Fashion Week: Where Are The Black Models?

The lack of black models on fashion runways and in ad campaigns has become a persistent issue in the fashion industry. The issue was most recently highlighted by Vogue Italia’s “Black Issue,” which featured only black models on its pages. Some, including editor Amelia, saw the magazine as a gimmick, but it nonetheless got people talking about the issue of race in fashion. Unfortunately, all they did was talk. Reuters reporters attended 30 shows during New York fashion week and said many designers used two or three black models. However, several used one and some had none, like Vivienne Tam. Some labels used a high number of black models for their shows. Tracy Reese had about eight. DKNY had at least six. And Diane von Furstenberg had five. Most shows featured 12 to 25 models.

It’s no surprise that von Furstenberg was one the few designers to send several black models down the runway. As president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, she urged designers to think of diversity when casting models for this season’s shows. The CFDA maintains that it’s up to the designers to establish ethnic diversity.

Instead of creating a real dialogue on the issue of race in fashion or establishing a commitment to diversity, fashion industry-types just played the blame game.

Designer Michael Angel said, “I don’t ever think about color, nor do I think of race. That is the most backward way to think.” I suspect Angel doesn’t think about race because he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t feature any black models in his lookbooks nor in his Autumn/Winter 2008 fashion show on his website. He’s secure with his idea of beauty and probably chooses models unconsciously based on that idea. What’s backwards to me is knowing there’s an issue, but choosing to ignore it because you think you’re above it.

Another designer chose to blame the modeling agencies. Adriano Iodice said it’s very difficult to find black models because the agencies don’t send them to castings. Joy Bryant would probably disagree with you. On The Huffington Post she writes that when she was a model, she was often turned down because of her skin color. One designer once even told her, “Joy, you are soooo beautiful, but I’m not using black girls this season.” Apparently, many designers THIS season are continuing in that same direction. Besides, in response to Iodice, we have this little theory in business called supply and demand. If designers demanded more black models, then I’m sure the agencies would supply them. I mean, that’s how they make their money, don’t they?

I deal with race on a daily basis, even when I’m not thinking about it. Race comes up in my most mundane tasks, like navigating a subway platform or standing in line at the deli, especially since I work in Midtown Manhattan. So it doesn’t surprise me that the fashion industry is so reluctant to change. This debate has been going on since Yves Saint Laurent first used black models on his runways decades ago. It would be great if beauty ideals were expanded to include more diversity, but I’m rather pessimistic. Racism and discrimination are large aspects of our history, and talking about change without having a clear plan of how to implement that change is pointless. But I’ll continue my love/hate relationship with the fashion industry anyway because fashion, like race, is a large part of my life. [Reuters]