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Lack Of Diversity At New York Fashion Week Sparks Controversy

Gabi Duncan |
September 15, 2013 | 7:17 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Naomi Campbell for DVF (Twitter).
Naomi Campbell for DVF (Twitter).
The shows at New York Fashion Week drew to a close as the last model made her way down the catwalk. Innovative collections from designers like Betsey Johnson, Marc Jacobs, Jeremy Scott, and Prabal Gurung turned heads. The designers pulled out all the stops using a variety of colors, shapes, and patterns. Though the clothing was beautiful and diverse, the models were not.

In the past few days, there has been a controversy and debate about the lack of diversity on the runways this past season. African-American supermodels like Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Bethann Hardison have spoken out for more diverse representation on fashion runways.

All three women are members of the Diversity Coalition, an organization that fights for increasing diversity within the fashion industry. Earlier this week the Coalition released an email to the fashion world, as part of a campaign called Balance Diversity. The email called out the fashion houses that consistently use only one or no models of color in their shows, calling it racism.  

"No matter the intention, the result is racism," the email writes. "Whether it’s the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society."

Then, in an even bolder move, the email named several specific houses that are guilty of this. The famous roster included Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Chanel, Valentino, Armani, Roberto Cavalli, Versace, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, and Proenza Schouler.

Last Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America", Iman clarified that "nobody is calling any of these designers racist. The act itself is racist."

The lack of diversity in the fashion industry has been a problem for at least 15 years, both in the U.S. and internationally. But with so many gorgeous and accomplished models of color, why are we still having this conversation in 2013?

"Fashion is constantly changing from decade to decade, but I don't see a change in how many black faces I see on the runway, and it's something we should talk about because it's a problem," black supermodel Jessica White told the New York Daily News.

According to Jezebel, 82% of the models at this season's shows were white, only 6% were black, and only 2% were Latino. This season, 13 companies had no models of color at all. It can be difficult to pinpoint who exactly is to blame for the fashion industry's preference for white models. In the past, many designers have resisted including a diverse array of models in their shows, claiming that their decision reflects an aesthetic choice, not racism. While it cannot be denied that designers must have artistic freedom when creating their work, it is difficult to grasp how the skin color or race of a model infringes upon that freedom. Ashley Mears, author of "Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model" and a Boston University assistant professor of sociology, states that many in the industry believe that "non-white women, particularly black women, are incompatible with a high-end look" and the buyers and fashion media expect to see white models on the runway. 

This trend can be problematic because it promotes the negative ideal that white - and only white - equals beauty. Young girls of color watch these fashion shows and are told through what they see (or do not see) that they are not beautiful. It is a dangerous message, yet the fashion industry continues to send it over and over again. So, what can be done to break the current cycle and get more models of color on the catwalk?

The Council of Fashion Designers of America, or CFDA, was reportedly receptive to the Diversity Coalition's email and will continue to push for more diversity. It should be noted that the council's president, Diane von Furstenberg, regularly includes models of color, namely Naomi Campbell, in her runway shows. More designers like von Furstenberg need to hop on the train and realize that fashion is constantly evolving and the diversity of the models we see needs to evolve as well. When we step out into the world, we do not only see white - we see every color. The fashion industry is so progressive and creative, yet it remains extremely short-sighted on this issue. The industry needs to take a page from its own book. The clothing on the runway this season was full of vibrant pops of color, now let's see that with the models wearing them.

Reach Staff Reporter Gabi Duncan here. Follow her on Twitter.



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