Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Naked Truth: Ethnic Exclusion

It's no secret that the fashion industry could use a little diversity...well, a lot of diversity actually. While the issue of paper thin models has usually dominated newspaper headlines as the never ending controversy of the fashion industry, there is a much more threatening problem going unchecked: exclusion. The fashion industry has been openly criticized for their lack of diversity, especially in Europe. The absolute lack of ethnic diversity among fashion’s "top" designers and models illustrates this unsettling trend.

Back in the days of “white is the norm” assumptions, when flesh crayons were the color of white people and "invisible" makeup and nude pantyhose were manufactured in the hues of Caucasian skin, the decision made by most of society to ignore whole segments of the human race went unchallenged for decades before the civil rights movement came along. According to, although African American, Asian, and Latino women in the United States spend more than $20 billion on apparel each year, it is hard to detect an awareness of this fact on the part of designers showing in the fashion capitals around the world, where ethnic faces are more absent from runways than they have been in years.

This topic is discussed more extensively when it comes to models. Diane von Furstenberg, designer and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDC), issued a memo to designers urging them to create fashion shows that are "truly multicultural." But the ugly fact is that most fashion houses express an overt preference for white faces, features and a certain type of frame. Furstenberg can boast that she indeed practices what she preaches – she constantly includes models of all ethnicity in her shows. However, the same cannot be said for most of her peers. If anything the lack of diversity among top models shows that something very disturbing is happening to the idea of beauty within the industry. A different side of the industry is now being exposed. The brief golden age of the 80s and 90s which showed catwalks that were much richer in ethnic diversity are now over. Some of the world’s top models included the infamous Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Iman, and Alex Wek. Naomi Campbell is particularly critical of this trend, even going as far as threatening to set up a modelling agency just for black women. Today, models can be turned down at go sees because the particular collection only needs Caucasians or that they have chosen not to use any black models – a statement which many black models have taken offence because it describes them as being some kind of category. Excluding coloured models like this only turns them into a stereotype, as though they are only needed when an “ethnic” or “urban” collection walks the runway. Yet, many designers argue that the models they use in their shows are chosen to reflect their target market or to cater to their desired demographic, not because of racial preference. But what kind of thought process is this? Who is to say that a black, Asian or Latina woman would not be interested to buy a Louis Vuitton or Ralph Lauren piece? These brands may have traditionally been popular with a predominately white market, but in the times we live in now, most of us may have assumed that this kind of thinking was finished.

According to a February 2008 article in the Independent newspaper, Carole White, co-founder of Premier Model Management, which supplies models to top fashion brands, admitted that finding work for black clients was significantly harder than for the white models, because both magazines and fashion designers were reluctant to employ them. It is clear that in all aspects of this business you are pressured to supply what sells. Many casting agents openly admit that blondes and brunettes are preferred. However, some designers said it was their artistic right to choose the color and body shapes that matched their fashion styles. To some, the issue of not using any black or ethnic models is being over analyzed. The question is, can designers actually be labelled as racists if they choose not to use models of all ethnicities in their show? The fact is, if their intentions behind their decision are not fuelled by hate, but rather just a preference of “body type” or skin colour that would best match their collection, they shouldn’t be labelled as such. But many still don’t agree with this reasoning either. In the modern age that we live in now, why can’t everyone be included? Models of other backgrounds should not have to be subjected to being shunned to the sidelines or hesitantly picked last like this was an elementary school gym class. The fashion industry is such a juggernaut in our social culture, it decides what’s hot and what’s not, who to be looking at and what we can expect for the future. Personally, it would be nice to see the industry embrace beauty from all corners of the world, not continuing to push the stereotypical notion of what most of us consider to be beautiful. The message is to be brave, forget about the past, and start taking those small steps which will make the fashion industry more universal.

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