The absence of diversity in the fashion industry has remained a hot topic in popular culture since the civil rights movements of the ‘60s...

By Grace Austin

The absence of diversity in the fashion industry has remained a hot topic in popular culture since the civil rights movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s drew attention to the homogeneity of the fashion world. Within the past fifteen years there has been a major call to action to correct this, with some notable gains made. Yet there still remains a great disparity among all facets of the industry, and the implications that it has for society’s greater understanding of what is beautiful are still being felt.

Models

Each fashion week season, thousands of models walk the runways for prestigious designers, with white models making up the vast majority of those who work. In September 2012’s New York Fashion Week, of the 4,708 individual looks that were seen during the shows, only 20.6 percent were worn by women of color, according to Jezebel.com.

Black models represented 8.1 percent of this total, while Asian models fared slightly better with representation at 10.1 percent. Even though Latinos are the largest minority group in America, only 1.9 percent of the models used during New York’s September 2012 shows were Latinos.

African Americans and Latinos make up 12.6 percent and 16.3 percent of the U.S. population respectively, according to the 2010 Census, showing the extreme deficit in adequate representation for these groups on the runways.

Of course, when diverse models are used, it is often as a token or a novelty. Even Givenchy’s all-Asian model casting at Paris Fashion Week in early 2012 was criticized for its thinly-veiled orientalism. The same is true of using plus-sized models in fashion shows—they’re not evident of true change but attempts to appease criticism about using anorexic or too-thin models.

Additionally, models of color are often “white-washed,” chosen for their Caucasian features and light skin. Often times designers like to use a model that won’t upstage the clothes, who will blend seamlessly into the garments, pretty but “blank-featured.” Having an “ethnic” look prohibits this kind of discernibility.

In the past, casting directors have been guilty of posting “no ethnics,” to discourage models of color from even applying. While this blatant racism may be a thing of the past, as Bethann Hardison (a former model who ran a successful modeling agency), said to the New York Times in 2007, “Modeling is probably the one industry where you have the freedom to refer to people by their color and reject them in their work.”

Although designer Diane Von Furstenberg, president of the CFDA, issued a memo in 2008 urging designers to create “truly multicultural” fashion shows, statements like this have rarely made headway.

What has made a difference are the designers that seek out diverse models, and not just for one season, like Von Furstenberg, J. Crew, and Betsey Johnson. Designers of color are more apt to hire diverse models, too. Modeling agencies that promote diversity have also been at the forefront of change, like the Ben Barry Agency. Organizations like Models of Diversity have at least drawn attention to the issue, but it will remain to be seen if the work of a few individuals will change an industry’s inclinations towards homogeneity.

Designers

Some African American designers, like Tracy Reese, have managed to make gains in the lucrative mainstream, while the Asian American designer explosion of Alexander Wang, Phillip Lim, and Peter Som a few years ago has only been tempered by their increasing success. Of the Autumn/Winter (held in March) 2012 New York shows, though, theGrio reported only two designers out of 127 were African American, Reese and b. Michael.

Meanwhile, Latinos have made more inroads as designers than other minorities. Cuban-American Narcisco Rodriguez is famous for designing Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s simple wedding dress in the ‘90s, and was later awarded the CFDA Designer of the Year award. Oscar de la Renta, a native of the Dominican Republic, is highly respected for his creations, as is Venezuelan-born Carolina Herrera, who dresses celebrities and counts a net worth of $100 million.

Stephen Burrows, winner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Board of Directors Special Tribute Award, is often considered the first designer of color to receive international acclaim (at the 1973 Grand Divertissement á Versailles fashion show). Burrows has said that funding and press often keep designers of color out of the spotlight.

Funding, for design and runway shows, is often highly expensive. An estimated investment of at least a hundred thousand dollars is often needed for even a small runway show. And even finding the investment to start your own brand or company can be daunting financially.

Some groups, like the Organization of Black Designers (OBD) and the Black Fashion Designers Association, have been established to promote diversity among designers. Harlem’s Fashion Row is another organization that works to correct this imbalance, attempting to find more black designers to show on the runway.

