Op-Ed | Racial Diversity on the Runway

It’s time for the global fashion industry to stop turning a blind eye to the lack of racial diversity on the runways, says op-ed contributor Demi Sinclair.

Finale at Calvin Klein, February 2013 | Source: Calvin Klein

NEW YORK, United States  For the last five years Jenna Sauers, a writer for the popular feminist blog Jezebel, has been analysing and reporting on the racial diversity of models at New York Fashion Week. The numbers have gone slightly up and down in each report. But from Fall 2008, when Sauers first began the study and discovered that a mere thirteen percent of looks were worn by non-white girls, until now, where the figure stands at seventeen percent, every season has brought the same conclusion: the vast majority of the women walking the runways are Caucasian.

There are, of course, those like Riccardo Tisci and Tom Ford who use a diverse range of models in their shows. But, sadly, these designers are the anomaly, not the norm.

Recently, I read an article in Buzzfeed wherein five of the industry’s top casting directors were asked to give an explanation as to why fashion shows are so white; the fashion shows that they themselves cast. I was expecting the same drivel I have heard a hundred times over: “The designer isn’t racist, they simply have a vision and (insert minority here) may not have been right for the collection.” While James Scully told of his own furore with the industry’s lack of diversity and cited some the shows he works on as examples of racially diverse casting (Tom Ford, Jason Wu), Barbara Nicoli and Leila Ananna seemed to make true my prediction.

The power duo currently selects models for some of the world’s leading fashion brands, including Saint Laurent, Gucci and Burberry. Why then, despite their status and the global reach of the labels they work with, were just twelve of the 128 models that Nicoli and Ananna booked for their Fall 2013 shows Asian and only four black? Nicoli claimed that it wasn’t about the model’s skin colour, but the body, the face, the attitude and the aesthetic of the designer.

“I think if you’re very strict on your collection and have a vision, it’s pretty difficult to accept someone who is far from your idea of the woman wearing your clothes,” she said. “It’s all about your beauty ideal, not the colour of your skin or race… It’s also true that, for example, Caucasians have a specific body type, black girls have a specific body shape, and Asian girls have a specific body shape. So I guess there are some collections where it’s more perfect for an Asian body shape because they are more flat and less sexy, in a way. Asians, they are not curvy, so to put an Asian [who's] very flat [with a] baby body shape in a show where normally the designer knows they love sexy, beautiful, curvy girls, it’s a bit of nonsense. If you do it, it’s just because you have to or you want to please your customer coming from Asia.”

Maida Gregori Boina and Rami Fernandes — casting directors for Calvin Klein, Jil Sander and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s The Row — are also notorious for their all, or near-all, white line-ups. Calvin Klein, in particular, just this past season was entirely Caucasian. And here’s where it gets even worse: in the last eight years there have been only six different black models and zero models of other ethnicities, other than Caucasian, featured in their shows, according to an analysis of imagery on Style.com.

Like former model Bethann Hardison, I think this all started with Prada. After the supermodel era, Miuccia Prada did something revolutionary. She made her show about the clothes and not the models wearing them. She plucked brand new girls from obscurity, stamping them with the promising label of “exclusive.” And each subsequent season, we saw an influx of these girls, often from Eastern Europe, with little personality and names no one bothered to remember. In more cases than not, they disappeared the very next season. Other brands, including Calvin Klein, Jil Sander and Balenciaga followed suit. And as a result, as James Scully told Trudi Tapscott Model Management last year, “personality and ethnicity” have been largely erased.

So, how do we fix this?

The first issue is that many in the industry simply do not recognise this for what it actually is: racism. Remember, this is the same industry that dressed Karlie Kloss in a traditional native-American headdress to model lingerie in the Victoria’s Secret show and paints white models black. Discrimination based on the colour of a model’s skin is not uncommon. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Joan Smalls revealed that she was repeatedly told by agents that “there’s room for only one” model of colour. The outspoken Chanel Iman shared a similar struggle with The Times: “Designers have told me, ‘We already found one black girl. We don’t need you any more.’” And earlier this month, Jourdan Dunn told British talk show host Jonathan Ross the story of how, during fashion week, a makeup artist simply refused to work with her because she was black.

