Insiders Talk About Race in the Fashion Industry
They paint a picture of fashion's opportunities and institutional obstacles for people of color.
All photos by Christelle de Castro, with styling by Miyako Bellizi and makeup by Allie Smith
It might look as though the fashion industry is on the brink of breaking down the barriers that once shut minorities out. In the past few years, we've seen a new generation of multi-ethnic designers, artists, and creatives who have clawed their way to the highest echelons of style. From the multi-racial design duo Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborn of Public School nabbing the CFDA Fashion Fund Award, to Shanye Oliver of Hood By Air showing at the prestigious Pitti Uomo in France—it can make you think that we're in an exciting moment, when sheer talent and creativity finally overpowers prejudice.
Unfortunately, despite recent gains, there are still a great many roadblocks—some more subliminal than others—for people of color who work in fashion. It's a duality that reflects what it's like to be a minority in America today, where you can have a black president and still find institutional disregard for black lives, or you can be excited about Eddie Huang's Fresh off the Boat series but pissed it took 20 years to get a new sitcom about an Asian family on network TV.
Nowhere is the struggle more visible in fashion than on the runways of New York Fashion Week, where around 80 percent of models on the catwalks are white. This underrepresentation triggered models like Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell and designers like Diane Von Furstenberg to petition the industry to hire more minorities. But despite the A-list support, real progress has been negligible at best.
While there hasn't been too much effort put towards improving diversity, fashion's eagerness to exploit the style of minorities through the appropriation of baby hairs, headdresses, and "migrant worker chic" is very much in vogue. Season after season, we see how clueless the industry can be—from A.P.C.'s Jean Touitou naming one his runway looks "Last Niggas in Paris" to Maison Martin Margiela resurrecting the career of designer John Galliano, who's known for making racist and anti-Semitic comments.
To find out what it's like for minorities working in the fashion industry, we reached out some prominent people of color who are involved in modeling, styling, editing, designing, and photography. Their presence in the industry is inspiration to all those who dream of designing a collection, walking down a catwalk, or getting their name on a masthead, but don't readily see people who look like them in those positions. Their stories paint an insightful picture of the fashion world, where there is both opportunity and institutional obstacles for minorities.
Occupation: Casting Director
Hometown: Mabelvale, Arkansas
"I don't think that the fashion industry is particularly racist. I think it is exemplary of how race works in our culture. It being a visual industry, it is just more obvious in some ways. I would say every day I work in fashion, I have to deal with the race thing, but I have to deal with the race thing every day when I go to the store. There have been times that I have shown up to my own castings at a client's office and the receptionist or the intern has told me to go to the freight elevator for deliveries, or asked 'Is that my teriyaki chicken?' I have gotten that a lot.
"In New York and in fashion, people pride themselves on being more sophisticated in culture, but that doesn't give you a free pass to not be offensive. It is strange that in our culture—and especially in fashion casting—when you have a blank slate it is usually someone white. But if you have color, it is something that is added onto that blank slate, so it just changes everything. There has been a lot of talk about diversity in casting, but I don't think that fashion is out to do the right thing. I don't think it's the industry's responsibility to do the right thing, either."
Occupation: Designer of Nomia
Hometown: New York, New York
"When I was a teenager I used to get scouted by modeling agencies because I was 5'10 when I was 14. One time I remember going in to an agency for a go-see and the agent telling me I was 'too ethnic.' It was the late 1990s, a time when more androgynous, overwhelmingly white models were the trend. At the time, I was pretty confused and disappointed, but now I can appreciate that type of honesty because I think open dialogue is the only way to bring about more meaningful discussions of race and inclusion in fashion.
"I think access into the industry is very tough for everyone, but I think economic factors can be even more of a barrier than ethnicity and in some cases gender. For models, I imagine breaking in to the industry to be quite difficult, which is a far cry from the 1980s when models of color were more prevalent. Ultimately it comes down to trends, but usually those trends are symptomatic of a broader cultural and political climate. I feel extremely lucky to have had the experience of growing up in a huge city with a really diverse group of friends and it's hard to explain exactly how that manifests in my work, but it's fundamental to my identity."
Joshua Kissi and Travis Gumbs
Occupation: Founders of Street Etiquette
Ages: 25 and 25
Hometown: New York, New York
Ethnicity: Joshua is Ghanaian-American (Africa) and Travis is Kittian-American (West Indies)
"We created Street Etiquette because there wasn't a voice for black culture in fashion as far as young men go, but at the same time we just needed to express ourselves. We didn't come out saying this is the new black cultural perspective, but people labeled it that because it was something new and refreshing. Even in the way we research style, we look at West Indian, Caribbean, and African style and mesh that with what that would look like today in a modern way. I think combining different worlds and different aesthetics brought about a new culture.
