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At Fashion Week, Color Pops And Models Call For Diversity

Marc Jacobs is among the designers who were named by the Diversity Coalition for not having enough models of color on the runway.
Emmanuel Dunand
AFP/Getty Images
Marc Jacobs is among the designers who were named by the Diversity Coalition for not having enough models of color on the runway.

Color continued to be a big deal on the New York runways during Fashion Week this week, but almost all the color was represented by the clothes being showcased in the new collections and not the models wearing them.

That lack of diversity has been a perennial problem in the fashion industry — at home and abroad — for at least the past 15 years. And while there may be an Asian or Hispanic girl from time to time (in this industry, everyone is a "girl"), discernibly black girls get token representation if they get it at all.

Twenty-two-year-old Chanel Iman Robinson was named in homage to two of her mother's fashion idols (she doesn't use her last name). She's one of the few in-demand black girls, but even she loses jobs when designers have filled their "black quota."

Chanel Iman told The Sunday Times Magazine that sometimes when she goes for casting calls for runway shows, she doesn't get to stay. "A few times I got excused by designers who told me, 'We already found one black girl. We don't need you anymore.' I felt very discouraged," she confessed in the U.K. publication. "When someone tells you, 'We don't want you because we already have one of your kind,' it's really sad."

Bethann Hardison, a pioneering black model, former modeling-agency owner and activist for diversity in the modeling industry, has had enough. So have Somali-born Iman and British Naomi Campbell, famed supermodels who have walked couture runways for two decades. (Iman has segued into a successful cosmetics line for women of color, although she still models on occasion. Campbell, who regularly walks in couture shows, shot to fame in the 1990s with Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista a one of the highest-paid models in the industry.)

Hardison, Iman and Campbell joined to form the Diversity Coalition, an organization that presses for more diverse representation on the runway.

The Shot Heard Round The Fashion World

Earlier this week, the Coalition released an email to the four governing bodies of the fashion world's nucleus as part of a campaign called Balance Diversity (its motto: "Time for change"). The Council of Fashion Designers of America, the British Fashion Council, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana and the Fédération Française de la Couture du Prête à Porter des Couturiers et Créateurs de Mode all got the same letter, and the shock waves are still reverberating from New York, London, Milan and Paris.

The letter, addressed to the heads of each organization, was blunt and to the point:

"Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches fashion design houses consistently use one or no models of color.

"No matter the intention, the result is racism.

"Not accepting another based on the color of their skin is clearly beyond 'aesthetic' when it is consistent with the designer's brand.

"Whether it's the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.

"It can no longer be accepted, or confused by the use of the Asian model.

"As of last season, below are the fashion houses guilty of this racist act:"

And then, based on the roster from last year's shows, they named names. And, as the following partial list shows, the names were big ones:

Alexander McQueen. Balenciaga. Chanel. Saint Laurent. Valentino. Armani. Roberto Cavalli. Versace. Calvin Klein. Donna Karan. Marc Jacobs. Proenza Schouler.

Speaking Truth to Power

Hardison, Campbell and Iman sat for with Good Morning America on Monday to explain why they outed the shows that had a monochromatic runway presence.

"I don't want to try to embarrass anyone into doing anything," Hardison said. But facts are facts, and the nondiverse runways speak for themselves. She's not calling any one person racist, although she does believe that designers who choose an all-white cabine (chosen group of models) to represent them "are ignorant and arrogant," because the world no longer looks that way.

"This is not the business of shaming," Iman emphasized, "... nobody is calling any of these designers racist. The act itself [of casting no or very few models of color] is racism."

Conspicuously absent from the call-out were Tom Ford and Diane von Furstenberg, who have consistently showed significantly integrated runways.

'Time For Change'

No one can definitively say whether rumors of the Coalition's impending letter — which had been circulating for several weeks — prompted designers to add a black girl or two this time around, but The New York Times . Sort of: This week, many of the shows that had black girls had two instead of one. Oscar de la Renta had three. The runways are the most obvious aspect of fashion's diversity challenge, but the problem is bone-deep. And sometimes it seems the resistance to solving it is, too.

James Scully, a well-known black casting director who finds girls for top-tier American designers, told BuzzFeed in March that some shows so lacked diversity it feels as if the monochromatic cabines are there by directive: "I feel the Dior cast is just so pointedly white that it feels deliberate. I watch that show and it bothers me — I almost can't even concentrate on the clothes because of the cast."

It's a real regression from the '70s, when black girls were prized on runways at home and abroad. Hubert de Givenchy was famous for having the first all-black cabine, and Yves Saint Laurent used black models liberally in his Paris shows.

But while the houses of Givenchy and Saint Laurent still exist, the men that founded them are now dead. And with them, apparently went not only their vision, but their global sensibility.

Unlike the top-down dictates of 50 years ago, fashion and its influence are no longer confined to only a few cities, and couture, while inspiring, doesn't make enough to keep a design house afloat — even with healthy infusions from its main clients, who mostly live in Asia and the Middle East. Most industry observers agree if the upper echelon of fashion is going to survive, it will have to recognize that it's a big world out there, one that looks vastly more varied than the girls currently walking down many runways.

Already the heads of New York and London organizations have reached out to Hardison to begin discussions about how to address the industry's diversity problem in a meaningful way, but no one expects change overnight. In a tweeted conversation with the readers of Essence, the flagship fashion and beauty magazine for black women, a reader asked Bethann Hardison what her advice would be to aspiring models of color.

Hardison began her response by saying, "Consider another field."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.