This isn’t about filling a quota. It’s about getting global brands to recognise that when they send an all-white cast down the runway, they are promoting an ideal of beauty that does not include the majority of the world’s population. This is problematic. It’s not only troubling from a business perspective. It’s also a social issue. And the bottom line is, a casting director is simply not doing their job right if they cannot see beauty or relevance in models of colour.

There is no simple or quick solution. The modelling industry is unregulated and, unfortunately, many simply say this is how fashion is and it’s not going to change. But, in the end, if all you do is put out an all-black issue, as Italian Vogue did back in 2008, then simply go back to what you were doing before, it’s nothing more than tokenism. The truth is, it only takes one or two people at the top to move things in a better direction. Like Gianni Versace, who created the supermodel, and Miuccia Prada, who dismantled her, it is possible to make changes — and those changes need to start now.

Demi Sinclair is a fashion blogger based in Auckland, New Zealand.

How to submit an Op-Ed: The Business of Fashion accepts opinion articles on a wide range of topics. The suggested length is 800 words, but submissions of any length will be considered. Submissions may be sent to contributors@businessoffashion.com. Please include ‘Op-Ed’ in the subject line. Given the volume of submissions we receive, we regret that we are unable to respond in the event that an article is not selected for publication.

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  1. Obama force-integrated Marin county because it was “too White”, and all the “anti-racists” cheered.

    If Obama force integrated Detroit because it “too Black” or Texas because it was “too Mexican”, do you think the “anti-racists” would cheer??

    No, they ONLY cheer when White people are subject to a program genocide.

    But of course we all know that, and we all know anti-racist is a codeword for anti-White.

    Gar5 from Southall, Ealing, United Kingdom
  2. Having attended castings for a major American fashion brand (my employer) for 9 seasons, I can confirm that I saw many more Caucasian girls cone throufh the door than any other type, however our casting director and the designer always made sure there was diversity in our show, and often in our ads as well. That being said, I think you have to consider that this is a business. If customers respond better to a certain model, it’s good, practical business sense to use that model, regardless of her ethnicity.

    Jessica from Brooklyn, NY, United States
  3. As a woman of African, Native American, and European background I have to agree wholeheartedly. Trust me when I say, when more of the developing countries start coming into power the fashion industry will change. The industry always changes for who has the most money and power. Honestly, the industry is a business… not a person… so a business doesn’t run on moral ethics. Its just runs on business ethics… and that is a shame.

    UrbanJungleFashion from Dallas, TX, United States
  4. The problem is not only ‘white’, but even within the Caucasian race, the high fashion industry only idolizes one type of beauty….and on the note of Asian bodies are not sexy, why didn’t Victoria’s secrect make an effort to scout a few curvy Asian girls for the show then? it’s so gimmicky that they just threw in the few recognisable faces on the runway to the VS show, while they should be promoting healthy body image and help curvy models – which they’ve done for America/West in the past with Heidi or Tyra…etc., why exclude China/Asia? there are curvy women in Asia and aneroxia is such a huge problem in there, they’re dying for fashion brands & media to change that too!

    Sindy from Glasgow, Glasgow City, United Kingdom
  5. As an Ghana who works in fashion and has done so for over a decade I am over the “Tokenism” please move on. Tokenism diminished people’s achievement. Its not that premeditated – money is the decider and when women of “colour” (using to mean anyone not “anglo-saxon”) accept themselves fully – yes the bleaching, love/hate relation with our hairs etc the then will be more to choice from. Are models in shows not suppose to be blank canvases and the focus being on the clothes? If so then why make the debate about the person paid to show of the clothes and not the product themselves. Next please

    Pamela Atekpe from United Kingdom
  6. As a designer of many products, Fashion Design “haute couture” has
    always been one of the many pools of inspiration to do my work.