"You'll see now in different details in the fashion industry that people are borrowing things from minorities, specifically black culture like baby hairs, finger waves, du-rags, Air Force Ones, and Timberlands. These are all facets of different cultures, and black culture is being embraced by the fashion industry. It is much more concrete now, but before it was like they wouldn't associate themselves with it. Everyone is inspired by something, but you also have to know where to draw the line." – Josh
"I feel like a lot of the times when we have these conversations, they are more negative than positive. We already get discriminated against so much that if you are trying to enter into a field and you are a minority, you are already looked at in a certain type of way, so we created our own space. I don't think the fashion world really embraced us with open arms. It was more of this new way that people looked at the internet and things to be inspired by, not so much what's happening in fashion.
"My girl was telling me about this London brand's T-shirt that has a Jamaican man hanging from a tree and at the bottom it says 'Batty Boy,' which means gay in Jamaican. It is something political and the undertones are good because the [people wearing the shirts] are gay men, but they are also white. You can't really do that. I think people in fashion have been notorious for that. Even if they think they understand it, they are too far removed from it." – Travis
Hometown: Oakland, California
"I decided to do this shoot because I feel its an important topic that should be open for discussion. Being mixed, a lot of people wouldn't even know I was Japanese if it wasn't for my name. I consider myself more Asian than white because that is how I was raised. I have noticed that with modeling, when they are looking for a mixed-Asian girl, I am always the one they hit up. When I am on set it feels like they have to have me there because they need to meet a quota for campaigns of one black person and one Asian.
"When I am on set, a lot of people who work with me behind the scenes are the minorities, but the people in front of the cameras are always white. If it's not the hair or makeup girl that is a minority, than no one else is. When I shoot my own editorials or when I have the chance to choose, I like to choose people of different races."
Occupation: Owner of Procell
Hometown: Elizabeth, New Jersey
"Being Latino and being fluent in Spanish has definitely helped me when it comes to sourcing for my store. Because I do a lot of 80s and 90s urbanwear, I go into a lot of Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. I think being able to speak Spanish has opened up a lot of doors and allowed me to get into storage units, or attics, or basements that otherwise wouldn't have been accessible without being able to communicate. Also, because of my appearance, being brown and having a beard, sometimes people mistake me for being Middle Eastern or Muslim. So, when I go to neighborhoods that are predominately Muslim and go digging out there, no one fucks with me.
"I feel like a couple years ago, Americana was a big deal. I was providing heritage American clothing, and sometimes it would be very awkward. Customers might not have said it out right, but it was a feeling of them thinking that I didn't understand what it stood for or what it was about because of my appearance. The cool thing about my shop is that it is super diverse. The same way that many people are close-minded about race, a lot of people aren't open-minded with experimenting with clothes or being accepting of other brands or styles. That is crazy to me."
Christelle de Castro
Occupation: Photographer and Art Director
Hometown: Pittsburg, California
"Often times I get thrown into an 'urban' category, where the musicians or fashion I shoot is more street or hip-hop. This affects my work because it's difficult to flip it from urban to high fashion. Fashion has the potential to be rather surface and sometimes very insensitive. As a woman of color, as a feminist, as a photographer, I try to counteract that by always keeping my politics in mind. I want my women to feel comfortable and empowered on sets, I'm not going to do a stupid girl-on-girl editorial because it trivializes queer women. I will run to a march and photograph the faces of protestors because it's one small way I can be an activist through my work.
"It's very problematic that people of color in the modeling industry are seen as 'flavors'—or all too often treated or cast as tokens. It's like hearing, 'Dominicans are trending lately.' These are statements and ideas that really deduce these models as bodies of color, and point out that blacks, Latinos, and Asians are deeply under represented, and dare I say misrepresented in the modeling industry and mainstream American media."
Hometown: Incheon, Korea
"When I first started modeling, I thought that race was going to be an issue for me. In Asian culture we love tall [people with] blonde hair and blue eyes. So, when I was in Korea, I had those feelings too. I thought it would be hard because I am Asian and people don't want to use us. Since I started modeling in New York, it was easy, but when I went to Europe it was harder for me, not just because I was Asian, but because I am an Asian person with tattoos and gauges, which looked extreme to them. At first, they were afraid to take me as their model because they thought I wouldn't work.
"But, I do think it is much easier for models today to go to bigger cities because people don't really care anymore. Some people hate [my tattoos], some people love them, but it is just what I have to deal with because I like them. Personally, I don't think there are racial problems because there have been so many Asian people in this industry. They see me as me, not as Asian."
