Op-Ed | It’s Time to Address Fashion’s Race Problem

The fashion industry is still plagued by a troubling lack of diversity and racial sensitivity and too little is being done about it, says Jason Campbell.

At Umit Benan's Jackie Robinson-themed men's collection | Source: BoF

NEW YORK, United States — Back in 2008, when cries were raised about the lack of racial diversity on the runways and in the fashion business at large, Italian Vogue published its timely “all black” issue. Fashion professionals like myself (I was included in the issue) hailed this act of recognition and considered it a watershed moment, a turning of the tide. But fast forward to 2014 and Italian Vogue continues to show its so-called commitment to covering all things fashionable and black with an offensive, misguided and racially insensitive section of its website called “Vogue Black.”

“Vogue Black” was launched back in 2010, but what recently attracted my attention was its coverage from Pitti Uomo in Florence for which the site’s editors thought it appropriate to segregate black street style images in a section of the site’s “Black Blog” called “Vogueista Black.” I had a visceral reaction to this discovery. Do viewers require a different lens to appreciate our sense of style? Is it to say that we’re less or more fashionable? Why separate coverage of us at all?

Separate but equal, the intrinsic message of “Vogue Black,” is a historical concept all too familiar to black people, especially in America. Images of water fountains labelled “white” and “coloured,” and separate seating at diner counters come to mind. One only has to see director Lee Daniels’ recent film The Butler to be reminded of those wrenching representations of being included, but not extended the same benefits and respect. It imparts the impression of otherness; a feeling that you cannot be served here. And you don’t have to have lived in America, or be American, to feel the pangs of this division and empathise with this legacy of injustice and bigotry.

Racism at large is a subject that extends beyond the scope of these pages. But in fashion, we’ve seen some staggering recent examples of racial insensitivity. White girls in black face, slave-themed editorials, skin-lightening and impoverished black kids used as props in designer campaigns are just a few top-of-the-head examples. In October, a firestorm erupted in Milan surrounding the costumes prominent fashion industry players chose to wear to an African Disco-themed Halloween party. The highly offensive outfits — which included slave-chain necklaces, bone piercings through noses and other savage images — smacked of an ill-informed community playing recklessly with racially charged imagery. The backlash was hard and swift, but what left me stunned was a fundamental question: What was going through the minds of these individuals in the first place for them to make such callous choices? What exactly are their impressions of black people such that what could have been a glamorous theme (a generous appraisal) was turned into a stage for the portrayal of blacks as savage caricatures and uncivilised animals?

If much of this is kind of behaviour is attributed to ignorance, the industry is showing little interest in expanding its knowledge. At the crux of the matter is the fact that, at fashion companies, senior decision-makers and their teams are largely composed of white people and there is zero initiative to change the status quo. As the lack of racial diversity continues to plague the industry, misguided decisions, such as the one to launch “Vogue Black” and segregate coverage of stylish blacks, are often taken because fashion’s boardrooms and editorial meetings are missing people who could bring alternative perspectives. Race is a sensitive matter, particularly when you’re on the side of a historically marginalised group. And consideration of racial history when deciding how to portray these matters is important.

This type of insensitive behaviour seems in opposition to the work being done by the Diversity Coalition, headed by Bethann Hardison, Naomi Campbell and Iman, which focuses on policing the runways and holding designers who feature all-white casts accountable. Importantly, this initiative is not asking for runways solely for black models. The aim is to have a variety of ethnicities in the same lineup, creating a rainbow presentation that reflects the diversity of beauty that exists on this planet. It’s an initiative that aims for inclusion, but not any cost and not segregated off in colour-specific corridors. True diversity comes when differences are not defined by colour. It’s not to say that we’re not proud of our differences. Variety is most definitely the spice of life, but let’s see it on the same page.

There is hope, of course. Riccardo Tisci is one designer who has been exemplary in his rainbow casting, both on the runway and in his campaigns, during his tenure at Givenchy. The Spring/Summer 2014 Givenchy campaign is a visual feast of variety, featuring the likes of singer Erykah Badu and models Maria Borges and Asia Chow.

And just this weekend, Umit Benan confronted the issue of racism head-on in a Jackie Robinson-themed collection titled “No To Racism, For the Love of the Game.” The cover of this month’s Dazed & Confused featuring the stunning Lupita Nyong’o is another positive example. There’s no racial label attached to it. Like her white counterparts who’ve appeared on the magazine’s covers before, Nyong’o is simply a beautiful woman, a talented actress and a burgeoning style icon. Is that not enough?

Jason Campbell is editor-in-chief of JC Report and the founder of ClosetHQ.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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4 comments

  1. Erykah*

    Bryan Chao from United States
  2. The expansion of the industry’s vision for the types of bodies that could represent what is beautiful and fashionable, should be a by-product of any creative work.

    Fashion’s racial problem is not that white models far outnumber nonwhite models on the runways and in mainstream fashion magazines.

    Well-intentioned people speak and act in ways that reinforce racism all the time. The only way to undo racism is to fundamentally alter the structures that enable whites to benefit from racism and people of color to be exploited by it.

    In the example of Owens’ show in Paris last year, the white American designer stands to reap immeasurable social, cultural, and financial rewards for this show displaying black dancers.

    The Fashion Industry should stop trying to be diverse, because the real intention is to be racially exploitative, with one party benefiting disproportionally more than the other (who will remember Owen’s dancers?).

    Rather than count racial bodies, it should begin recalibrating its structural dynamics of race, power, and profit.

    Youcef Dridi from France
  3. Unfortunately, it is sad to say and see, that no matter how much money you have, how much talent you have, how high your status or the color of your skin – it does not mean that an individual is sensitive, wise, mature, unbiased or intelligent. For those of us that can see beyond the immaturity and ignorance of those who think they are someone they are not, we should consider ourselves blessed, because we as well could be blind and unfortunate. The difference between those who accept that ALL people are created as gifts one to another and those we believe that they were created as THE gift is….we know how to CHOSE what is right and good toward mankind versus choosing to be selfish in any views that do not directly or seemingly affect oneself. And you know, it is okay if others do not acknowledge, accept or open doors/opportunities for those of us whom they may consider “lesser” ….for we KNOW better! We do not need anyone to validate us because if we validate ourselves…we can make our own way and will be able to achieve what others never will and no one will be able to stop us. We will be a force to reckon with! So I say, as a black woman, with beautiful daughters who are up and coming talents in fashion design and the musical field…lets set our focus on what we can, are and will do with our lives and purpose and stop worrying about the things that can not stop us if we do not allow those things to be our FOCUS.

    Andreya Taylor from Seattle, WA, United States
  4. The previous comment was actually from Patrice Rozel and not Andre’ya Taylor. I wrote this from her log in :)

    Andreya Taylor from Seattle, WA, United States