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?”
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 rise in 2009 that followed extensive 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 Cline, Raf Simons of Dior and many others have presented entire collections using no black models at all, opportunities for minorities have been even less favorable.
“There is something terribly wrong,” said Iman, one of the world’s most iconic models and who 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 from that of young nonwhite models today, when the racial prejudice is all but explicitly stated. The increased appearance of Asian models over the past 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.”
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.
While some recent 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.
Edward Enninful, who is the fashion and style director at W magazine and is black, said, “Change always takes time. The fashion industry needs to breed a whole different way of thinking.
“We need more diverse people working in all facets of the industry.”