"Are we still talking about this in 2008?" asks Iman in an irate voice kicking off the "Is Fashion Racist?" article in the July issue of Vogue. I've certainly pondered that question myself over the past few years and I am sure that many other fashion enthusiasts have as well.
Really, why is it that an industry such as this one known for embracing a variety of outlandish personalities and ideas is so blind when it comes to putting new faces in its clothes, on its runways or in its magazines. For example, I’ve lost count of how many times I've seen designer Philip Lim glorified on the pages of fashion tomes but I struggle to remember when I last saw and Asian model featured in a multi-page editorial. In spite of the fact that Pat McGrath, Andre Leon Talley, photographer Mark Baptist and designers like Tracey Reese are influential enough to sit at the proverbial table, that diversity hasn't tricked down to model employment office. This seems to suggest that people of other races are welcome to provide the glitz for a shoot but must never be the one to wear the accessories.
I think about this topic often and it's become the main focus of my blog because it wasn't like this when I was growing up and first became enamored with fashion. I still remember the day my English teacher brought in a stack of old ELLE magazines to give away and I got my first taste of it. I spent hours pouring over those images back then. It was superficial and I knew but I didn’t care. It still meant something to me. Seeing the Beverly Peele on the cover of Seventeen when I was in high school back then made me feel good. It made me feel included in that fabulous something even though my bi-level two toned jheri curl was decidedly not happening. Side note: I still haven’t forgiven my mother for making get a jheri curl. I honestly think of it as child abuse.
My fashion jones followed me to college where I always had the latest pictures of Naomi Campbell tacked to my mirror for fierce make up inspiration. But then it seemed, things started to reverse themselves. Instead of marching forward and including larger cross section of ethnicities, fashion started marching backwards. The change was slow but deliberate. Black models became less visible as lighter skinned, more racially ambiguous Brazilian beauties hit the scene. They started dropping off too, save Gisele, in favor of Eastern European models, each new batch even more nondescript than the previous seasons.
Nowadays, when I talk about how it used to be I feel like an old woman rocking on my porch talking about the good ole' days when they let us colored folk take pretty pictures.
In the article the author, Vicki Woods, writes that "[Vogue] magazine exists to inspire women," but I wonder is she's actually been looking at the same magazine that I have. Except for the odd issue that gets is right, most of what I see in Vogue is far from inspiring. While I will admit to coveting certain pricey items but I don't think I've looked at a model in Vogue and wanted to trade places with her since the Summer’s Bare Necessities shoot and that was in 1992.
I agree with Woods where she suggests that one simply cannot compare the supermodels of the 90's who "looked equal but different as they thundered down the runway" to the unhappy mass of similarly styled European models "who look pretty much alike." Even Sarah Doukes of Storm Models remarked "It's a naughty thing to say, because I've got some beautiful Eastern European girls, but to be honest, when I go in cars with them in Paris, I do get snow blinded."
Bethann Hardison was so angered by the situation that she emailed Iman writing "Did you realize that over the last decade black models have been reduced to a category?" The two called a series of town-hall style meeting titled "Out of Fashion: The Absence of Color" held at the New York Public Library. Countless models told stories about being rejected for jobs, not because their particular "look" or walk was a problem, but solely based on the fact that they were black. Liya Kebede shared that she has had "experience with people who did not want to work with me because I was black..really, truly." In any other industry, that would be a racist remark, and you would be taken to court for it!" After those meetings the wheels started to turn and the issue garnered more attention.
Models, especially the ones lucky enough to be earning a living as models, are reluctant to name names. So when Jourdan Dunn famously asked, "why are our catwalks so white?" it made international fashion news. Except that she didn't actually say it, professional celebrity offspring Kelly Osbourne did. Jourdan shares "She was at the Topshop show, and she said it to a journalist, who ran out and did a telephone interview with me. She said, 'Do you agree?' And I said, 'Yes, it's true."
Even as models of the moment like Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, and blazing Dominican newcomer Arlenis Sosa, are making inroads, they still face opposition but from where? This is where the article falls short, unable to point the finger at anyone in particular. Certainly not at Anna Wintour, who isn't even mentioned in the piece and presumably prefers to let her covers do the talking. Wintour doesn’t even bother to mention the article in her editorial.
So back to the blame game... Is it the photographers? No, according to Mario Testino. He says that photographers just "react to the supply." Is it the designers then? Some of whom seem to think black bodies are all wrong for the clothes. Alber Elbaz of Lanvin says no no, not him. "I try all different dresses and when I see only the face of the girl-and the dress disappears-I know it's the best dress for her." Huh? He goes on to say that he was "trained" to use black models. "I loved them from the time I worked at [YSL]; he always used black models." Because I'm thinking something is lost in translation there so I'm not going to go on too much about why someone has to be trained to see black people as a viable option. It's getting a little too Haley Joel Osment in here for my taste.
Well, that leaves the casting agents (the gays are spared the finger pointing in this article.) Russell Marsh, who does casting for Prada and is very influential in the industry isn't asked why there was a ten-year gap in between Naomi's last walk for the design house and Jordan Dunn's. He's asked why he chose her. His unsatisfying answer pays lip service to her elegance and confidence being right for that particular show and then goes on to talk about how important it is that the clothes are not overshadowed as they were during the age of the supermodels.
Seriously, people talk about the AGE OF THE SUPERMODELS like it's prehistoric or something. Last time I look around, most of those big names were still making money and to the best of my knowledge no one has successfully performed carbon dating on Naomi Campbell. Iman rightfully called bullsh*t on that saying, "You don't want to look like these [current] models, you don't want to emulate them." Models exist to be muses and to make women want to buy the overpriced clothes they wear.
James Scully, who casts for Tom Ford blames celebrity culture. "When it's tough for models, it's really tough for black models." While it is true that it's rare to find a model and not an actress on a fashion magazine cover these days, Hollywood has it's own problems when it comes to diversity.
Anyway, it seems the bottom line is that dour faced robotic beauties are in and models with unique looks and personalities are out. My question is that if designers really believe that their clothes are best represented on blank canvas models. Why is the canvas always white? Why not runway shows populated by say, Asian models of similar builds, styled the exact same way or black models grouped together for the similarity in their features? They are certainly not above exploiting a model's race to grab attention. How can a group of professionals famed for thinking outside the box be so narrowly focused at the same time?
So where does that leave someone like me? While I am pleased to see models like Arlenis getting a break my enthusiasm for these things has dampened considerably. Often I will read comments from people who are puzzled as to why people like me bother getting upset about these things in the first place. "Why should I care about that white magazine and whether or not they put black people in it?" is a common refrain. I admit that there are some days that I feel the same way. Especially nowadays when I'm more informed and entertained by fashion blogs than I am by print magazines.
On the flip side, another part of me still longs for a time when I can pick up a magazine on the stands, read about fashion and see an array of images representing all types of beauty not just black or white. I don’t feel that any kind of change like this will occur if people stop complaining and give up. These old habits die hard. So while I am still hotly anticipating getting my hands on a copy of Italian Vogue, I still reserve the right to complain about it once I've seen it for myself. I can’t help it. I'm old and cranky and I’m a decade away from yelling at kids to get off my lawn. At the very least, I know there are people who feel the same way that I do and I know how comforting it is to read bitching online that could have come from ones own mouth. So this is for the two dozen of you who read this site and feel like I do. Cranky is the new black.