“Black is beautiful.” This was a slogan used during the Black Civil Rights movement to dispel the belief that only caucasian or “white” features were what were considered ideally beautiful. This slogan brought impact into the fashion industry when the late Yves Saint Laurent became the first designer to break down racial barriers by using black models in his shows. Iman, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks were household names, prestigiously known as “supermodels” at the heights of their careers. Nowadays the use of non-white models from various ethnic groups in runway shows and campaign ads has been on the decline.
Last year during New York Fashion Week for the 2008 Spring/Summer collections, over a third of the shows did not use black models, according to a report by Women’s Wear Daily. When the European fashion capitals London, Paris, and Milan began their shows that season, an alarming number of large fashion houses including Balenciaga, Chloe, Chanel, and Prada made it clear that the runways had gone from once colourful mosaics to a droning march of blonde fembots. Featured in 2007 by Guy Trebay in the New York Times, J. Alexander who currently serves as a judge on America’s Next Top Model says, “Now some people are not interested in the vision of a black girl unless they’re doing a jungle theme and they can put her in a grass skirt and diamonds and hand her a spear.”
In the United States alone, black women spent over $20 billion dollars in apparel each year as reported by targetmarketnews.com. One would think profits that large generated from the black population would drive designers in their ad campaigns and runway shows to include more black models to encourage further revenue. Ironic like some of today’s fashions, it doesn’t seem to be the case. Who then is to blame?
Fingers have been pointed at designers, who according to casting agents want only thin, plain, blonde girls that won’t divert attention from their collection. “The current taste in models is for blank-faced androids, whose looks don’t offer much to the clothes,” says casting agent James Scully, featured in a New York Times article by Guy Trebay in 2007. He recalled the days of Tom Ford at Gucci when Ford gave him free reign in casting models of different backgrounds that once made Gucci’s runway shows very colourful and diverse with personality.
Other industry members feel the modeling agencies are the ones at fault. Casting agent Jennifer Starr, who casts for Ralph Lauren among others and is also a judge on Bravo's Make Me a Supermodel believes many agencies do not invest as much in their ethnic roster as they do for their white ones. Honorine Uwera was a young Canadian-Rwandan model who was booked for five runway shows during the 2008 Spring/Summer season in New York. While this number of showings is a respectable one, sadly it was not enough to convince Uwera’s agency to send her to Europe, where most modeling careers are made. On the other hand one of her model colleagues Irina Kulikova, showed at New York for a total of twenty-four runways before jetting off to Europe to complete a whopping thirty-eight shows in total. In a 2008 Newsday report by Anne Bratskeir, Starr added, “It's not the designers' fault ... at least the designers I work for. Ralph Lauren, especially, is constantly asking me why there aren't more African-American models he can put in his show.”
Whether they are the designers, modeling agencies, or all members of the fashion industry who are to blame, the argument that that a model of colour will take attention away from the clothes they show is offensive. It depicts the industry’s inability to separate the skin colour of a model from their “look” and the false belief that by using non-white models, the focus will be on the model’s skin above all else.
Just last October Bethan Hardison, a former African-American model during the 1960’s who also operated her own modeling agency, hosted an event made up of a panel of fashion experts called “Out Of Fashion: The Absence of Color." Her aim was to bring attention to the issue of under representation of ethnic models in the industry and to have open discussion for its improvement. Those in attendance included notables such as Iman, Vera Wang, photographer Marc Baptiste, amongst other insiders, writers, editors and dozens of black models. Hoping to raise awareness and bring about change in the industry, she noted that as the fashion industry was constantly expanding and as more people around the world saw images of runway shows, this was not a minor issue. "Globally, it affects everybody," she addressed to all who were present.
The fashion industry sets the standards for beauty. By choosing to be exclusive and not giving models of other ethnic backgrounds the opportunity to represent their brands and style, a clear, negative message is sent to consumers, the majority women and girls that only white
women meet the standards of beauty. High fashion has always been exclusive to the wealthy circles of the elite and the select few that are employed by it. To the public, models serve as their window to seeing the fashion world from within; if ethnic consumers who look through magazine advertisements and runway photos cannot relate to the models who don’t resemble them, it further reinforces the message that the doors of the fashion world will always be closed to them.