Racism and the Fashion Industry

The finale at Calvin Klein Collection at New York Fashion Week, February 2013

The finale at Calvin Klein Collection at New York Fashion Week, February 2013

For the last five years Jenna Sauers, writer for the popular feminist blog Jezebel, has been analyzing and reporting on the racial diversity of models at New York Fashion Week. The numbers have gone slightly up and down in each report. But from when Sauers first began the study in Fall 2008 and discovered that a mere 12% of looks were given to non-white girls, until now, where the figure stands at 17%, every season has brought the same awful conclusion – the vast majority of the women walking the runways are Caucasian.

Recently I read an article wherein 5 of the top casting directors were asked to give an explanation as to why fashion shows are so white; the fashion shows that they themselves cast. I was expecting the same drivel I have heard a hundred times over – “The designer isn’t racist, they simply have a vision and [insert minority here] may not have been right for the collection”, etc, etc,. While James Scully told of his own furor with the lack of diversity in the industry and cited the shows he works on as examples of racially diverse casting (Tom Ford, Jason Wu); Barbara Nicoli and Leila Ananna made true my prediction and offered an apologist retort.

Gucci Fall 2013 model board, cast by Barbara and Ananna

Gucci Fall 2013 model board, cast by Barbara and Ananna

The power duo currently select models for a handful of shows for the world’s leading fashion brands – including Saint Laurent, Gucci and Burberry, and count i-D, Vogue and Flair among their clients. They were named by industry leader WWD as one of the top 5 most influential casting directors. Why then, despite their status and the global reach of the labels they work with, were just 12 of the 128 models that Nicoli and Ananna booked for their Fall 2013 shows Asian and only 4 black? Nicoli attempted reasoning that it’s not about the model’s skin colour, it’s about the aesthetic of the designer. On Gucci’s white-washed cast she had this to say:

“I think if you’re very strict on your collection and have a vision, it’s pretty difficult to accept someone who is far from your idea of the woman wearing your clothes.”  She added: “Asians, they are not curvy, so to put an Asian [who’s] very flat [with a] baby body shape in a show where normally the designer knows they love sexy, beautiful, curvy girls, it’s a bit of nonsense. If you do it, it’s just because you have to or you want to please your customer coming from Asia”.

It’s worth taking note of that in China, where luxury sales continue to rise, Gucci today has 53 stores across 33 cities. What does it say to their Chinese customers that they are ‘far from [Gucci’s] idea of the woman wearing [their] clothes’? Also mentioned in the article was the brand’s use of Puerto Rican Joan Smalls – who most recently walked the Fall 2013 show and has fronted their mainline campaign twice.

“In Gucci, one season, we used Joan for the show, so she was the muse of the season. But, for example, Gucci never has a huge number of black girls in the show because in the mind of Frida [Giannini, Gucci’s creative director], she wants this [specific] type of girl — no matter the color of the skin.”

Doesn’t this all sound an awful lot like the old “I’m not racist, my best friend is black!” argument?

Joan Smalls in the Spring 2011 Campaign by Mert and Marcus

Joan Smalls in the Spring 2011 Campaign by Mert and Marcus

Despite their less-than-perfect casting, Nicoli and Ananna are unfortunately not the worst. Maida Gregori Boina and Rami Fernandes are often the first names that come up in this discussion. Casting directors of Calvin Klein, Jil Sander, and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s The Row, Maida and Rami are notorious for their all or near-all white lineups. Calvin Klein in particular just this past season was entirely Caucasian but, and here is where it gets even worse: in the last 8 years there have been only six different black models and zero models of other ethnicity beside Caucasian featured in their shows.

It may be true that this all started with Prada. After the supermodel era Miuccia Prada did something revolutionary – she made her show about the clothes and not the models wearing them. Miuccia plucked brand new girls from obscurity. Yet to be developed as models let alone women, she stamped them with the promising label of  “exclusive”. From then on each season saw hundreds of these girls, often from Eastern Europe, with little personality and a name no one bothered to remember. In more cases than not they disappeared the next season. Other brands including and most notably Calvin Klein, Jil Sander and Balenciaga, caught on to the trend and thus this is the result we are seeing today. As James Scully told Trudi Tapscott Model Management last year, “personality and ethnicity” have been erased.

Some of Miuccia’s exclusives

Some of Miuccia’s exclusives

So, how do we fix this? The first thing that should be addressed is that many people in the industry are not recognizing this for what it actually is – racism – and in fact do not even seen it as a problem. Nicoli and Ananna’s defensive and contradicting response proves this. These people are from the same industry who dressed Caucasian Karlie Kloss in traditional native-American headdress while modeling lingerie, who paint white models black and put it down to “art”. It’s concerning that some of the most forward-thinking, innovative and, most importantly, influential figures are so far behind in workplace and human equality.

Left: Lara Stone in black-face for French Vogue, Right: Karlie Kloss at the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in traditional native-American headdress

Left: Lara Stone in black-face for French Vogue, Right: Karlie Kloss at the 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show in traditional native-American headdress

In early 2011 designer John Galliano was famously arrested over a public anti-Semitic outburst leading to his eventual dismissal as the creative director of Dior, a position he had held since 1996. In April 2012 Belgian designer Raf Simons was announced as his successor. Interestingly, during his tenure at Dior Galliano was well-known for model diversity however since his departure and Simon’s appointment the casts have been almost 100% Caucasian. Yes, what Galliano did was reprehensible but how is it that we can be so outraged over a troubled man’s tirade yet turn a blind eye to the obvious racism happening right there on the runway?

Raf Simon’s Dior women

Raf Simon’s Dior women

This isn’t about filling a quota. It’s about these global brands recognizing that when they are putting an all white cast down the runway they are promoting a beauty ideal that does not include majority of the world’s population. This is problematic not only from a business and sales perspective, which at the very least should be in the interest of PPR, LVMH and co., but it’s also a social issue! A casting director simply is not doing their job right if they cannot cast to the best of their ability. If they cannot see beauty or relevance in models of colour then the problem is with them.

There is no simple or quick solution. The modeling industry is unregulated and the typical perspective is that this is just how fashion is and it’s not going to change. In the past there have been futile attempts by major game players but in the end if you put out an “All Black” issue only to immediately go back to what you were doing before, it’s tokenism. The truth is that it only takes one or two people at the top to move things into a better direction. Like Gianni Versace who created the supermodel and Anna Wintour and Miuccia Prada who dismantled her, it is possible to make changes and those changes need to start now.

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