Magazines

Magazines like Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vogue are still the main ways people take in fashion. Thus they comprise a powerful element of what people view as fashionable and beautiful. Still, for the most part, these magazines are white-washed and rarely show diversity of age or size. The 2008 all-black Italian Vogue issue was a unique exception, featuring notable black supermodels like Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Alek Wek. The issue was Italian Vogue’s fastest-selling ever.

Traditionally, though, putting African Americans on the cover of a fashion magazine has not translated into sales. Famously Halle Berry’s September 2010 Vogue cover, usually the largest and most profitable issue of the year, fared poorly on newsstands. This was the first time a black woman had been on the September issue since 1989. To say the least, the impression that “black doesn’t sell” is still prevalent in the industry.

Vogue recently placed 63-year-old actress Meryl Streep on its January 2012 cover, the oldest cover model for the magazine in many years. According to New York Magazine’s blog The Cut, for the past twelve years the average age of Vogue cover models has been 30.3 years old. Although there are some older actresses who increase that median age, like Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Aniston, a majority of models within the publication are in their 20s.

While Vogue was praised for keeping Streep natural, it seems magazines are always in the news for another photoshopping debacle. Over the years such victims have included forty-something Faith Hill and over-50 Madonna and Demi Moore. Aside from making celebrities look younger and thinner, skin tone is often altered or lightened, something common among celebrities of color. (Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian have been past victims of this.)

Promisingly, there have been efforts to show healthier images in magazines. In mid-2012 Vogue vowed to use healthier models in its British, French, U.S., and Japanese editions. This includes “not knowingly work [ing] with models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder.” Additionally, Israel has banned the use of underweight models in commercials and fashion shows. In the interest of reducing eating disorders, women and men who apply for modeling jobs in Israel must have a doctor verify that their BMI (a number representing the ratio between weight and height) is at least 18.5, considered normal weight. And Glamour has recently taken stances to use a wide range of models in their features. Whether these efforts will spur changes is still being debated.

Editorial concerns, though, are often overshadowed by controversies over ads. Marketing and advertising within fashion and women’s magazines are a major issue, especially because it can’t be controlled by the magazines. (The aforementioned initiative by Vogue doesn’t apply to advertisements, a major barrier to showing a less homogenous population within the magazine.) Although companies like Dove and M.A.C. have made public efforts to show “real people” in their advertisements, most brands stick with what they know: white and skinny. For example, of all the advertisements in the 414-page October issue of Elle, there were only 12 black models and five Asian models. There were no full-figured models. For a magazine that relies so heavily on advertisements, these figures are alarming.

Blogs

The popularity and rise of blogs has changed the face of the fashion world. Bloggers from Australia, Sweden, France, Spain, and across the U.S. have become instant global celebrities by sharing their lives and daily sartorialism for internet readers. These people show diversity in ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and size.

So why are blogs so ubiquitous? Because nearly everyone, with some basic knowledge of building a blog and writing or photography, can create one. While the fashion world may be notoriously elite, the egalitarianism of blogs makes fashion more accessible and inclusive.

Lesley Kinzel’s blog Two Whole Cakes, recently published into a book, shares her style advice regularly on the site. Kinzel wears a size 26. Asma, an Austin-based “twenty-something” mom, regularly uses her blog, Haute Muslimah, to share the latest fashion. She often pairs the latest fashions with the traditional hijab. And Advanced Style, run by Ari Seth Cohen, showcases mature women in their chic and sometimes eccentric duds. The blog was recently made into a book.

Diverse Fashion Consumers
The truth is African American, Latino, and Asian American women have incredible buying power. It is estimated at more than $1 trillion, and expected to increase.

Fashion, like other global industries and businesses, needs to realize the importance of diversity. To appeal to all of the potential markets in the world, fashion needs to be reflective in its advertisements and representations of who actually buys the brand.

As Jezebel pointed out, although fashion “has many people of color in leadership positions” and is “historically very tolerant of sexual minorities,” it has a long way to go before everyone is represented in an industry which tells a vast majority of the world how to look and feel.

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