Posted on September 16, 2008

Fashion Week Features Few Black Runway Models

Christine Kearney, Reuters, September 12, 2008

A dearth of black models strutting the catwalks is a persistent issue in the fashion world and while the numbers have improved, there are still too few, fashion observers say.

At New York’s semi-annual Fashion Week ending on Friday, many designers used two or three black models, in the more than 30 shows attended by Reuters reporters. Several only used one, and some had none. Most of the shows featured between 12 and 25 models.

Labels Tracy Reese, DKNY and Diane von Furstenberg displayed a high number of black models this season while others, such as Vivienne Tam, did not use any.

Too few industry types are following the lead of former Vogue editor Grace Mirabella, the first to use a black model on the magazine’s cover, said Tim Gunn, creative director at Liz Claiborne and co-host of Bravo television’s “Project Runway.”


Some insiders said fashion still discriminates.

“Visually on the runways, it has improved,” said Bethann Hardison, a 1970s African-American runway model. “But the results are still racist. You choose the same white and you never go towards the brown or the dark.”

Designer Tracy Reese said the question of diversity on the runway needs to be brought up again and again to ensure change.

“If it’s too exclusionary, it puts me off,” she said.


More than three decades after Yves Saint Laurent hired the first black model for his collection, many designers say it’s their right to cast models regardless of race.

Rubin Singer, who said he was criticized for “going too ethnic” by using a high number of black models last season, said his choice always depends on the designs and what sells.

“I’m dressing women here,” he said. “I’m building a business and building my customer base.”


Other designers blamed the modeling agencies.

“It’s very hard to find them,” said Adriano Iodice. “If you ask an agency to send 25 composites of models, only two or three of them will be black.”


A spotlight on race due to Barack Obama’s presidential nomination could spill into fashion, commentators said.

“It is my hope because of Michelle Obama that fashion will grasp it and redefine beauty,” said fashion author Kathryn Finney, referring to the Democratic candidate’s wife.

Gunn added that not just the runways need to change.

“I would like to see more diversity among fashion designers,” he said. “With more support for designers of color, that can help this issue as well.”

“You made it happen. It’s really changing; I’m seeing it everywhere,” Beverly Smith, TV personality and contributing editor to Latina magazine, shouted to former model, agent and activist Bethann Hardison across a bustling stream of people filing out of the Tracy Reese show at the Bryant Park tents.


{snip} But the uphill battle Hardison referred to was just as steep: getting designers to cast nonwhite models in their shows. After a series of open forum discussions and interviews conducted over the past twelve months, Hardison plans to have a recap meeting next Monday at the Bryant Park Hotel with industry insiders to review the year’s progress. It has been noticeable.


A whirlwind of momentum including public statements from Vivienne Westwood and Naomi Campbell, an all black edition of Vogue Italia, a call to action in a recent CFDA letter to its designers and a slew of magazine and newspaper articles (including American Vogue), put the runways under a microscope during last week’s shows.

“I think it’s good, it’s getting better and it makes the industry seem more interesting. Everyone is saying it. I’m seeing three and four girls in a show and it feels very normal to the eye,” Hardison says.


The South of France native designed for Jean-Paul Gaultier and worked as Azzedine Alaïa’s right hand for 10 years in Paris.

“It was never an issue to use an ethnic model in those days. It wasn’t even a question or a problem,” she says.

Whether or not the use of black models will become a lasting change or another fashion “moment” remains to be seen. But Hardison intends to keep the topic on the industry’s radar.

“We still have work to do because there are people out there who still think their aesthetic does not involve diversity,” she says.