Diversity vs. Aesthetics: Where To Draw The Line

September 21, 2013 7:30 pm21 comments
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons - Ryan Christopher VanWilliams

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons – Ryan Christopher VanWilliams

From birth, I can honestly say that I was born to live and breathe fashion. At five years old I can recall lying on my parents’ bed in our riverside city condo, glued to the television late at night as I watched Lauren Ezersky’s Behind the Velvet Ropes and Tim Blakes Fashion File on the Style Network.  I started wearing makeup before I enrolled in elementary school and passed the time trying on my mom’s clothes, reading Vogue and practicing my fiercest runway strut. My first catfight was with a girl in my Kindergarten class who teased me for not owning any pink dresses. The following week, my grandmother had bought me four pink dresses and a pink pea coat and I wore them with a smug expression as an accessory.

Naturally, when it came to style, I just had to be ahead of the game. And I was.

Being more concerned with the color palette and weather-appropriateness of my daily outfits than probably any other child my age, I had become captivated by the glamorous and ethereal appeal of the fashion world. Over the years, I went from dreaming of walking alongside supermodels Naomi Campbell and Gisele Bündchen to aspiring to be the designer that dressed them in my very own creations. It was a short lived fantasy, however, when the reality of the likelihood of becoming either a model or a big-name designer hit me and deeper issues came to light about the industry that I so passionately venerated while growing up.

I began to notice something wrong that I couldn’t ignore: the very small number of models and designers of color present at Fashion Week. As a young girl of color, I found myself searching for women to look up to that were, well, like me. Sure, there’s Sudan-born Alek Wek, Victoria Secret Angel Adriana Lima and the late Daul Kim, but these are all household names. And the only designers of color that would come to my mind were all part of the Japanese avant-garde movement in Paris between the 80’s and 90’s – Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake to name a few.

So why are these few among the only designers and models of color known in the fashion industry? Is there something to be said about what defines beauty, creativity and high-fashion in our society? Perhaps most importantly, does the exclusion of models of color from catwalk shows point to racism or is it simply artistic expression?

According to Jezebel, non-white model representation at Fashion Week in Europe and in New York has never exceeded 20% over the last five years. Unsurprisingly, many of the designers who have been accused of intentionally leaving out models of color are repeat offenders; Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, and European fashion houses Prada and Chanel are notorious for their exclusively white shows, with one or two Asian or black models thrown in at times. When confronted about this, excuses were made, aesthetic visions were defended, and fingers were pointed at modeling agencies for not having a wide enough selection pool. Even if this were true (which it isn’t), how can you blame the lack of models of color to choose from when they are constantly competing against one another for job opportunities that have a limited amount of space for them?

Just last Fall, out of 127 designers at New York’s Fashion Week, roughly 35% of them were of color, according to a 2012 article in theGrio. Removing the number of Asian-American and Latino designers from that group, less than 1% of them were African American. This year, the numbers have only slightly risen due to pressure from designers pushing for more diversity, such as Diane Von Furstenberg, Tom Ford and Anna Sui.

Think about it. New York City, a city known for its multiculturalism, and often called the “melting pot” of the United States because of its heavy cultural mixing, has a weeklong fashion event where only 1% of the designers are black. Can one really call this accurate representation at all?

“Your body and your beauty, it doesn’t matter what color you are,” said Campbell in a recent interview on ABC’s Good Morning America. “If you’ve got the right talent you should be up there having the opportunity to do the job.”

The supermodel, along with fellow model Iman and advocate Bethann Hardison, have formed the Diversity Coalition as a response to this year’s Fall Fashion Week and the disappointing outcome of their fight for more black models. Iman claims that there were more black models hired in the 70’s by designers like Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent than there are by today’s top-designers. The letter Hardison sent to the Council of Fashion Designers in America (CFDA), as well as the heads of other councils in Britain, Italy and France, brazenly name-dropped those who perpetuate the “racist act” of excluding black models.

Was it effective? Looking at this season’s runway shows, one can’t help but feel as though the campaign was largely overlooked. Yet, according to Fashionista.com, Hardison’s efforts are actually receiving much publicity, and the CDFA plans to meet with her in the future to discuss the issue.

At this rate, with a little consistency and more people stepping up and speaking out like Jourdan Dunn and Chanel Iman recently have, change may be possible. It certainly won’t erase hundreds of years of white, Eurocentric beauty ideals and damaging standards of perfection overnight. Still, it might inspire hope and confidence in younger girls to feel like they have beautiful role models who look just like them and they can shoot for jobs in an industry that is working towards making them feel less like a minority and more like an equal. Until then, only time (and effort) will tell.

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