By  on September 17, 2007

Is there discrimination in the fashion business?

"You bet," was the consensus at a panel discussion addressing the dearth of black models in fashion, with Naomi Campbell, Iman, Liya Kebede and Bethann Hardison leading the charge. The situation was starkly evident during last week's New York shows and some say it's worse in Europe, where most black models don't even bother to try to book shows in Milan.

And the problem isn't only in the modeling world; observers also pointed to the scarcity of black designers, photographers and executives in the fashion industry as a major issue.

By not including more blacks in their shows and ads, Ivan Bart, senior vice president of IMG Models, said designers and other fashion companies are missing out on black women's spending power. "By not having black women represented, those luxury brands are saying they can't afford it," he said.

According to estimates by Targetmarketnews.com, black women spend more than $20 billion on apparel alone each year.

After more than two hours of spirited exchanges at Friday's "The Lack of the Black Image in Fashion Today," the standing-room-only crowd at the Bryant Park Hotel cheered at André Leon Talley's suggestion to set up a meeting with the Council of Fashion of Designers of America to address the issue. That is expected to be scheduled after an Oct. 15 public discussion at the New York Public Library.

Hardison, who has modeled, run her own modeling agency and handled casting over the years, said, "In the United States of America, this is the one industry that still has the freedom to refer to people by their color and reject them in their work."

And she doesn't see things improving anytime soon. "I came up in the Sixties. I feel it's the worst it's ever been."

More than anything, she hoped the discussion would raise people's awareness of the lack of black women on the runways and in magazines, and ultimately encourage those in power to make some changes. Singling out the late Richard Avedon, who refused to work with Harper's Bazaar in the late Seventies after the magazine declined to hire China Machado for his shoot, Hardison spurred on attendees to get industry insiders more involved.

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