Diversity May Be Fashion Week’s Latest Victim

Anne Bratskeir, Newsday, January 30, 2008

‘There should be more than one spot for a black model,” says Yordanos Teshager, 21, a reed-thin, nearly 6-foot-tall model from Ethiopia who is represented by the prestigious Elite agency. But despite going on 85 cast calls seeking work during Fashion Week last season, she says she often left feeling that “they were going to hire a white girl.”

They did. Teshager walked in only 11 of some 200 shows last September, a season in which, overall, women of color were glaringly absent. Of the 101 shows and presentations posted on Style.com, more than a third employed no black models, according to an article in Women’s Wear Daily.

Models were a homogeneous bunch—overwhelmingly white, bony and often blond. Along with the obvious—and serious—issue of racism, some wondered whether it wasn’t all becoming just a little boring. Which is why, when Fashion Week opens tomorrow at Bryant Park, observers won’t just be looking at the clothes—they’ll also be looking for a serious change in who’s wearing them.

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“Some shows had just one black model,” Barker [Nigel Barker, the photographer and judge on TV’s “America’s Next Top Model”] says, adding that he found the shows monotonous, visually unexciting and depressing. “Fashion is about fantasy, and everybody’s fantasy is not to be 6 feet and white.”

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Efforts from the inside

If there is a change, it will be in no small part because of the efforts of former model and agent Bethann Hardison, who has organized three panel discussions since September on the lack of diversity on runways. And it’s a problem that’s been building, she says. “It’s not just a bad year, it’s been a bad decade.”

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Though she particularly advocates for African-Americans, Hardison says the problem affects all races and she vehemently objects to the apparent new taboo of looking different. “Forget even a white girl with style and personality. . . . Fashion is going backwards.” Bottom line, Hardison says, “The fashion designer no longer relates to the model, and I believe this is where I can raise consciousness and generate a sense of responsibility. It’s race-based, and race conscious and that makes it unconsciously racist.”

John Mincarelli, a longtime professor of fashion merchandising at the Fashion Institue of Technology in Manhattan, who takes a sociological view of fashion, agrees. “There’s a complete lack of personality and that has to come from the designer. It’s a dictate. Black models always bring personality to the runway.”

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Blaming the agencies

But casting agent Jennifer Starr, who is also a judge on Bravo’s “Make Me a Supermodel” and is casting for Ralph Lauren, J Mendel, Alice Temperley and Carlos Miele, believes the problem stems from the modeling agencies.

“It’s not the designers’ fault . . . at least the designers I work for,” she says. “Ralph Lauren, especially, is constantly asking me why there aren’t more African-American models he can put in his show.” Starr says the agencies don’t seek out African-American women of the same level as the white women they take on. She says she would hope that designers would want diversity, but, she adds, “I don’t feel anyone should compromise their aesthetic just to be more representational. They should use the girls they love, whether that girl is white, black, Hispanic or Asian.”

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Not surprisingly, modeling agencies don’t want to take the blame for the dearth of diversity. Roman Young, the director of new faces at Elite, says, “We are doing our part. This is a blended office ethnically and culturally. I’m really passionate about the beauty spectrum.” Young says that when a client asks for “the girl next door,” he responds that “the girl next door to me was Filipino. . . . Can I send a black girl?” Although he says he’s fully aware that the client wants a white model, he notes that in the end, “It’s my job to sell beauty not ethnicity.”

Getting behind change

Calling for an end to all the finger pointing, Ivan Bart, senior vice president of powerhouse agency IMG models who represents black supermodels like Alek Wek, Liya Kebede and Naomi Campbell, says this should be “about the industry coming together and recognizing what the consumer wants. There’s a diverse group of consumers out in America and we should be listening to them.”

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Ford Models president John Caplan adds, “Our role, and the role of the agent, is to scout for interesting faces of all ethnicities. . . . The responsibility for who is successful comes down to what the marketplace wants.” Well in advance of Fashion Week, Ford’s superstar Chanel Iman Robinson, who was often the single black face in shows last season, was already reserved for most of the major shows.

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