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Saturday, December 10, 2016   12:45 GMT
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High Fashion Still a 'White Affair'
Lance Steagall

NEW YORK, 14 Mar (IPS) - Supermodel Tyson Beckford was disappointed with New York's 2008 Fashion Week, and not because he had a problem with the designs, patterns, fabrics or materials used. Instead, he was critical of the model selection.

'What happened to all the black people on the runway?' Beckford asked the Associated Press.

Journalists echoed his concern, printing headlines like 'Diversity Not 'In' at Fashion Week', 'Fashion Week Labeled Too White', 'New York Runways Still Devoid of Colour', and 'Fashion Week Hits Diversity Problem', among others. Many industry insiders agree with the headlines, and some have devoted their energy to rooting out the causes, and finding solutions.

Bethann Hardison, a groundbreaking African American model during the 1960s and 70s, co-founder of the Black Girls Coalition, and former agent of supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford, has been especially active on the issue. Over the course of four months, Hardison hosted three open forums here in New York City, bringing together models, agents, designers and concerned individuals to discuss the problem.

'We're all to blame,' she told the crowd at the beginning of the third such forum, held in January. Participants then voiced opinions ranging from creative director James Scully's concern over Prada's use of '15-year old Russian girls' on the runway (a move emulated by many in the industry), to Elite Model Management's Romany Young and his defence of modeling agencies -- 'When a client says 'I want the girl next door,' I say 'the girl next door to who?''

At the conclusion of the event, Hardison assured the crowd, 'I'm not trying to tell anyone what to do. I'm just trying to raise consciousness. We can make a change just by being here.'

Zonobia Washington, the fashion market editor for Essence Magazine, attended one forum, and recognises the importance of making a change. 'When insiders talk about it, you realise the magnitude of the problem,' she said. 'It trickles down to self-esteem, self-awareness, and notions of beauty.'

It also highlights a power imbalance; the fashion world is, and has been, a mostly white affair.

'In fashion, if a designer is Caucasian, they have more affinity with Caucasian models,' said Florian Acheron, a black Frenchman and international agent at Boss Models Management. 'If a designer is black they have more affinity with black models. So the problem now is who is in charge.'

At Sean John, the highly successful African American entrepreneur Sean Combs is in charge, and his 2008 New York Fashion Week show supported Acheron's opinion. Combs used only black models to display his label's new line. But Combs is an exception to the rule.

A survey published by the New York-based Daily News reported that, out of 1,584 models used at Fashion Week, only 94 were black, 95 Asian, and 17 Latina.

And then, directly on the heels of that whitewashed Fashion Week, the New York Times' released 'Naked Ambition', a sprawling 284-page fashion insert included in their Sunday, Feb. 24 edition. There, the percentages were even lower.

Of the more than 100 adverts in the insert, the only labels to use black models were Maladrino, Lord and Taylor and Ports 161. Lord and Taylor's ad featured one black female model seated alongside five white models. The advert for Ports 161 touted its affiliation with Keep a Child Alive, a foundation that calls itself 'an urgent response to the AIDS pandemic ravaging Africa'.

In Naked Ambition's articles, diversity was equally underrepresented. Only three black models received prominent placement; two unnamed models used alongside five white models in the beach/country club inspired spread Pickup Pix; and a seven-page spread featuring Liya Kebede, the successful Ethiopian model who appeared on Forbes' 2007 list of top earning models, reporting an income of 2.5 million dollars. Four black models were used in smaller, thumb-sized shots.

Two of those smaller shots featured dresses by designer Diane Von Furstenberg, the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Before Fashion Week, Furstenberg sent a letter urging members to represent the fashion world in ways 'that are truly multicultural.' Few heeded her advice, but her promotion of multiculturalism does not go unnoticed.

'Diane came out and said 'this is a problem,' then used lots of models of colour in her show,' said Zonobia Washington of Essence Magazine. 'So that influences how we look at her particular company. It's always nice to work with designers who understand our audience.'

The problem is not endemic to the U.S.'s industry. New York Magazine Fashion writer Amy Odell reported: 'London Fashion Week is Pretty White.' There, British-born Jourdan Dunn was the only prominent black model, and in Milan she became the first to walk Prada's runway this millennium.

The fashion industry in Brazil, home to the largest population of individuals of African descent outside of Africa, also seems to favour white models. The owner of a Brazilian modeling agency, Helder Dias, told the BBC, 'It is like abolition never existed. It is a faade and the history continues.'

In the U.S., Cory Bautista, the director of the racially diverse New York Model Management, and judge alongside Tyson Beckford on the Bravo series 'Make Me a Supermodel', is reluctant to attribute the problem to racism.

'In an industry where homophobia is near nonexistent, I can't think there would be any bigotry towards African Americans,' he said. 'I think it has to be designers in their artistic vision seeing clothes on a certain skin type.'

Whatever the reason, the decline of diversity in fashion is out of place in our era of rapid globalisation. As the world population becomes increasingly acquainted with foreign cultures, opening markets abroad have emphasised the need for diversity in marketing.

A joint venture between African American entrepreneurs Jay-Z and Steve Stout, Translation Advertising, serves as clear indication of that. Announced in mid-February, it has the explicit intention of helping Madison Avenue reach multicultural consumers.



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