Does the fashion industry think in black and white?

We all admire gorgeous women and men who present the standards of beauty from the covers of the magazines and runways. If we take a closer look at those faces one startling fact will emerge – most of them are white. Had someone suddenly decided that black is no longer beautiful? Perhaps this decision wasn’t at all new or sudden. Be it as it may if that is the case, for the love of God why? During the New York’s fashion week in 2014, 78.69% of all models were white, and this has been an improvement compared to the percentages from the previous years. What is it about the darker shade of skin that makes it so unacceptable to the mainstream taste?

Double standards in High Fashion

The current state of affairs in the fashion world can hardly be called new. In the last fifty or more years only a few superstars that come from a minority background have captured the attention of the worldwide public. In 125 years of Vogue’s existence, less than 2% of the models who appeared on its covers had dark or any other shade of skin. That means that 98% of all models in more than a century-long tradition of one of the world’s most prestigious fashion magazines were white. The first issue that featured a black woman on its cover appeared in 1966 and the model had its face covered by a hand. Editors at the time were afraid of the reactions they would get and of course, they were fearing that sales of the magazine will plummet.

Such a thing never happened and in the next several decades being a black model became more socially acceptable, but not to the extent that we can talk about any sort of equality. Even though many designers and stylists would never admit it, they only hire non-whites when it fits their commercial purposes. These double standards have resulted in quite a few scandals over the years, but things somehow remain the same as before.

Industry’s lament

Naomi Campbell and Iman

Naomi Campbell and Iman

In 2008 a renowned fashion photographer Nick Knight made a short film named simply ‘Untitled’ in which he tried to raise the awareness about the lack of diversity in fashion. In his brief but strong statement he said:

‘To find a solution we need to see that there is a problem. The business people that ultimately control fashion have a moral responsibility that they must not ignore. Profit cannot be a justification for bigotry and racism.’

Naomi Campbell is one of the very few superstar models of color who had the courage to speak out publicly about the racial issues in the world of fashion. She stated that:

“There is still an issue of ignorance in our fashion world. I don’t even like to use the word racism, they’re ignorant. They just don’t want to budge. They just don’t want to change their idea or be more open-minded, to just book a beautiful girl regardless of creed or color.”

It feels as if the breakthroughs and efforts to firmly position the people of color within the mainstream culture, made by Iman and her generation of dark skinned fashion models, are being annulled by the rigid approach towards the inclusion of young talent. Perhaps the majority of the audiences prefers white models, because they recognize them as a part of their own culture, but these stereotypes can be easily changed with enough will and effort to do something about it. The fact of the matter is that the current status quo is exactly what the most influential fashion houses want.

Racial accusations

Bethann Hardison

Bethann Hardison

Bethann Hardison

During the ‘Diversity Coalition’ campaign Iman issued the following statement:

‘There were more black models on the catwalk when I started in the 1970’s than there are today. The absence of models of color sends a message to our young girls that they are not good enough, they are not beautiful enough.’

As a part of their effort to diversify the fashion world the members of the ‘Diversity Coalition’ led by Bethann Hardison sent four letters to the management of The Fashion Week in New York, Paris, London, and Milan. In the letters was the list of fashion houses accused of blatant racism they carried out in front of the entire world.

Among the designers accused of openly opposing diversity on the runways were Calvin Kline, Louis Vuitton, Versace and Prada to name only the most famous ones. Although they haven’t ever committed a crime related to racism, they are guilty of labeling the models based on the color of their skin, and not their beauty, talent, charisma or any of the other characteristics that a successful model must have.

The response from the governing bodies of the most influential events in the fashion world was not surprising. They mostly regarded the demands presented in the letters as unreasonable and irrelevant.

Where do we go from here?

Out of all this, a question arises. Does the fashion industry think in black and white? It appears that the question of the color of the skin plays a much larger role than it should in our day and age. One would think that these boundaries have been erased a long time ago, but the sheer numbers suggest otherwise.

The most dangerous implication of the current state of things in the fashion world is the image projected to the regular people. If we don’t have fashion shows that include all nationalities, all races from all corners of the Earth, how can we expect to overcome the racial stereotypes in our society? Such state of affairs can only broaden the gap between communities by sending a clear message that white models should have all white shows, and the black models should do all black shows. This kind of thinking leads nowhere.

The separation of the people based on such primitive premises can only lead to maintaining current social stereotypes. The path that can bring about the change is the path of diversification because it sends a clear message that people of all races are equally beautiful and we should embrace that instead of trying to favor one group of people over another.