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Op-Ed | Agencies Are Holding Back Models of Colour

Designers want to work with a diverse range of models, but some modelling agencies are making it tough, says Bethann Hardison.
Jason Wu Spring/Summer 2016 | Source: InDigital
  • Bethann Hardison

NEW YORK, United States — There was a time when, during 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.

In 2007, I held a press conference, along with about 70 designers, agents, editors, stylists and models including Naomi Campbell, Iman and Liya Kebede to address the issue. After all the media attention given to it, that has not been said since.

Right now, the fashion industry is at a place where it’s improved, after a long period of time when diversity got sort of lost, like a splinter. But I still see some serious glitches. You still have to go around and slap a lot of hands — not just the casting directors and the stylists, but, at this point, the modelling agencies too.

Today, we have many more models of colour in the industry, and many more agencies fighting to work with those models. But the problem is that, while they are fighting to work with those girls, they begin to narrow the girls’ opportunities. Once the girl starts to develop, she is not sent to all the companies that request her, not allowed to work with a “non-worthy” client, nor allowed to be seen in “the wrong place”. This is due to the fact that there aren’t as many models of colour as their white counterparts, so there are less for brands to chose from. To compete for the right opportunity to grow the girl’s career, the agent has to choose to be politically correct.  Here in lies the problem… politics.  This never existed before.

Modelling agencies are not allowing the girls to be seen by all the brands that request their models — many white girls are sent, but never the good working black model, unless the brand is very important. That’s a problem.

Once, a brand like Calvin Klein was criticised for not working with any models of colour, choosing instead a railroad of blonde girls with no brush of any sort of minority.  So they began to work with one girl of colour — but exclusively, so no other designer could use her. This error still occurs today.

Model agencies are no longer able to service the fashion design industry in the way that they should. Once, agencies in the fashion industry had the power to be in control. Designers didn’t hire casting directors or stylists, and there wasn’t this constant search for new models throughout Eastern Europe. A lot has changed.

I’ve got so many calls from designers, this season, saying that the agencies were not sending them black girls. Brands that really want to diversify, that don’t want to have an all-white cast — they can’t get the girls. Agencies hold these girls for well-known brands with important casting directors and stylists, leaving other brands with less choice of models of colour. I also received complaints from certain magazines and beauty advertisers.

Of course, agencies make some Caucasian girls exclusive too. But comparatively, we don’t have many non-Caucasian models being accepted into the industry, so it’s very important not to let this become a permanent trend. We want these girls to be seen working more and more, spread out across the industry. The more a minority is seen, the more it blends into what society should expect to see — and the more other young girls are encouraged to do this job. No one should think, “Oh my God, I’m never going to make it as a model,” because of their race.

Designers also need to be conscious of what is going on around them. There was a moment, 10 or 15 years ago, where I could say you faced a genuinely limited choice of models, but not any more. There are a lot of good models of colour around. If your company calls to see models and the agency only sends you girls or boys that are white, then you have to call back.

Oftentimes, I have said that dialogue is the true beginning of change. Those who resist diversifying should be able to explain it and stand verbally behind it, not hide behind a publicist.

But many people in the industry are trying to embrace diversity, and currently agencies are holding the girls — for what, I don't know.  Unfortunately, it's a Catch 22. Our modelling industry has never been as politically strapped as it is now.

As I often say, ”let the models model.” Imagemakers, too, need to be more responsible when it comes to how our industry is seen.  We all have the power to make the difference.

As told to Helena Pike.

Bethann Hardison is a former model, former modelling agency owner, activist and founder of the Diversity Coalition, an advocacy group targeting racial diversity in the fashion industry.

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Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
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