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Little Diversity in Fashion: African-Americans Bemoan Their Absence in Industry

Is there discrimination in the fashion business?

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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.

This story first appeared in the September 17, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Daniel Wolf, a Washington-based attorney who specializes in civil and human rights, said the assumption being made in the fashion industry is that it is legal to discriminate — however false. Wolf recommended that modeling agencies hire the same percentage of black models that are in the entire modeling industry.

Kebede, the first black model to be hired by Estée Lauder, said, “It’s important for the agencies to have more black girls. But if the magazines and designers are not going to hire them, that’s it at the end of the day.”

Hardison insisted she is not motivated by legal action, stressing she only wants further discussion — and eventually change.

The lack of black designers and photographers only adds to the problem, attendees said. Stephen Burrows and B. Michael are still on the scene, and more recently Tracy Reese, Rachel Roy, Kimora Lee Simmons, Patrick Robinson and Sean “Diddy” Combs are among those non-Caucasian designers making names for themselves in women’s fashion.

The lack of blacks in all aspects of fashion — from the runway to the executive suite — comes as there is a noticeable increase in the number of Asian models, designers and executives in the industry. Among designers, for example, Thakoon Panichgul, Peter Som, Doo-Ri Chung, Derek Lam, Phillip Lim, and Benjamin Cho have all sprung onto the scene. Of course, designers like Vera Wang, Yeohlee Teng, Anna Sui and Vivienne Tam had already helped pave the way.

Of the 101 shows and presentations posted on Style.com, 31 appear to have no black models. Most of those who did use black models opted for one or two. However, Heatherette, Diane von Furstenberg, Charles Nolan, Tracy Reese, Yigal Azrouël, Philip Lim, Marc Jacobs, Jenni Kayne and Sue Stemp were among the designers who used more than two. Heatherette, von Furstenberg and Lam each opened their shows with a black model. In fact, von Furstenberg closed her show with the opening girl, too, and the first 10 models at Heatherette appeared to be women of color.

Campbell, who flew in from London for the occasion, recalled how Christy Turlington once told Dolce & Gabbana, “If you don’t use Naomi, you don’t get us,” referring also to Linda Evangelista. Campbell said that’s how she also got into Helmut Lang, Prada and Versace. She used a different route with French Vogue, appealing to Yves Saint Laurent, whose campaigns she had worked on for three years running. The magazine relented after the designer threatened to pull his advertising, which at the time was reportedly the publication’s largest advertiser.

“In my days of drinking and drugging, I’d be numbing myself just going along with the calendar,” Campbell said. “I was tired and fed up and I wasn’t sure why I was doing it. But if I didn’t, there wouldn’t be any representation [of black models at all].”

Iman said she felt strongly about organizing a union for models, noting it’s the only huge industry that does not have one. “Models don’t have a union. They don’t have a voice. No one speaks for them. Thank God I’m not a model anymore.”

The fact that magazines are often run by people who are not from the U.S. and do not share its history is another factor, Hardison said. But even if a model is a citizen of a particular country, it doesn’t always make a difference. Campbell claimed she has asked for a British Vogue cover, but was told a celebrity had to run instead. “I cannot even get a cover in my own country — not because I don’t sell — in fact I sell more than all of my white counterparts.”

Campbell last appeared on W’s cover in June 2007. Reached by phone last week, publicists at three American fashion magazines said the most recent African-Americans on their covers were celebrities. Halle Berry was the most recent African-American woman to appear on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in August 2004; Beyoncé graced Elle’s December 2006 cover; Vogue gave Jennifer Hudson the March cover, while Chanel Iman was featured along with nine nonblack models on Vogue’s May cover.

Bill Blass’ former designer, Michael Vollbracht, recalled the days when booking Sheila Johnson, Pat Cleveland and other leading African-American beauties was a given. After returning to the industry after a 15-year hiatus, he was surprised to learn that was no longer the case. Age is also an issue, Vollbracht said. Cleveland’s return to the Blass runway in 2004 was not well-received, Vollbracht said. “I was told, ‘Don’t ever put that girl back on the runway.'”

Campbell herself will be casting for 10 black models this week for a charity fashion show Thursday. Her initial request for black models fell on deaf ears. But at the symposium, she scoffed at reports she is starting a modeling agency, explaining that she is working with the Aga Khan to develop an empowerment program for girls in Africa.

Reese raised another issue, noting designers don’t want models who stand out on the runway. Her own casting calls for a mix of people, but the designer admitted that “finding black models can be a challenge.”

On occasion Reese’s booker has to request specific girls or the modeling agencies will not send them, Reese said.

In addition, designers’ quest for a unified look has left its mark on the industry. She said, “Personality has been so beaten out of fashion. That whole mood has to change.”

Hardison chalked up that lack of charisma on the runway to companies’ focus on building their brands. “Everything is about branding now. When something is so commerce-driven, creativity is gone.”

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