I’m not going to take the, “It’s 2009, we have a Black President route,” because the color infractions that have typically taken place in the fashion world are far greater crimes. If a Black person had never ascended to the office of President, none of us would have really minded. Most were not expecting it to happen in this lifetime anyway. However in fashion, an industry that prides it self on diversity, openness, innovation, inclusion, there has been a major failure, by the powers that be, to embrace Black models and designers in greater numbers. Think I am wrong? Models of color–all ethnicities: Asian, Latino, African and so on, make up 26 percent of the American population according to Wikipedia’s Demographics of the United States. Hell, so-called minorities actually account for 82 percent of the world’s population. Yet, within the fashion world, the total of working Black models equates to less than ten percent. You mean to tell me this is an unintentional coincidence? I think not.
According to former model and agency owner Bethann Hardison, “Modeling is probably the one industry where you have the freedom to refer to people by their color and reject them in their work for it.”
I’m also not going to call it racism. It’s a completely reversible disparity through and through. A disparity, Hardison, Diane Von Fostenberg, Naomi Campbell, Tyson Beckford and Tyra Banks, all have spoken publicly about. Independent online retailers, like the upstart Dezigners Den, have recently emerged promoting style and multi-culturalism simultaneously, by featuring styles by top designers Trina Turk, Kanye’s ex-boo Alexis Phifer’s line Ghita, and also Beyonce’s House of Dereon. Still, the site is less than a year old and has worked hard to maintain their audience during a slowing economy. Other designers on the cusp of a major breakthrough include Duro Olowu, who premiered during 2008’s Spring fashion week and Gavin Douglas.
The potential talent is out there, however the financiers, fashion houses, and other potential backers are not. Fashion houses often use quotas when it comes to how many Black faces will represent on their runways, and modeling agency heads swear designers are not looking for Black girls. On the model front, youngster Chanel Iman is working the runway circuit appearing in shows for Phillip Lam, Marc Jacobs, and Ralph Lauren in 2008 alone. Newcomer Jessica White is another example of fierce talent, as she is the first model to hold contracts with both Maybelline and Cover Girl. A personal favorite is the uber belle Mimi Roche, who has been featured in campaigns for Dolce and Gabana, Benetton and Banana Republic.
Even last years all Black Vogue Italia, of which Hardison’s agency played a major role in casting, unquestionably slapped down critics, proving the very real viability in ethnic expansion in fashion. In light of the books enormous success, the whole thing was written off as a gimmick, with Conde Nast refusing to do one more printing despite a strong outcry from the public. While no one can force the majors to play equality ball, the tide is certainly turning. Hardison’s panel discussion “Race on the Runway” has really forced the industry to take a hard look at its hiring practices and with the help of other industry heavyweights there can be legitimate and long lasting change.