Fashion’s Blind Spot (on . . . among other things, Race, Modeling and Puerto Rico’s Joan Smalls)


Five years ago, the fashion industry 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?”—as Eric Wilson reports in this article for The New York Times.

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 percent of the looks shown at the last 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 Céline, Raf Simons of Dior and many others have presented entire collections using no black models at all, 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, who later created a successful cosmetics company. Her experience in the fashion scene of the 1980s 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 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 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 realize that they have not. In fact, things have gone backward.”

The most astonishing aspect of the persistent lack of diversity — to Iman, to Ms. 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 colorless 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, Ms. 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, Ms. Hardison is organizing 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.”

While her plans are still being developed, Ms. Hardison said that the seemingly indifferent responses among companies to complaints of tokenism and lookism have become too insulting and destructive to ignore. And Iman, at times speaking so passionately that her comments were unprintable, said it was time to protest “by all means necessary.”

“It feels to me like the times need a real hard line drawn like in the 1960s, by saying if you don’t use black models, then we boycott,” Iman said. “If you engage the social media, trust me, it will hurt them in their pockets. If you take it out there, they will feel the uproar.”

Several events this year have suggested that fashion, an industry that views itself as socially progressive and reflective of change, 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 2nd row? racism? xoxo”

In an interview, Mr. 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 at issue and he was not convinced that it is improving.

“Change always takes time,” Mr. 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 follows, 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 Ms. Smalls, who is black and Puerto Rican, before she became the top-ranked model according to “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.”

Mr. 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 Mr. Simons presented his latest couture collection for Dior, the show included six black models, prompting speculation that the change came in response to Mr. 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.

It would appear that the designers are beginning to pay attention to the potentially negative publicity, but representatives for both labels refused to discuss the subject or to make the designers available, as did a spokeswoman for Céline, which has not used a black model in a runway show since Ms. Philo became the designer in 2009. Not one in the 259 looks shown in eight runway shows. “I would say it’s quite odd,” Mr. Scully said. “Everyone notices, so why shouldn’t someone say something?”

Russell Marsh, the casting director for Céline and formerly for Prada, did not respond to messages over several weeks. His agent, Beverley Streeter, said he was unavailable.

Calvin Klein, once a vastly diverse show, has frequently been faulted for its mostly white casting, including by Mr. 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 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, the casting director for Calvin Klein and Dior, said that Mr. 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 actually wanted more minorities represented in the show.

“Unfortunately, you’ve got what you’ve got in the agencies,” said Ms. 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.”

For the original report go to

One thought on “Fashion’s Blind Spot (on . . . among other things, Race, Modeling and Puerto Rico’s Joan Smalls)

  1. The more things change in these states united in ____ (fill in the blank with your favored issue of the moment) the more they stay absolutely, irrevocably, persistently, and predictably the same!

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