By and and and  on September 6, 2013

The Diversity Coalition, led by activist and former model Bethann Hardison, sent letters Thursday to respective governing bodies of fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris alleging racism on the runways.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America, the British Fashion Council, the Fédération Française de la Couture and the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana each received an unsigned letter that included the claim.

“Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches design houses consistently use one or no models of color. No matter the intention, the result is racism,” the letter states. “Not accepting another based on the color of their skin is clearly beyond ‘aesthetic’ when it is consistent with the designer’s brand. 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. It can no longer be accepted, nor confused by the use of the Asian model.”

Each individual unsigned letter lists “fashion houses guilty of this racist act.” The CFDA received one with 19 women’s designer labels and seven men’s wear designers. The French letter cites 23 labels for women and 21 labels for men. The Camera was sent a letter singling out 14 women’s wear companies and 17 men’s wear labels. The BFC’s letter lists seven women’s companies and seven men’s wear labels.

The CFDA’s Steven Kolb said he and the group’s president, Diane von Furstenberg, discussed the letter during a 6 a.m. phone call Thursday. He noted that in the past two weeks, the CFDA sent two different e-mails — one to industry influencers and another to CFDA members — that encouraged diversity. While it is not the CFDA’s place to tell members whom they should cast for runway shows, the group consistently promotes diversity, he said.

Pointing out that the letter did not provide an e-mail, phone number or Web site, Kolb said, “If the coalition, Bethann or whoever feels the message needs to be stronger, then we are happy to meet and to be part of that discussion.”

Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale, which organizes fashion week in Paris, said he was puzzled by the letter and found the charge of racism “unreasonable.” He pointed out that at the next session of runway shows in the French capital, scheduled for Sept. 24 to Oct. 2, designers of 22 nationalities from five continents are participating across some 100 shows. French couturiers including Emanuel Ungaro were pioneers in using women of color on the high-fashion runway, he added.

Reached for comment Thursday, Mario Boselli, head of the Italian Chamber of Fashion, said, “The Camera della Moda has always allowed its members complete freedom to decide autonomously. As the Camera avoids all discriminations, it suggests to fashion companies to avoid discrimination, but it can’t impose anything. The Camera has taken action against showing models that are too young or too slim on the runway, in an antianorexia effort, and penalizes those companies that are found at fault, but has never [deliberated] on skin color.”

Natalie Massenet, the recipient of the BFC letter, was traveling Thursday and was unable to comment.

Hardison plans to host a town hall-type discussion in New York at the end of October to further the discussion.

“The point of this letter is that everyone should be discussing this — I mean everyone,” Hardison said. “It’s like the MTA. If you see something, say something. Well, I’m saying something.”

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