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Runway Diversity Still Lagging

African American models remain an issue at New York fashion week.

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While the issue of diversity on the runway showed improvement during New York Fashion Week, industry insiders are eager to see the movement gain momentum with more designers taking action, and more changes in advertising campaigns.

That was the consensus Monday at “Race on the Runway,” a discussion led by Bethann Hardison at the Bryant Park Hotel in Manhattan, a year after she first rounded up fashion types to lambast the industry for its seemingly all-white runways. Last fall, many observers were up in arms about the numerous all-white runway shows in New York.

Hardison made it clear her movement is on behalf of all races and not any one type. She also singled out André Leon Talley and Naomi Campbell “who kept calling and calling” and motivated her to do something. While neither could be at the forum, Damon Dash, Rachel Roy, Tyson Beckford, Veronica Webb and a host of modeling and casting agents, stylists and others turned up.

Several attendees praised Hardison for making the industry take notice.

“I think we should feel really good about the changes we have seen,” Hardison said.

But she noted there is much work to be done — nixing the quota idea of casting, having modeling agents take the time to scout and develop African-American models, getting designers to be more engaged with fashion models, booking African-American models for ad campaigns and not measuring black models by Caucasian criteria. Hardison also took issue with the pat explanation for not casting more: “It’s not my aesthetic.”

Hardison, who has her own model management company and was involved with the casting for Italian Vogue’s all-black August issue, said, “When I hear this over and over again about it not being their aesthetic, I’m beginning to think it’s not their race.”

Designer Michael Vollbracht said, “It irks me beyond belief that we have to sit in this room and talk about black. It’s not an aesthetic. I’m the oldest designer in this room, probably, and aesthetic to me was my own choice. And my own choice was without the stylists. And I have a bone to pick with stylists. They have interrupted a lot of things with design….The designer has been eliminated in this process. It’s most irksome because we are the ones who call the shots and if I want to use six black girls, I want to use six black girls. And I hate this forum because it shouldn’t even be an issue.”

Ralph Lauren earned high marks from Hardison for using several black models and for having one close his show. Oscar de la Renta also earned Hardison’s praise for having a mixed casting. Sophie Théallet, a new designer on the scene who previously worked for Jean Paul Gaultier and Azzedine Alaïa, was lauded for her decision to use only African-American models in her first fashion show. The designer said the decision came from her heart and she didn’t have to think about it.

Hardison criticized the non-African-American casting at Vera Wang and Badgley Mischka.

“I adore Bethann, she is one of my oldest friends, and as an Asian-American I am very conscious of racial diversity,” Vera Wang said following the meeting.

A Badgley Mischka spokesman said, “We did not purposefully not use African-American models.” There were three African-American models that Badgley Mischka “really fought for,” but they had other commitments, he said. “We were really disappointed,” he added.

Another issue to be considered is there are not enough black models coming from the agencies. They might see 350 white women and choose 20, whereas there might only be 10 black women to choose from, Hardison said.

As for black women being underrepresented in advertising, Giant’s editor Emil Wilbekin said, “I have had some people say they want to advertise in the magazine but they have white girls in their ads.”

A few attendees noted that companies have been known to lowball fees for black models. One exception has been Liya Kebede, who has managed to break through, appearing in ads for Tiffany & Co., Estée Lauder and Emanuel Ungaro. She was filming a movie and did not walk in any runway shows last week.

Hardison and others praised up-and-comers Arlenis Sosa, Jourdan Dunn, Georgie Badiel and Chanel Iman Robinson, who did hit the spring catwalks. Dunn also appeared on the cover of a Pop magazine issue for which Miuccia Prada was the guest editor.

Elite’s Calvin Wilson said, “The black issue of Italian Vogue was great, but that’s not what we want to see, universal color. I want to see people who look like me in every issue and it’s a nonissue then. And not, ‘Well, we gave you the August issue five years ago.’ It’s kind of a cop-out. We just want to be part of the world that we live in. Sometimes I wonder. I walk down the street and see every different color and I think about the stylists who are styling the show. Where do they live?”

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