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Between the Catwalk and the Consumer: Fashion’s Growing Diversity Gap

Luxury fashion customers are more diverse than ever, but on catwalks and magazine covers, white models still dominate. Why doesn’t the industry reflect its consumer base?
The ratio of models in catwalk shows this season by race | Photo: BoF
By
  • Helena Pike

LONDON, United Kingdom — Bethann Hardison remembers the days when, before every New York Fashion Week, "Casting directors would send out notices to all the modelling agencies in the city, saying 'no blacks, no ethnics' — we don't want to see them." Back then, the issue of diversity in the fashion industry had "got lost like a splinter," says Hardison, a former model and founder of the Diversity Coalition, which works with industry bodies like the CFDA to raise awareness about racial diversity and discrimination in fashion.

In 2007, tired and frustrated, Hardison hosted a press conference in a New York hotel, where she publicly lambasted the industry’s lack of diversity. “From that moment on,” Hardison says, “No one has ever said that again.”

Since then, greater media coverage, the work of advocacy organisations such as the Diversity Coalition, and the willingness of high profile figures like Jourdan Dunn and Naomi Campbell to speak out about their experiences, has spotlighted the issue of diversity in the fashion industry. But this has not resulted in a significant rise in the number of models of colour walking the runways and gracing the covers of glossy magazines.

The consumers buying luxury fashion, however, are more diverse than ever before. Since 2007, Asia-Pacific’s share of the global luxury goods market has grown by ten percentage points, according to a report by Bain & Company, and today, the fastest growing luxury markets in the world are the Middle East and Africa. But as the non-western markets for fashion expand, the gap between consumers and catwalks is growing.

Over the last four weeks, BoF has surveyed 117 key shows from New York, London, Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks. The data gathered reveals that white models still make up the vast majority of those appearing on the catwalk. According to BoF’s calculations, of the 3,875 model bookings that were made during these four weeks, only 797 were models of colour (categorised as black, Asian, non-white Hispanic and other), meaning that 79.4 percent of the models that walked the runway were white. Black models were the highest represented minority, accounting for 10.2 percent of bookings, followed by Asian models at 6.5 percent and ‘other’ models, including those of Indian and Middle Eastern descent, at 2.3 percent. Hispanic models accounted for only 1.6 percent of model bookings made.

BoF’s data was only a representative sample of these fashion weeks, based on information gathered from the shows that we reviewed during this period, but our results echo those found by other industry surveys. In February, The Fashion Spot published a report on the four fashion weeks for Autumn/Winter 2015, which found a similar divide, with non-white models making up only 20 percent of all catwalk appearances.

White models also dominate editorial coverage and advertising campaigns. In Fashionista’s round up of 2015’s ‘September Issues’ — widely regarded as the most important issue of the year for fashion magazines — only 12 of the 41 covers featured men or women of colour and racially diverse cover stars were predominantly celebrities rather than models. Last year, just under 20 percent of fashion magazine covers featured models of colour, according to data collected by The Fashion Spot. Diversity was most lacking in fashion advertising, with white models making up almost 85 percent of those cast in campaigns, according to another report by The Fashion Spot.

The fashion industry’s lack of diversity extends to those working behind the scenes. Data recently collected by The New York Times revealed that African-American designers accounted for approximately 12 of the CFDA’s 470 and helmed only 2.7 percent of the 260 shows scheduled for New York Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2015. “More often, [I’m] the only person of colour in the room,” says Tracy Reese, an African-American designer who has dressed the likes of Michelle Obama.

"It's not a particularly diverse industry," says Robin Givhan, fashion editor of The Washington Post, who says there is a connection between the decision makers and the dominance of white models. "We are drawn to people who look like us," she says. "Unless they're making a conscious decision to deviate from the standard, then the standard is what they go for. And [their] standard is blonde and blue eyed."

Historically, the fashion industry has also been centred in the West — with its most significant companies, such as Kering and LVMH, and its fashion weeks all based there. “The fashion press has been covering only four cities,” points out Frédéric Godart, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD. “For a lot of people in the world, fashion is Paris, New York, Milan and London.” As a result, the industry has evolved to cater primarily for a Western consumer.

Ashley Mears, an assistant sociology professor at Boston University and author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, says the lack of diversity is much more of a problem at the luxury end of the spectrum, which is "aimed at a very narrow consumer base." By contrast, mass-market fashion tends to be much more ethnically diverse. "You never see people complaining about a catalogue — 'Where's diversity?' They've really covered their bases," says Mears. Indeed, value fashion grounds its advertising in customer research, often operating on the understanding that the consumer wants to see himself or herself represented. "They know who their customers are," Mears says.

