NEW YORK, United States — Fashion is addressing the issue of racial diversity. Whereas, just two years ago, only the rare black model was spotted in a runway lineup, today, multiple models of colour are casted at most shows and are the subject of high profile editorials and campaigns. One defiant voice amidst the ‘multi-culti’ progress is the influential Paris-based designer Demna Gvasalia and his design collective at Vetements and Balenciaga, which both showed their recent Autumn/Winter collections on white models only.
How does one of fashion’s brightest stars helming two closely tracked brands feel comfortable casting only white models in this racially charged age? It’s especially stunning when a stable of racially diverse models are ruling the game so visibly. Imaan Hammam, Lineisy Montero, Joan Smalls, Karly Loyce, Ajak Deng, Maria Borges, Herieth Paul, Liu Wen, Soo Joo Park and others are all helping to diversify the most visible side of the industry. Magazines from Antidote, 032c, CR Fashion Book and Elle worldwide to the Japanese, German and American editions of Vogue are featuring models of colour with such regularity we can only hope that — finally — inclusion is here to stay.
In campaigns, Gucci’s quirky, decadent model squad is multi-culturally representative and looks particularly on point. Céline arguably ushered in the ubiquitous natural hair trend by way of campaign star Karly Loyce. And Dominican Republic sensation Lineisy Montero’s racially non-specific beauty is the current face of Chanel (Prada before that). For those of us paying attention, there’s been a collective sigh of relief.
Meanwhile if we’re to rely on the vision of Gvasalia and his band of millennial influencers, fashion’s future is strangely one-dimensional and melanin-free. For someone whose excellent design work has been dubbed "revolutionary" in fashion circles, the all-white casting Gvasalia champions is, unfortunately, out of touch with today’s global reality. Vetements’ Americana-themed collection of reworked street wear, leather city coats and knee high boots worn exclusively by wan, Eastern-bloc looking models does not reflect the racial diversity seen on New York City streets, or even in middle America or on the West Coast where plenty of clued in hipsters of colour already wear or want to buy from the brand, as they do from London to Lagos, to Los Feliz.
On this topic, Vetements and Balenciaga need to be called out and corrected. We can’t excuse Gvasalia and his cronies for their early years spent in unified Stalinist and Leninist Georgia. Surely any modern designer with a worldview is attuned to the importance of diversity. It’s a myth that uniformed skin colour is the way to convey a cohesive, singular design idea and it is irresponsible and senseless businesswise to ignore this hot-button issue.
Gvasalia and race is an uncomfortable subject in so many ways. It’s uncomfortable that Vetements and Balenciaga’s stylist-du-jour and casting director Lotta Volkova does not feature people of colour on her popular Instagram page. It’s uncomfortable that Kanye West is a key champion of Gvasalia, though West is a vocal voice on racial inequality. It’s uncomfortable that Gvasalia sees upending the fashion system as a modern idea but doesn’t see racial diversity as equally important. “I would never compromise the credibility of a collection, for instance, to cater to what someone might think regarding our politics, or to send an insincere, first-degree message about something people expect for the sake of correctness,” opined Gvasalia in a piece published by 032c magazine last year. Well, what is ‘the first-degree message’ you are sending when so many fans have to question their interest in these brands?
Jason Campbell is the 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.
Editor's note: This article was revised on 9 March 2016. An earlier version misspelled the name of model Imaan Hammam.