The Fashion Industry Is Still Letting Down Women of Color

Nearly 80 percent of the models on the catwalks at New York Fashion Week were white. Who's to blame for this lack of diversity, and how can we fix it?

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Dec 16 2014, 2:50pm

Joan Smalls walking for Diane Von Fürstenberg's S/S 14 show. Image via ​Christopher Macsurak

This post originally appeared on VICE UK

Fashion has never been famous for diversity. Despite models ​rallying behind racial equality last year, The Fashion Spot ​just crunched the numbers and found that, on ​New York Fashion Week catwalks for A/W 2014, out of 4,621 looks, only 985 were worn by models of color. Of all the models that walked during the week, 78.69 percent were white.

The lack of ethnic diversity in fashion is a problem across the board. Even more so because, despite some top-level figures speaking out—such as major casting agent James Scully, who last year ​publicly criticized Saint Laurent, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Dior for their predominantly white shows—things remain static, clotted in doublespeak and hypocrisy. At the London shows things are slowly getting better—Tom Ford, Burberry, and Topshop have all dramatically upped their usage of non-white models—but there's still a reluctance for big fashion houses to do anything like what Rick Owens did at Paris Fashion Week last September.

In case you missed it, the designer used a predominantly black hip-hop dance troupe instead of six-foot white teenagers with concave guts. All the women had different figures. It was a spirited, provocative statement that left some particularly sensitive models and spectators in tears. Why? Because people challenging "the system" in this way in fashion is so rare.

As model Jourdan Dunn said last year after ​being dropped from a show because she didn't fit into a dress, "I'm normally told I'm cancelled because I'm 'colored,' so being cancelled because of my boobs is a minor... They say if you have a black face on a magazine cover it won't sell, but there's no real evidence for that. It's lazy." She continued: "You always hear, 'There aren't enough black models,' which is BS. It's all about these dead excuses." But all she can do, she says, is talk. Only the "big dogs" actually have the power to change things.

Catwalks aren't the only problem; high fashion has two platforms—the shows and the glossy magazines. And, like the catwalks, fashion magazines are perilously, predominantly white. It's a topic that is revisited year after year and runs the risk of becoming a hackneyed story, a collective, "Oh, not that again" groan in media news meetings everywhere. But like any argument involving visibility of a minority group, it bears repeating. Because the fact is that, while fashion magazines are more than happy to ​clumsily reappropriate other cultures on the bodies of white models, they don't want to put women of color on their covers.

On Friday, The Fashion Spot ​reported that, of the 611 total covers of 44 major print fashion publications, models of color (categorized as those who "appear to be non-white or of mixed backgrounds") only appeared on 119. Harper's Bazaar—both the US and UK versions—did not feature models of color at all. Neither did Vogue UK, Vogue Netherlands, Vogue Paris, Vogue Ukraine, Vogue Russia, Teen Vogue, Numéro, LOVE, or Porter.

There isn't a huge body of evidence for black women not selling magazines well; how could there be with so few examples?

Dunn—a prolific, highly successful model who has fronted campaigns for Burberry and YSL and, in 2008, was the first black model to walk for Prada in a decade—didn't get a single one. Even in the UK, her own country. Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss, however, got two each.

But is Dunn right? Does having a black face on your magazine cover really negatively affect sales? I reached out to both British Vogue and Harper's Bazaar for insight or statistics, but neither responded.

I've worked in various roles on glossy magazines over the years and have heard the conversations Dunn speaks of—the "yeah, she's fabulous, but she won't sell" lines when deliberating on, say, using a "non-European looking" (one of the phrases I heard the most—Rihanna is considered to be "European-looking," as is Beyoncé) black model like Alek Wek on the cover. Only, I never saw any figures to corroborate that argument.

Other black models have been vocal about their challenges. Joan Smalls spoke to ELLE last year and said that she's been told, "You're a black model. It's a challenge." Chanel Iman told the Times that she's been rejected from shows because they'd "already found one black girl." This kind of tokenism—both in having "fulfilled" the ethnic minority quota for a shoot or show, and in the fear of being seen to celebrate black flesh for the sake of a quota (because, of course, that's worse than having no black flesh at all)—is part of the problem.

None of this means we can say that magazine and fashion editors are inherently racist—that's a dangerous, reductive claim to make—but they are people operating within a giant, product-focused business. And Dunn might be right—there isn't a huge body of evidence for black women not selling magazines well. But how could there be with so few examples? Maybe it's not the audience we should be looking at here. It's the magazine's advertisers.

Fashion magazines are not about the individual—even on the cover. Any cover star of Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, or ELLE, etc., will have to do two things: help sell the magazine, of course, (which is why recognizable Hollywood-friendly faces are so highly prized) but also please the advertiser whose credits they're dressed in.