But luxury brands' model castings aren't unthinking — rather, they are careful marketing. "Fashion isn't about selling real life," says Reina Lewis, professor of cultural studies at London College of Fashion, who says that it is the same principle of exclusivity that means luxury fashion is only shown on young, skinny bodies, as on white bodies. "Even something ostensibly real, like normcore, is only cool when it's shown on slim, youthful bodies — not on 50-year-olds."

“High-end advertising operates on a principle of not only aspiration, but also on a principle of unattainability — something that is so fantastic and so beautiful that it is damn near impossible to achieve,” agrees Mears.

Another part of the appeal of luxury fashion brands — as well as their aesthetic exclusivity — is their European heritage, says Frédéric Godart. “The fashion industry was born in Northern Italy and France, and then spread to the UK and other countries and the US. A lot of big brands were born there,” Godart told BoF. “These brands have a long history,” he added, which is important to the customers buying into them.

The "myth and ideal of the western product" is part of what luxury fashion brands are selling to emerging markets, says Lewis. When a customer in China buys a Chanel handbag, they are buying a Chanel handbag from the iconic, Parisian brand. "So it needs to not look too much like something local, even if it might be made in China," says Lewis.

Brands’ desire to emphasise their Western history can account for some of the lack of diversity in campaigns, agrees Elizabeth Wissinger, associate professor of fashion studies at City University of New York, who says that brands often choose to depict their historic customer base, rather than their more diverse modern one. “It might be more [diverse] now, but that was not the norm. So the meaning doesn’t resonate with the history and tradition of whatever the brand was, because that brand usually catered to elite who were not of colour.”

These brands have also inherited the West’s preconceived ideals of beauty. “Fashion didn’t invent the tendency to regard certain types of Caucasian bodies as beautiful. There’s a pre-history in art, literature and drama, of presenting a certain type of European as the cultural ideal,” explains Reina Lewis, who says that, while some physical details might have changed — body weight, for example — “the conceptualisation of whiteness as a quality of the beautiful body has remained constant.”

However, “fashion houses do listen,” says Godart. “If their customers want something, they will oblige.” In particular, the recent uptick in Asian models has been interpreted by many as brands’ reactions to the growing significance of Chinese customers in the global luxury fashion market.

However, many are wary that this development could be merely a cosmetic trend, arguing that it is still too statistically small to be significant.

“It’s really surface level,” says Minh-Ha Pham, assistant professor at Cornell University and co-author of fashion politics blog, Threadbared. Pham says there is a danger in only offering diversity when the market demands it. “It’s okay when Asia is becoming this new and important market, but what happens when the economy begins to slow down? All of a sudden those consumers are no longer important.”

Including Asian models in shows in a bid to win important Chinese consumers also “rests on a logical assumption that people of colour want to see other people of colour, and that is what sells fashion, and that is what drives fashion, but that’s not necessarily true,” says Mears.

Reina Lewis argues that racialised hierarchies of beauty, which prioritise whiteness, exist all over the world — something attested to by the popularity of relaxing and straightening products for Afro hair, or skin-lightening creams. “In many cultures paler skin is preferred as a sign of beauty.”

Furthermore, the rarity of models of colour reinforces the idea of whiteness as the “accepted aesthetic,” Pham explains. “[Whiteness] is seen as a kind of universal human identity.” Therefore, “when Asian or African bodies do register, they tend to stand out,” agrees Lewis.

“I still see collections presented where you’ll have a model on the runway, and then all of a sudden there will be four black models in succession, as if somehow they must be grouped together,” says Robin Givhan, who describes how some fashion brands approach race as if it is an “aesthetic flourish.”

Some see the changing ways that people consume fashion — no longer only through the lens of high-end editorial and luxury advertising campaigns, but online, through blogs and social media — as a harbinger for diversity in the industry.

“They’ve opened up the space beyond magazines,” says Elizabeth Wissinger, associate professor of sociology and fashion studies at City University of New York, who argues that the Internet has enabled the rise of influencers outside the fashion industry’s traditionally narrow definition of beauty.

“There’s a whole host of user-generated imagery out there… that’s been really important in making visible different types of ethnicity,” agrees Lewis, who says bloggers and social media platforms “have been incredibly important in putting up a range of imagery that validates people’s choices and that widens the frame in which people can understand themselves.”

As these influences draw large audiences, “the fashion industry starts noticing them,” says Wissinger, who explains how the industry’s slow realisation of the potential profitability of these communities encourages brands “to go for these new markets and accept them and pull them into the fashion fold.”

As the balance of who is controlling fashion’s imagery shifts away from elite luxury fashion houses, alternative understandings of beauty will be allowed to come to the forefront. But, for as long as those in charge remain preoccupied with Western ideals of whiteness, the image of the fashion industry on the catwalk will continue to look very different to its consumers.

To learn more about VOICES, BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details and apply to attend our invitation-only global gathering in December, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, hosted at the Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire in the picturesque English countryside, one hour from London.

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