Posted on September 17, 2013

Where Are All the Black Models on Our Catwalks?

Jane Mulkerrin, London Evening Standard, September 16, 2013

Beneath an arresting Annie Leibovitz image, Iman — the Somali-born supermodel and wife of David Bowie — is growing increasingly incensed. “There were more black models on the catwalk when I started in the 1970s than there are today,” she exclaims. She waves an elegant hand, bearing a huge diamond, at the Leibovitz group shot, featuring 16 celebrated black models from various eras, including Beverly Johnson, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Cynthia Bailey and herself. “So when people say that there just aren’t that many black models, yes there are!” she cries. But, she says, to look at the runway of late is to witness a virtual white-out.

And Iman, along with Campbell, isn’t taking it lying down. The high-profile pair have joined forces with Bethann Hardison, former model-turned-agent-turned activist, to highlight the lack of models of colour currently taking to the catwalk.

On September 5, the opening of New York Fashion Week and the first stop on the fash pack’s glitzy four-city autumn tour, the three women sent an open letter to the heads of the fashion governing bodies in New York, London, Paris and Madrid, under the banner of Hardison’s Diversity Coalition. “Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches design houses consistently use one or no models of colour,” the letter reads. “No matter the intention, the result is racism.” The coalition then lists the designers and fashion houses it says are “guilty of this racist act”, among them Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Chanel, Armani, Gucci, Saint Laurent, Victoria Beckham, Roberto Cavalli and Marc by Marc Jacobs.

“People have said we are shaming the designers,” Iman tells me, her voice still infused with a rich African inflection after almost 40 years in the United States. “But that’s not what we’re doing. Nobody is calling anybody racist; the action is racist,” she explains. “I have a 12-year-old daughter [Alexandria, who carries Bowie’s legal surname, Jones; she also has a 35 year-old daughter, Zulekha Haywood, from her previous marriage to the American basketball player, Spencer Haywood] and when she does something wrong, she says, ‘I was very bad’. I say, ‘No, you did something bad. You are not bad’. The action is different from the person who is doing it.”

And, she points out, this is not simply a case of pitying the poor models struggling in the rarefied, well-paid world of high-fashion. “The absence of models of colour sends a message to our young girls that they are not good enough, they are not beautiful enough,” she says. “Photography and the runways are such powerful tools, and say such a lot about our society. It is so much bigger than the catwalk.”

It is a steamy September morning in Manhattan, a week after the politely explosive letter was sent, when I meet the feisty, formidable icons at the midtown offices of Iman Cosmetics — now a $25 million-a-year business, based on foundation formulations for non-Caucasian women, and one of the best-selling lines at giant nationwide pharmacy chain Walgreen’s. Her line grew from personal experience; on her first job for American Vogue in 1975, the make-up artist asked Iman if she had brought her own foundation, as he had nothing suitable for her skin tone. Out of necessity, she began mixing her own batches, which other black models would then ask to borrow.

As she crosses the lobby to greet me, it is clear that the 24 years since her retirement from modelling have had no impact whatsoever upon her walk, a graceful, runway-ready leonine lollop. And even in jeans, a simple green silk blouse and hounds-tooth blazer, she could cause serious traffic issues outside on 7th Avenue. She is now 58 years old.I scan her face for any conspicuous signs of ageing but find precisely none, only radiant skin and impossibly hewn bone structure. But, I’m thrilled to find, her wit is as sharp as her cheekbones. “They used to tell me that I was exotic,” she sighs, rolling her exquisite almond-shaped eyes. “What am I? A mango?”

She and Bowie, her husband of 21 years, officially split their time between London and New York, but these days live largely in the latter, where Alexandria is at school, and I ask whether she’d be happy for her daughter to follow in her footsteps.

“She is too young, she needs to finish her education,” she says, firmly. But what if she (as is highly likely) is scouted at 15? “She’ll be somewhere the scouts won’t find her: school,” she replies.

Hardison arrives moments later, an effervescent ball of energy, with close-cropped bleached-blonde hair. The New York native (who is in her sixties, but refuses to reveal her exact age) had sold her agency and stepped back from fashion entirely, when Campbell — the third wheel in the Coalition — persuaded her to come out of retirement to challenge the disappearance of diversity in the industry. “Every couple of months she’d ring me and say, ‘There are no black girls out there. You’ve got to do something,’” recalls Hardison. Campbell herself is across town today, keeping a sizeable army of stylists on their toes, filming a new series of the search-for-a-star modelling show, The Face.

This month’s call to arms came after Hardison employed a researcher to spend six weeks examining every catwalk image from the Autumn/Winter 13 shows and compiling the evidence. Their results were shocking: only six per cent of the models who appeared in the shows were black.

There are some straightforward theories as to why this regression has occurred, including the huge influx of Eastern European models in recent years, and the fact that designers have so many shows in their calendars that most no longer cast their own models, but instead employ stylists and casting agents to select them on their behalf. It’s no excuse, says Hardison. “It means they are not paying attention to what is happening to their brands.”

And they say guilty parties include some iconic brands. “YSL, Versace, Calvin Klein … these are brands that mean a lot to all of us,” says Hardison. “But they don’t see it as racism; they probably voted for Obama, because they are liberals.

“Phoebe Philo [London-born former creative director at Chloë, now at Céline] — she’s a cool girl. But Céline has never had a coloured person showing in their collection. Ever,” claims Hardison. “And yet they have the best accessories; every black woman who has money buys her accessories.” “Not me,” shoots back Iman. “I walk the walk. I can get another It bag. I have my wallet,” she says firmly. “I make a conscious decision not to buy that stuff.”

The two women’s own early experiences as black models differ quite dramatically. While Hardison grew up in Brooklyn, became the first black saleswoman in the nearby garment district in the Seventies and a runway model in the Sixties, she didn’t fit the mould, she says. “I wasn’t a pretty little girl, I had large eyes, no make-up, very short hair. I didn’t look like a model, or like anything they had ever seen. The buyers wouldn’t even look at me when I first walked out on the runway.”

Iman Abdulmajid, meanwhile, was born in Somalia to political activist parents who sought refugee status in Kenya in the early 1970s. At 16, she was spotted en route to a political science lecture at the University of Nairobi by photographer Peter Beard, and was soon on her way to the US.

“I had never worn heels in my life, never worn make-up in my life, never seen fashion magazines, so I had no concept of what I was doing. And I started big,” she says. “My third day in New York City, I was working for Vogue; my first fashion show was Halston, my second was Calvin Klein.” Yves Saint Laurent called her his “dream woman”. Nonetheless, she, too, faced a racism deeply entrenched in the industry. “Many companies had a different price rate for black models and white models,” she explains. “So I refused to take jobs — if I wasn’t going to be paid the same as them, I wasn’t going to do it. I just sat it out.”

While much has improved, the pair agree that there is a perhaps a parallel with the current state of feminism, an assumption that the hard work has been done, the battle is won, and we can put our feet up now, when, in reality, there is so much left to do. ‘I do think that colour on the catwalk needs to be constantly talked about, that people need to be constantly reminded,’ says Hardison. ‘Activism needs to be active. See what happens if you stop?’

“This is not the end of it,” she promises. “This conversation will continue.”