    I always have worked for global brands so my vision is at all times one of Internationalism when thinking about our Global Customers and the beauty of people all over the world.
    It is rather easy to select a beautiful and Inspiring line up of models from
    diverse ethnic groups, “that is if”…. one is more inclusive and accepting that ” the canons of beauty are different to all cultures”

    Diversity is what makes the world exciting

    Jose’ L from Sweden

    Jose' Diaz de la Vega from Västra Götalands Län, Sweden
  7. It CAN change, as this was not always the case….there was a time from the late ’70s all throughout the ’80s that the MAJORITY of runway models were non-caucasian. I went to many RTW and Couture shows during that time, and there were always a variety of different ethnicities, especially at designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Ungaro, Mugler, Kenzo, Miyake, and Patrick Kelly, among scores of others. And the shows were much better for it, as it wasn’t just about diversity but about PERSONALITY. Now the shows are really boring compared to the past with all those blank, bland, nondescript walking clothes hangers clomping up and down the runway.

    Bigeetah from Wahroonga, New South Wales, Australia
  8. “So I guess there are some collections where it’s more perfect for an Asian body shape because they are more flat and less sexy, in a way.”

    Many white American men will beg to disagree!

    George from Washington, DC, United States
  9. “….. Asian body shape because they are more flat and less sexy, in a way. Asians, they are not curvy, so to put an Asian [who's] very flat [with a] baby body shape in a show…”
    - This statement is so superficial. Most of the models nowadays on the catwalk, regardless of their race, have flat, stick body figure (unlike the super model era). The only exception is probably those at the Victoria Secret shows, which is hard to find Asians to be part of because Asian culture tends to be more conservative.
    - There are many beautiful Asian women with curvy figures and everyone embraces sexiness differently. Some people finds boney girls sexy, whereas some finds curvy girls sexy.
    - Anorexia is a problem everywhere, not just in Asia. Skinny doesn’t mean anorexic. Beauty is a combination of many factors and body shape is just one of the many.

    Sarah from Hong Kong from Central District, Hong Kong (general), Hong Kong
  10. To “Jessica from Brooklyn, NY, United States”: “If customers respond better to a certain model, it’s good, practical business sense to use that model, regardless of her ethnicity.” That’s the point exactly. How do we in the fashion industry/modeling business know WHAT customer will respond to if they rarely, if ever, see it? If you serve me peanut butter sandwiches for dinner EVERY night and never give me another option, then how do I know I’d prefer/like steak sometime? If you give me steak and peanut butter as options, then I can make the choice as to which I prefer and you will know how better to serve my likes and needs. Make sense?

    To “Bigeetah from Wahroonga, New South Wales, Australia”: We TOTALLY agree with you, too, on this point. The models in the fashion shows today are sorely lacking in personality. Not nearly as exciting and captivating as the models of the 70′s and 80′s. We at Illusion Model Management (im2models.com) are definitely trying to bring that excitement back to the runway, and the response we’re getting from our audiences is quite favorable and suggests we’re on the right track.

    IM2Models.com from Houston, TX, United States
  11. thank god somebody mentioned Calvin Klein, such an embarrassment to NYFW (in terms of casting). I applaud Oscar de la Renta for always having a very diverse runway.

    chandler from Albany, GA, United States
  12. I applaud you for this article. Brands really need to recognize they could connect better with their consumer by representing the full spectrum of the individuals that purchase from their lines.

