Saturday, October 13, 2007

NYT: Runways Fade to White

IN the days of blithe racial assumptions, flesh crayons were the color of white people. “Invisible” makeup and nude pantyhose were colored in the hues of Caucasian skin. The decision by manufacturers to ignore whole segments of humanity went unchallenged for decades before the civil rights movement came along and nonwhite consumers started demanding their place on the color wheel. Nowadays the cultural landscape is well populated with actors, musicians, media moguls and candidates for the American presidency drawn from the 30 percent of the American population that is not white. Yet, if there is one area where the lessons of chromatic and racial diversity have gone largely unheeded, it is fashion.

...Although black women in the United States spend more than $20 billion on apparel each year, according
to estimates by, it was hard to discern an awareness of this fact on the part of designers showing in New York, where black faces were more absent from runways than they have been in years. Of the 101 shows and presentations posted on during the New York runway season, which ended a month ago, more than a third employed no black models, according to Women’s Wear Daily. Most of the others used just one or two. When the fashion caravan moved to London, Paris and Milan, the most influential shows — from Prada to Jil Sander to Balenciaga to Chloé and Chanel — made it appear as if someone had hung out a sign reading: No Blacks Need Apply.

...“It’s heartbreaking for me now because the agents send the girls out there to castings and nobody wants to see them,” said Ms. Hardison, referring to black models. “And if they do, they’ll call afterward and say, ‘Well, you know, black girls do much better in Europe, or else black girls do much better in New York, or we already have our black girl.’”

...“Modeling is probably the one industry where you have the freedom to refer to people by their color and reject them in their work,” she said.
The exclusion is rarely subtle. An agent for the modeling firm Marilyn once told Time magazine of receiving requests from fashion clients that baldly specified “Caucasians only.”

...“Years ago, runways were almost dominated by black girls,” said J. Alexander, a judge on “America’s Next Top Model,” referring to the gorgeous mosaic runway shows staged by Hubert de Givenchy or Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s. “Now some people are not interested in the vision of the black girl unless they’re doing a jungle theme and they can put her in a grass skirt and diamonds and hand her a spear.”

...And some people, said Diane Von Furstenberg, the designer and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, “just don’t think about it at all.” Ms. Von Furstenberg herself has always employed models of all ethnicities on her runways. (This September, she hired seven black women, more perhaps than any single label except Baby Phat and Heatherette.) Yet she is increasingly the exception to an unspoken industry rule.
“I always want to do that,” she said, referring to the casting of women of color. “I can make a difference. We all can. But so much is about education and to talk about this is an important beginning.” But isn’t it strange, she was asked, that she would have to invoke the rhetoric of racial inclusiveness at a time when Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful woman in media, and Barack Obama is running for president?

...There is something illustrative of the entire issue, and the state of the industry, to be found in this September’s Italian Vogue.
Just one image of a black model appears in the issue, midway through a 17-page article photographed by Miles Aldridge and titled the “Vagaries of Fashion.” In it, the glacial blond Anja Rubik portrays an indolent, overdressed Park Avenue princess with a gilded apartment, a couture wardrobe, two towhead children and a collection of heavy rocks. The sole black model in the pictorial is more modestly attired, in an aproned pinafore. She plays the maid.

It's interesting to me how much steam this story seems to be picking up. It reminds me a bit of all the press surrounding the planned NAACP boycott of network television in the early 1990s because of the lack of representation of people of color in prime time.

For awhile everyone was talking about it. The powers that be had their excuses handy but in the end, not much changed. To be fair, CBS offered up City of Angels and quickly canceled it but with very few exceptions TV hasn't changed much.

I suspect the same will happen with this issue. Maybe Anna Wintour will feel some heat and actually give a black model a cover. I wonder if she'll recycle the editorial she wrote when she put Kiara Kabukuru on the cover in July 1997 in which begged readers to accept her and repeated the tired and untrue refrain about black faces not selling issues.

Source: The New York Times


aulelia said...

this is a good post and i think the article was well-written and hinted at some undeniable facts.

it saddening in many ways because italian vogue had given naomi a cover before and mimi roche has had a spread in it too. why the maid? why did they have to do that?

i just don't understand. it frustrates me a lot and i still do not fully understand. chanel iman is a pretty girl no doubt but there are so many beautiful models like ajuma, mimi roche, loads! why forget about them?

i am proud of iman's progress but part of me has to ask. is she making it cos she looks eurocentric like the girls mentioned in the article?

FemmeNoire said...

Iman has commented on that in past, how some people grumbled that she only became popular because her features were more angular than people in fashion were used to seeing on a black model. In spite of her early success however, she was still typecast as the "exotic." Someone on The Fashion Spot posted a quote by Jay Alexander that is really true:

“Now some people are not interested in the vision of the black girl unless they’re doing a jungle theme and they can put her in a grass skirt and diamonds and hand her a spear.”

I love Iman and she was born looking that way so I can't be mad at her success. There is no one way for a black woman to look but at the same time, one can't help but notice the bias in the industry. It seems that a working black model has to be either extremely dark skinned with no hair or mixed race with long straight hair to make a living these days.

When I first started paying attention to fashion and model in Jr High, it seemed that every type of black woman was represented in fashion mags, from very fair to very dark. It's weird to me that twenty years later, the industry has taken a step backwards.