For an industry that changes with the seasons, some adjustments take a little longer to bed down. We’ve now completed the Fashion Weeks for New York, London and Paris. Before it all began, the Diversity Coalition, a campaign for greater diversity on the runway launched last year and spearheaded by veteran model booker Bethann Hardison, and supported by former supermodels Iman and Naomi Campbell, published its statistics on the use of black models in 2013’s runway shows.
Letters to the heads of each of the four fashion weeks analysed the numbers from 2013 and noted “a marked improvement”, but pointed out that “ there are design houses serviced by casting directors and stylists who are latent, as they seem comfortable with stereotypical images.”
In London in 2013, JW Anderson and Preen made the biggest improvements, using four black models each in 2013 compared to one before then. Temperley London used two black models, whereas before they had none, whereas Moschino Cheap and Chic had no black models at all, no change from previous years.
The numbers for this year aren’t in yet, but the Sunday Times reported that black models were still struggling to get cast in fashion shows despite the British Fashion Council writing to fashion houses urging them to diversify their shows to reflect the diversity of London.
Or just, you know, real life. I agree that it’s ridiculous to have all-white fashion shows in London, but surely it’s ridiculous anywhere. The world is diverse and fashion is a global business. This may be high fashion, but these images influence high street fashion and powerfully shape what we consider to be beautiful. This is true for body image as well as skin colour – and the excuses that are often given for rejecting black models are “aesthetic”: one casting agent told the Sunday Times that designers would often say that black models were “too extreme” and “their features don’t fit”.
It does feel like we’re having a “Black” moment in the media and entertainment industries. The convergence of the Bafta Awards and London Fashion Week this year underscored this, with Lupita Nyong’o the undisputed red carpet darling, celebrated for her acting talent in 12 Years a Slave, as well as for her distinctive, gorgeous fashion sense. She stands out for many reasons; not least because she represents an image of black womanhood that’s not often celebrated –a dark-skinned woman with natural hair. She also joins five other Black actors on the cover of Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue, widely touted as their most diverse yet in a year when Black actors are storming the awards ceremonies.
But is this a season or are we turning a corner? Time will tell if these actors continue to get offered Oscar-worthy roles, in particular roles that aren’t limited by history or biography to only be played by Black actors. Hopefully, in time we won’t need to keep tabs on the number of Black models on the catwalk or actors on the red carpet.
On receiving a Diversity Award from the Director’s Guild of America last month, Shonda Rhimes, creator of Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, and who does colour blind casting for her shows, recently spoke about being “a little pissed off because there still needs to be an award. Like, there’s such a lack of people hiring women and minorities that when someone does it on a regular basis, they are given an award.”
“It’s not because of a lack of talent. It’s because of a lack of access. People hire who they know. If it’s been a white boys club for 70 years, that’s a lot of white boys hiring one another… Different voices make for different visions. Different visions make for something original. Original is what the public is starving for.”
We need more diverse stories and storytellers to reflect the world we live in. What Shonda says about the gatekeepers of media holds true for fashion too.
A year on from the launch of the campaign, race is firmly on the agenda and black models are not afraid to speak up. Heavyweights like Iman and Naomi Campbell have broken the silence and impressively, younger models still at the stage of building their careers have joined in; Jourdan Dunn has been particularly outspoken.
Sustained change is going to take time, but Diversity Coalition is in it for the long haul: “We look for consistency and not because of advocacy or a season lending to darker skin…Diversifying is not difficult. The resistance to do so is intriguing.”