    G Chic from Atlanta, GA, United States
  13. “normally the designer knows they love sexy, beautiful, curvy girls, it’s a bit of nonsense‘’ – according to Nicoli。
    Yes, it’s nonsense – does this person realize how daft and flimsy this defense is?
    How many people know of designers who love `sexy, curvy girls’? The fashion industry is largely obsessed with uber-ectomorph girls who should look like flat pizza.
    2. It’s racist stereotyping, to dissociate women of color from being `sexy, curvy, beautiful’.
    If only Caucasian women can actualize a designer’s so-called vision, then these casting directors should explain why many major fashion shows in Asia can regularly feature a large number (sometimes all) of Asian models?
    Not that China or the rest of Asia does better at projecting racial diversity in fashion, either. The main Chinese glossies are far too Western-orientated, imo.
    Last September’s mother-of-all-bumper issues at Vogue China (since all issues are bumper @ this maga-logue) was a shocker.
    Six cover girls, three Chinese and three Caucasian. Not ONE woman of color!
    Not that China has indigenous dark-skinned people – nor Caucasians,either. But for a country – and the world’s 2nd biggest economy – that prides itself on 59 nationalities, it could show some sensitivity to global diversity.

    al from Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  14. This is a great Op Ed, I believe within the next few years there is going to be a great push for the fashion industry to be more inclusive of women and men with disabilities…Amputees, Seated body types who use wheelchairs etc…

    That would make a great Op Ed as well…I’ll start writing today!

    Steph from Los Angeles, CA, United States
  15. Hmm. I’ve read this exact article elsewhere, a month or so back.

    Eddie from New York, NY, United States
  16. If you’re going to quote casting directors extensively from the story on BuzzFeed Fashion, it would be nice for you to say that you’re quoting BuzzFeed Fashion. Though you link, we are not attributed anywhere. We would appreciate a mention, which we’d give you should we choose to quote BoF.
    -Amy Odell

    Amy Odell from New York, NY, United States
  17. Japanese designers who show in Japan and sell almost entirely to Japanese customers often use mostly Caucasian models in their runway shows. You can either argue that this is cultural imperialism of the highest order or realize that none of this really matters and no one really cares.

    Why again do runways need forced diversity quotas? It seems the people who care about this the most are also the people who have the least interest in fashion. But as long as fashion holds some semblance of influence it seems people will strive to commandeer it to promote their own agenda.

    How bout instead of whining on the Internet you design your own line and don’t use a single white model. No one’s stopping you but instead you’d rather sit on your ass and demand that other people pander to your aesthetic preferences.

    Ian from Toronto, ON, Canada
  18. The article implies that the designers themselves are racists because they don’t cast models of diverse ethnicities when in fact, decisions based on casting are considered with commercial and pragmatic aspects for a show’s production. Ultimately, the presupposition that fashion shows equate to the United Nations is incorrect. Campaigns created by Jurgen Teller and also the reinforcement of Martin Margiela’s scenography showed that the models casted are really a blank canvas. That kind of veil of disguise reflected a dispassion, and the truth in this process is the clothes that are worn is paramount for sales and production. To which end, designers should not be obligated to cast a diversity of models, because it is arbitrary to think that you need to seek a black model to counterbalance one who is caucasian; then one who is asian, etc. The clothes that are produced are unprejudiced, isn’t that enough? It’s hard enough for most designers to work with their PR, to gain the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding and sponsorship, and not least the costs to put on a show.

    ML from Revesby, New South Wales, Australia
  19. Thank you for this article. Diversity on the runway is much needed and I agree with many comments below that it will change, once the emerging markets have gained more power and influence. It is all about the money after all…

    MsK from Newtown Square, PA, United States
  20. Sometimes the lack of diversity is so blatant, it’s distracting. Let’s give Donna Karan a point for adding a little more color to her catwalk lately. And YSL has slipped backwards. His shows used to be incredibly diverse. Master Couturier has probably rolled over in his grave.

    Edwina from Savannah, GA, United States
  21. Shameful!

    Ric Owens from New York, NY, United States
  22. The preception of beauty is the issue. What these designers vision as beauty is a narrow view of the world. How can one call themselves a designer when they do not represent the world. To see the beauty of life have to see outside your own world.

    Kelley from Cleveland, OH, United States
  23. Maybe, just maybe if we women of color and women of conscience stopped purchasing clothes from designers who don’t utilize women of color in their shows, we might get the designers attention!

    Browni from Baltimore, MD, United States