion industry’s acceptance – and promotion – of Montero’s natural Afro hairstyle ushered in what many are calling the “natural hair movement.” This has made way for a successful season for models like Maria Borges, who recently opted to remove her extensions in favor of natural hair, as well as Karly Loyce, Grace Bol, Aamito Lagum, Amilna Estevão, Imaan Hammam and new faces like Luisana Gonzalez and Afrodita Dorado Dominguez. This is an undeniably fantastic thing, as it finally begins to show that black women and their various different hair types are desirable and valuable and don’t have to adhere to the beauty standards imposed on them by white society for so many years. And at a time when black communities are constantly faced with injustice and mistreatment by larger institutions, the fashion industry’s appreciation for black beauty shows an improved sense of societal consciousness, even if only slightly.

However, labeling the fashion and beauty industries’ newfound love of black hair as a “movement” is a bit problematic. For one, these hairstyles are anything but new, and they certainly aren’t just a trend of the moment. It makes us wonder, is this just a fleeting love affair? Will Lineisy or Karly be disregarded next season when a new black model arrives? The industry has been notorious for pitting models of color – especially black models – against each other, after all. And the unfortunate decline of the workloads of models like Malaika Firth, Aya Jones, and Riley Montana shows yet another example of the result of this racist tendency. And it’s not just something that happens to black models, either. Remember a few years ago when there seemed to be an increased amount of representation of Asian models? These days, Asian models seem much less booked than before. And while South Asian models like Bhumika Arora and Pooja Mor have been representing Indian women this season, will the industry treat their presence as a trend, too?

These questions shouldn’t have to come up so often. It shouldn’t be acceptable that a new face will replace an established model of color. Why can’t more models of color join the ranks instead? People act like a Balmain show is a wild occasion, where half of the looks are featured on women of color. But in reality, every show should feature at least half of the looks on models of color; that would be a more accurate representation of a societal makeup.

What will it take for people to get it? After all these years and all these steps forward, why is diversity in fashion still such an issue?

Perhaps the main logic behind fashion’s drawbacks, as proposed by Reina Lewis, professor of cultural studies at London College of Fashion, is that many industry insiders are still influenced by old-fashioned, historical notions of beauty. There have long been stereotypes associated with different races, whether it’s black women being considered “inferior” or Asian women being considered “passive.” These characterizations have contributed to the overall construction of white supremacy, an element that unfortunately prevailed through the construction and advancement of the fashion industry. As a result, racial hierarchies are often reinforced in fashion imagery, exoticizing, fetishizing, and stereotyping models of color in relation to their white counterparts. Meanwhile, the rarity of the model of color works to reestablish whiteness as the norm and the beauty ideal.

Could it really be that all of the industry’s top designers and image-makers have creative visions that exclude people of color? One could also argue that the lack of people of color in top positions behind the scenes in fashion results in the lack of diversity in runway shows, editorials, and ad campaigns. Or maybe there really is a sense of deep-rooted racism in consumer society that prevents the industry from adequately reflecting the world in which we live. Bethann Hardison additionally mentions that modeling agencies are trying to keep their models of color more exclusive, only putting them up for the top-tier shows and thus preventing many other designers from effectively diversifying their shows. Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that the fashion industry is one of the least diverse today. Perpetuating the cycle, this certainly explains the tired excuse that some image-makers often use, claiming that people of color simply won’t sell a product.

But how could that be true, when the consumer markets are becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly conscious of diversity? In a study by Dr. Ben Barry of Ryerson University, black women were shown to be 1.5 times more likely to purchase a product advertised by a black model. Meanwhile, white women also identified with the advertisements featuring black models despite being of a different race. Dr. Barry says:

“In my focus groups, black women told me that seeing a model that mirrored their race made them feel beautiful because they rarely saw black models in fashion advertising. They subsequently felt connected to the brand and inspired to celebrate their beauty by shopping from that brand. Although they did not share the same race, Caucasian participants identified with advertising that featured black models because they believed the brand upheld the values they aspired to, such as empowerment and inclusion. Caucasian women also explained that they could imagine the advertised outfit on themselves, regardless of whether or not they shared the model’s racial background.”

Dr. Barry performed a similar study on young women in China, in which they gravitated towards Chinese models, as they felt that white models represented an unrealistic beauty standard. It’s simply undeniable that the increasingly diverse groups of consumers would better connect with a model they feel represents them, while even white consumers appear equally if not more inclined to purchase items advertised by a model of color. Why, then, would so many shows this season feature predominantly white casts?

The fashion industry cannot hide behind the archaic false logic that a model of color is incapable of selling a product. Furthermore, there is no excuse for any creative vision being applied only to white models; no matter what your aesthetic or inspiration, there is room for any model of any racial background. But even with all of this evidence, it’s likely that the fashion world will continue to stick to its pre-established, deep-seeded notions of beauty, whether out of conscious discrimination, ignorance, or perceived convenience. It’s apparent that a change will need to come from within the industry. But how?

Perhaps the most important thing that can be done is for white image-makers – the majority of the fashion industry – to use their status to promote positive change. It is the responsibility of everyone in fashion to understand the importance of this issue, regardless of their individual race. And it wouldn’t hurt for white people in fashion to take the issue seriously and educate other white counterparts. We should stop being afraid of being punished for speaking out, and we should stop accepting the notion that a world as beautiful as fashion could have such ugly tendencies. Whether one considers fashion to be about fantasy or about a consumer market, neither of those things are all-white, and people of color need more adequate representation, period.

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Written by Scott Shapiro · · Features, Runway · , , , , ,

2 Comments

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