Fashion is an artistic expression, no matter what the colors of the outfit entail. From flashy gowns to tailored trousers, the artwork of fashion designers is produced with colors and patterns that simply leave us in awe. Why is it then that diversity in the fashion industry has been more monochromatic than the garments that are worn? What is it about women of color that makes them less desirable as runway models compared to their white counterparts?
The fashion industry spans across various markets and affects each one in a myriad of ways. From selling clothing in retail stores to presenting garments down the runways, the rise of the industry can be dated back to the early 20th century. Prior to that, in the 19th century, garments were typically hand sewn and customized to the particular individual. Due to technological advances, the concept of creating garments has expanded into a global market worth 3 trillion dollars as of 2016. With dominating power such as this, one may assume that the concept of simply showcasing clothing down the runway would be fairly easy and work to many advantages of various people. This is highly incorrect, as these shows play an integral part in communicating fashion across many markets. New York Fashion Week, a week filled with fashion presentations held both in February and September, brings in approximately 900 million dollars alone. Not only does it provide designers the opportunity to truly showcase their craft, it also provides tons of individuals who hold many different roles, ranging from fashion editors to photographers, with the chance to live out their passion and play their part within the industry.
What one may not notice, if overwhelmed by the joys of fashion, is the true lack of diversity. When analyzing fashion shows, one will more than likely see models of the same stature and skin complexion sporting the garments down the runway. The true question is, “Why?” Why aren’t these artists taking out the time to include individuals of different complexions and backgrounds within the display of their work and in their offices? May it be because these designers feel as if people of color don’t complement their clothing well? Is it because their target audience isn’t comprised of individuals from the African diaspora? Perhaps the lack of diversity in leadership poses an overall issue within the industry. Despite these unsettling notions, it is important to begin this conversation and address the issues that are currently transpiring within fashion.
Personally, while watching fashion shows, I have always found myself getting excited inside when I would see a black woman strutting down the runway. I literally would begin to jump for joy when I would see a woman of color working with top level executives in a fashion company simply because it isn’t commonly shown in the media. These thoughts led me to believe that there may be many people of color who doubt that they will be given the same opportunities that these industry professionals were provided with. To truly understand the current state of the fashion industry, I first spoke with beauty expert and owner of Glensford Beauty Academy, Amandia Reese-Craig, and fashion stylist Melizza Williams, about these pressing matters. It is imperative that while we address the issues of diversity, we understand what strides can be taken to correct these problems.
“Fashion has always been my passion,” says Reese-Craig. “From a young age, I always found myself wanting to step outside of the box through my clothing and knew that pursuing a career in the industry was going to happen.” While Amandia found herself styling outfits for fashion shows and on TV sets, she felt as if something was missing. “People of my skin color were definitely absent.” In 2015, fewer than 4 percent of designers showcasing their clothing during New York Fashion Week were African American. While people of color have been known as style game changers in our country for years, the lack of designers representing us is disheartening. Some believe that it traces back to schooling, fashion schooling to be exact. I believe the lack of opportunities truly lies at the forefront of the separation. “Beverly Johnson was the 1st black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue in August 1974”, says Williams.“That was almost 50 years. You would think there would be more representation for women of color in the media, but we would have to dig into America’s history full of skeletons that no one wants to touch, such as slavery and systematic racism,”. Williams also believes that the mindset these brands may have is that since women of color may not be purchasing from them frequently, they shouldn’t care to include them in their campaigns or on the runway.
The racial divide within models is physically evident as well. Casting director James Scully was informed that allegedly Lanvin, a fashion brand based in Paris, told their agents that they did not want to be presented with models of color. Williams believes that once someone has seen what casting directors cast and which models a brand wants, it gives him or her insight into their personal preferences, biases, and ideals. “There’s a small group of people at the top who determines which models fit their ideals of beauty. Those gatekeepers have been in their positions for a while and won’t be leaving anytime soon.”It is documented that well-known model Chanel Iman told the Times how she was rejected from fashion shows because “they already found one black girl.” Joan Smalls, also a model, was told, “You’re a black model. It’s a challenge.” Being that approximately 10% of models overall were black this year actively supports these statements.
Another issue posed is the repetition of certain models in the spotlight. “Quite frankly, I’m overseeing the same top models in every campaign,” Williams claims. “It makes me bored and tired of them quickly. I wish there was a rotational system that tried to ensure that everyone gets a fair share.” Having the “ideal look” coupled with a strong social media following provides these brands with even more of a reason to primarily work with the same models that coincidentally fit their beauty standards.
Skin color isn’t the only barrier within the industry now. Williams also notes that plus-sized models aren’t properly represented in fashion. In New York, Paris, Milan, and London combined, only six plus sized models were featured on the runways. While strides are being made through events such as Full-Figured Fashion Week, also held in New York City, the integration within large markets both in the United States and overseas is still behind.
While working in the fashion and beauty industry, both Reese-Craig and Williams have dealt directly with diversity issues. “I grew up in St. Croix. Race was not a topic on my mind. My mom’s family is from Puerto Rico and my Dad’s family is Black; so between the two, there are so many skin tones and shades,” says Williams. After moving to America, she was made aware of racial issues and tensions. “I’m hyperaware while on set now. Some may say since I could blend in I shouldn’t be hyperaware, but I am. Sometimes I think, why am I the only Black person in this room?” She also has friends in the industry who have stated that they feel looked down upon because they are proudly Black at their respective companies. On the other hand, Amandia has experienced certain beauty standards placed directly upon models she has styled. After seeing all the models of color have their hair straightened on set and told by the producer that the same would occur for the model she was styling, Amandia decided to put her foot down. “I refused to have her hair straightened and wouldn’t have the hair stylist do so. We needed to see her big beautiful curls on TV and bring some color in there.”
With an industry as cutthroat as this one, I could imagine how one would fear that somehow they will go unnoticed because a quota was fulfilled prior to them. I’ve even been told by fellow counterparts that they often find themselves second-guessing their work because they feel they will only be given one shot and wouldn’t want to mess up and misrepresent women of color. It is important to address these issues, but even more imperative that we strive to make the change the industry needs. Reese-Craig believes that it is best to begin by acknowledging the strides that have been made. “They’re starting to wake up, but we have a long way to go,” she states. There have been designers who have awakened. Fashion designer Zac Posen made a bold statement in his Fall 2016 presentation by declaring that “Black Models Matter” and including a lineup of almost all models of color that season. Christian Siriano had ten plussized models and dark skinned women of color in his Spring 2017 Fashion Week presentation where Melizza was in attendance. “I felt proud being in that audience and being represented. Just seeing black women in that show and plus sized women. I was pleased,” says Williams.