Occupation: Style Editor at The Fader
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
Ethnicity: Afro-Caribbean American
"I have been lucky to work with people who are very like-minded, chill, and open to whatever. I have never worked with anyone who made me feel a certain type of way or that I should be ashamed of my color. However, I will say that it is kind of funny and sad that brown girls in the industry get mistaken identities all of the time. About a year ago, I went to a fashion presentation right before fashion week and I had braids. I was introduced to someone through a mutual friend and they were like, 'Aren't you that girl who works at this other blog?' And I said no that isn't me. It is a lot of, 'Nope, I am the other black girl.'
"I have had some positive experiences in regards to race in the fashion industry. A year and a half ago Bethann Hardison wrote a letter to the International Fashion Council that was a really important watershed moment that was needed to make people feel uncomfortable. I was really inspired when Bethann did that. You don't have to feel obligated in the industry to do anything. But the people who do something and call bullshit when they see it should be applauded."
Occupation: Fashion Editor at Complex
Hometown: Long Branch, New Jersey
"I think when it comes to race in the fashion industry, it is important for people to know not every setback or exclusion you face is because of your race. Fashion is a very insular industry that has become more mainstream, but there are still some old and antiquated ways that will always be there. There is a lack of empathy in the fashion world and we have to speak out when people are doing something wrong.
"My personal experiences when it came to racism were more on the social spectrum. Attending events, or not being invited to events with my contemporaries in my early years, was daunting. Not having many people that looked or sounded like me was a bit intimidating. There are times I have gotten looks and stares when I'm at events like store openings on Madison Avenue. Everyone is wondering if I am a rapper or a hip-hop artist, but I am just an educated black man. I deserve to be there. Institutionally, the fashion industry is color-struck, but there are people out there who don't see color. You have to stay true to yourself and in the end it's all about work."
Hometown: New York, New York
"America has been brought up on racism and we can still see it behind closed doors with things like modeling, where they cast the girl with the big curly hair or the light-skinned girls with the light eyes as the black girl to represent the whole race. But there isn't one role that speaks for every African American. You put things in front of people and they start to believe that's how it should be. You can just see that race is not really promoted.
"When Rick Owens put the women stomping down the runway, I could see how he wanted to make a statement. But why can't having all black models on the runway just be normal? I think that is where society is at when it comes to our ideas of beauty and what we think is beautiful. It's something we think is so artistic and different because it's not normal to see more than three black women on the runway. I am friends with a stylist, Lisa Cooper, who is African-American, and she tells me to keep my head on straight all of the time. She tells me how race does play into it, but to just be strong and keep going anyway."
Darlene and Lizzie Okpo
Ages: 28 and 24
Occupation: Designers of William Okpo
Hometown: New York, New York
"Our experience in the fashion industry has always been a hot and cold situation. They pre-judge what and who we are. We are often seen as the designer sisters who do streetwear. We look at that and say, Our aesthetics can sometimes be no different than Carven or Alexander Wang, why are we streetwear and they are considered ready-to-wear? Even if they see the collection, they still consider it urbanwear even when it is full of suit jackets and flowy dresses.
"We grew up watching Martin and the character Shanana was a typical person we would see in our neighborhood. I find it so funny that now Vogue, who has been scared of that woman who shook her head and rolled her eyes, puts her in their editorials with baby hairs, Timberlands, and bamboo earrings. I felt like that was something that we were told, 'You better not do that' because then we would be a stereotype. Then you see white men walking down the runway with du-rags. They think they are showing appreciation, but I see it as mockery because I couldn't do it. If I do it, it is considered urbanwear. If they do it, it is considered art." - Lizzie
"In the beginning, we were two young Nigerian-American girls, and often we didn't see people who looked like us. When we first started, we went to a factory and they thought we were the interns—and that still happens. I think the hardest part was going into a meeting or factory and really standing your ground and not fitting that stereotype that they do put on you, that we are urban. The biggest thing has been proving ourselves and it's heartbreaking.
"We are trying to be that positive energy for young girls. There aren't a lot of programs that are fashion based, where you could just tell a girl who grew up in Bed-Stuy that she could be a fashion designer. [Blacks] have a lot of buying power, and we spend a lot of money, but we aren't represented on the business side. It's hard when you are the only one. I have so many girlfriends who can say the same thing: 'I am the only black girl in this big company.' You don't want to talk about it, but sometimes you have to." - Darlene
Photos by Christelle de Castro
Styling by Miyako Bellizi
Makeup by Allie Smith
Words and interviews by Erica Euse
All responses were edited and condensed to fit the format of this article.