Is the modeling industry still suffering from a lack of color?
By Khadijah Mccaskill
It’s fashion week in New York City. Leggy models with smoky eyes and pouty lips sashay down the runway wearing clothes some of us could only dream of affording. They look straight ahead, unfazed by the millions of onlookers and the tiny little bulbs flashing all around them. Amidst all this glitz and glamour, one thing becomes apparent, the stark absence of people of color.
Not only does the fashion industry decide what kind of clothes are “in” it also creates a standard of ideal beauty. For too long, women of color have been underrepresented in this industry. It’s difficult to look through a fashion magazine like Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, without seeing any women who look like you. Many women start to question whether or not they’re beautiful at all if they aren’t being featured in magazines that are supposed to represent universal ideas of beauty.
Many have started to notice this lack of diversity. In 2008, Vogue Italia published an issue of their magazine specifically featuring Black models. It became one of their most popular issues and sold out quickly. Within the magazine, there were full spreads of black models such as Toccara Jones, Iman, Alek Wek, and Naomi Campbell. It also featured stories about Black art and entertainment. However, it was not enough to change the hearts and minds of the fashion industry.
In May of this year, a short documentary, called The Color of Beauty starring a Black Toronto based model named Renee Thompson was released. Thompson moves to New York to find an agency that will take her on for the 2009 fashion week. Throughout the film, racism within the fashion industry becomes apparent. Renee is found it hard to find an agency that will take her on. She recounts her painful experiences within the fashion industry where tokenism and prejudice run rampant.
Perry, Renee’s agent states, “You know when you come in with big, eyes, big nose, big whatever, big lips, things that are common traits in African-Americans, it doesn’t work. But for those lucky few girls that look like Renee, they have White girl features, and it’s kind of messed up, but that’s just the way the industry is.” Later in the documentary, one fashion designer says that they need a Black model that looks like “a White girl dipped in chocolate.” It is disheartening to know that the idea of beauty, even within the fashion world that is supposed to represent and reflect, is still very homogenous.
In the breakdown of the 2010 New York Fashion Week in February done by Jezebel.com, 16% of the models were of color. While this may not seem like a lot, in 2007, 100% of the models were white on all of the New York Fashion Week runways. Why is this? Fingers are pointed at all of those involved within the fashion industry. Designers say that black women don’t fit their clothes correctly, or will detract attention from the clothes themselves. However, in order for women to become models in the first place, they must be a certain height and weight.
The documentary highlighted that Renee had wider hips than usual for a model, but when asked to try on a sample pair of jeans for a designer, they fit perfectly. In the case of skin color detracting attention from the clothes, African models such as Alek Wek with very dark skin tend to make all of the colors of the clothes pop due to the contrast. Other designers say that many women of color don’t buy their clothes.
In America, Black and Asian women have incredible buying power. According to eMarketer in 2008, Black women had buying power to the amount of $913.1 billion, and Asian women had a buying power of $509.1 billion. Black women alone spend $30 billion a year within the fashion industry. Shouldn’t this be reflected within the modeling business?
Those who blame the modeling agencies say they use prejudiced methods of picking out the models, only using white women or posting casting calls that say things like, “no ethnics.”
Shabi Sharyar, the co-director of the high fashion Bleu Model Management modeling agency in Beverly Hills, CA has a different perspective on the problems within the fashion world. While she believes there is not a lack of diversity in terms of skin color per se, agencies and designers are looking for certain facial features. About the alleged lack of diversity within the fashion industry, Sharyar says this, “To be honest with you I don’t really see a problem with it [diversity], I’d probably say about 80% of my wall is women of all ethnicities, I have women from all over the world everywhere from Brazil, to Spain, to Argentina, to South Africa I have girls from all over the place.” Sharyar points out that the types of models that are hired depend greatly on the region. “Certain clients have certain criteria…if I get a call from a client, say, in Mexico they’re going to want more of a Latin looking girl, because that’s what they’re catering to.” Sharyar says that her ethnic models most often do better than the White ones. She associates it to the changing times, where ethnicity and diversity is celebrated more than it was before.
Some of what she said echoed the ideas presented in Renee Thompson’s documentary. When asked about the lack of Asian models, Sharyar said, “It is a little bit tougher to find that 5″9 gorgeous Asian girl.” Once again, the ‘ethnic girl/white features’ idea comes up. “Even though they may be Asian, or African-American, or Brazilian, if you look at their features it’s a Westernized nose and the big eyes, and the straight teeth….I don’t think it’s so much the color of their skin or what race they are, it’s more of their features.” What is it about characteristically African or Asian features that are so undesirable to designers and fashion runways?
While there are plenty of high fashion and haute couture fashion agencies, there are very few high fashion agencies that cater to ethnic models. The few that I tried contacting are now defunct. Did they go out of business because their models weren’t “Western” looking enough?
Those who blame fashion magazines say there aren’t enough women of color featured in its pages modeling the clothes. And yet others blame the fashion shows, saying that they are not hosted in places with a multicultural background. Which one is to blame for the lack of diversity within the fashion industry?
From my research, it’s a combination of all of those involved in the industry. Modeling in itself requires for women to be seen as objects, or clothing horses for whatever it is they’re modeling. If hardworking, persistent women like Renee Thompson are able to fit the rigorous height and weight requirements, as well as withstand denigrating comments about their outward appearance, why should the color of their skin or their “features” stop them from succeeding?