Glossy magazine covers are a political minefield. Images will often be lifted from fashion well shoots for the cover at the last minute because a credit (a key item from a collection that an advertiser wants given maximum visibility) looks good and will please the advertiser, who will then continue to flog their products in said magazine. The revelation that the fash-mag industry is basically one infinite series of backscratching deals will not surprise anyone. All the big glossies follow the money. That's how it works and has always worked. Even though a title like Vogue is a global, historical brand that will probably always exist, it still has to keep its advertisers happy.

And this is where we arrive at the crux. In the same way that Asian and Russian models have only really been seen more since the Asian and Russian markets for luxury goods have boomed, big fashion houses just don't imagine their wares being bought by black customers. Hermés ​couldn't even im​agine the idea of Oprah Winfrey walking around with one of their bags.

It's not that magazine fashion editors don't believe black women are beautiful. I know a fashion editor at a huge title who speaks often about wanting to change the landscape but constantly coming up against barriers from advertisers who want to know how their clothes are being worn and by whom. If there's one thing that is to blame for the absence of black models from high-end fashion, it's that the makers of the clothes don't believe that anyone other than white and Asian people have the money to go out and buy them after putting down the magazine.

Lupita Nyong'o photographed by Sharif Hamza. Image courtesy of Dazed & Confused

It's telling that it's only really independent magazines like i-D and Dazed who seem uncompromising in putting women of color on their covers. In this cooler, more youth-orientated world, a black face is not an anomaly. i-D (which was ​bought by VICE in 2012) has had ​Jourdan Dunn on the cover seven times—all "hugely successful" issues, says Editor Holly Shackleton. "Diversity is integral to i-D," she says. "When casting, we never think about race—it's about who's inspiring us at that moment. We've put Jourdan on the cover seven times because she's a quintessential i-D talent, a London girl who's worked hard to become one of the defining supermodels of her generation."

Dazed should be celebrated, too. The magazine's brilliant ​Lupita Nyong'o and ​FKA Twigs covers spoke of the wider stories these two young women represent. They didn't reek of box-ticking. They still have to please advertisers—I should know, I worked there—but they aren't entrenched within an old, global framework that is so heavily reliant on the business side of fashion. They have some latitude to do what they want. "The skin color of these women had nothing to do with my decision to put them on the cover," Editor-in-Chief Tim Noakes told me. "They're both hugely inspiring female role models and are setting a new cultural agenda through their work. That's all that matters to us." Incidentally, he says, "Both covers sold really well—particularly Lupita's Girls Rule the World issue."

With a magazine like Harper's Bazaar, business is the only real agenda now. ​Sales are dwindling and they have to hang onto revenue. They do this by keeping advertisers on side, with highly recognizable white faces like Kate Winslet and Carey Mulligan, who are great adverts for designers. But the overall system and bias towards white skin is only going to change when the figures at the very top of the pyramid—like Gucci's creative director, Frida Giannini—stop telling their ​casting directors not to put "a huge number" of black girls in their shows.

This is where the cycle begins, where the product is first associated with whiteness. This immediate projection of who should be wearing and buying the clothes automatically informs the way glossy magazines appropriate them.

Kanye West has been vocal about his struggle to make a name for himself in an industry he condemns as racist. The message is crystal clear in Yeezus' "New Slaves," when he raps: "Doin' clothes you would have thought I had help / But they wasn't satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself / You see it's broke nigga racism that's that, 'Don't touch anything in the store,' / And it's rich nigga racism that's that, 'Come in, please buy more.'" But until the fashion industry stops believing that black people are clichés, nothing is going to change.

The most infuriating thing of all is that the success of models like Dunn (it was ​just announced that she's fronting Burberry's huge summer 2015 campaign with Naomi Campbell), Smalls, and, more recently, ​Binx Walton—as well as West's lines for brands like APC—suggest that fashion lovers are probably far more colorblind than designers think they are.

Jenny Dickinson runs Net-A-Porter's weekly digital title, the Edit, having previously worked at ELLE and Harper's Bazaar. She believes that magazine diversity has changed in the past two or three years, and that she "hopes we continue to see more balance. I think it helps that readers have a wider reference point today—fame alone isn't inspiring to them now. It's talent that counts, a voice worth listening to." And yet someone like Dunn—​who isn't afraid to use her voice—still can't get the glossy covers over white models and actresses.

This isn't about not believing black women are beautiful—it's about money, and not believing that those women can generate it. The Burberry campaign is the first time the brand has used black models at the heart of their summer campaign, which is something. But the power to incite wider change, to promote a different trickle-down effect lies, as it always does, with a select few.

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