Several of the world’s top black supermodels, including Naomi Campbell, Iman, Liya Kebede and Tyson Beckford, yesterday launched a campaign against race discrimination in the fashion industry – which they say is at its worst since the 1960s. About 70 leading models, designers, agents and fashion show producers gathered at a New York hotel in the first of a series of rallies designed to put pressure on the industry to face up to the problem.
Ms Campbell, who flew in from London for the meeting, repeated her recent claim that she could no longer get on to the cover of British Vogue. “Do I still want to be on the cover of British Vogue? Absolutely I do. It’s not because I don’t sell, because I do sell – more than many of my white counterparts.”
The south London-born supermodel said there had been times in her career when she had been so exhausted she had wanted to stop modelling. She said she had no desire for sympathy or to blame anybody, but said she had had to resort to extraordinary measures to overcome resistance. She revealed that she had forced her way on to the cover of French Vogue only after the designer Yves Saint Laurent had threatened to break off relations with the magazine unless they did so.
The event was organised by Bethann Hardison, a model from the 1970s who formed her own agency that helped launch the careers of Ms Campbell and Mr Beckford, one of the highest paid male supermodels. “In the past decade the black image has been reduced to a category – she is not even to be seen; she has become invisible,” Ms Hardison said.
The New York Times noted this week that several of the New York fashion week shows, including Calvin Klein, had featured only white models. Several speakers at yesterday’s event said the industry had become progressively closed to African-Americans through open discrimination that would be unthinkable in any other US industry. Claude Grunitzky, editor of the magazine Trace, said that when he invited Somalia-born Iman to guest edit a recent edition with the cover line “black girls rule”, a major advertiser had pulled out at the last minute on the grounds that the phrase was racist.
Iman added that she had found it difficult to persuade black models to pose for the cover. “I understood that – I didn’t want to be labelled a black model when I started, but now I do celebrate it and I see the difference.” Ivan Bart, vice-president of IMG models, who arranged for Ethiopian-born Liya Kebede to become the first black face for EstÃ©e Lauder, said: “The rules have become stricter. When I first started in the business, a beautiful model of any colour could be on the cover.”
The event was conceived as the first of a monthly series of meetings. The participants are planning to lobby the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and there was brief discussion of the possibility of bringing a class action law suit against the most blatant discriminators.