By  on October 17, 2007

NEW YORK — The dearth of African-American models on the runways is merely symptomatic of a greater problem — American fashion is in a rut.

That was the sounding bell at Monday night's "Out of Fashion: The Absence of Color" panel discussion at the New York Public Library.

Led by former fashion model and model agency owner Bethann Hardison, who initiated the discussion a month ago with a public event, this week's sold-out talk drew 275 people, and many ticketless others were turned away. While stylist Lori Goldstein, designer Tracy Reese, casting agent James Scully and model agent David Ralph joined Hardison as the lead speakers, there was no shortage of unsolicited comments from Iman and other members of the audience. Vera Wang, who sat quietly in the auditorium, was the only major designer in attendance.

Hardison said, "Fashion is in a rut — beautiful clothes, but in a rut."

Speakers pointed to a variety of factors contributing to the industry's malaise, including:

- Designers' predilections for "nameless, faceless" teenage catwalkers, whose rates are often half what a top model would charge.

- Stylists and photographers using their pull.

- Designers looking to make models anonymous in their clothes in order to make their respective visions more pronounced.

- The fact that celebrities featured in magazines often have more sway with consumers' buying decisions than models.

- Front-row appearances that detract from the clothes being shown on the runway.

- Designers removing themselves from casting shows and leaving that in the hands of agents and stylists.

- Accessories driving the industry's sales, and subsequently, apparel taking a back seat.

- Internet access allowing designers to see who their competitors have used on their runways to alter their lineups accordingly.

- Executives' and financial investors' failure to take a stand in terms of presenting a more diversified front.

Of course, there were also more controversial ideas introduced by audience members and panelists, including the problem of racism in America, the influence of non-American editors, luxury brands omitting black women from ads even though rap lyrics presumably help sales by mentioning their labels, the potential of boycotting brands that do not respect African-Americans and sending more African-American models to Milan, where Caucasian models have dominated for years.More than once, Hardison urged attendees to think about the one person who could change the industry's destiny. "I feel like there is one person, behind a curtain, like in 'The Wizard Of Oz,' turning the knobs. And that person could change everything," she said.

Reached by phone Tuesday, she declined to name whom she had in mind, only saying: "Sometimes people need to be nudged because they have been drinking the Kool-Aid for too long."

Regarding the lack of black models on the runway, modeling agent Ralph offered the most sobering statistics noting how this month's American fashion magazines featured few black models. Marie Claire used one in a six-page fashion spread, W magazine had one on one page of a 20-page spread and Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Allure, Lucky and Elle did not feature any.

Reese criticized designers for being old-fashioned in an industry that thrives on newness by not representing all of the people they sell to and hope to sell to on their runways. "Every designer and editor thinks they are so modern. Is it modern in 2007, going into 2008, to discriminate on your runway?" she said.

Scully noted how Prada's influence now can be seen on other runways. "The models have gotten younger," he noted. "It's all become very colorless, blackless and personality-less. When the plain, boring, faceless, wide-eyed girls came in, it became about one vision, one thing and anything individualistic went out the window."

The controversy comes at a time when black women are spending more than $20 billion on apparel and accessories annually, according to Targetmarketresearch.com.

The discussion wasn't all gloom and doom, with attendees singling out John Galliano, Diane von Furstenberg, Heatherette, B. Michael, Gottex and Ports 1961 for featuring black models on their runways last month. Vivienne Westwood, who recently told the Daily Telegraph in London that the fashion industry is "racist" and editors should be forced to use a certain percentage of black models even if their circulation takes a hit, also won praise from the audience.

Hardison plans to meet with von Furstenberg, who was out of the country and unable to attend Monday's event, at the end of this month, and expects to set up a meeting with Council of Fashion Designers of America members after that.In fact, Goldstein took issue with the suggestion that designers don't care who the models are. "They care very much....They definitely have a vision. They have been living with the clothes for six months and have a point of view they want to get across," she said. "It's more about the girl's personality than the color of her skin."

Ralph agreed that a model's personality is the true litmus test, but acknowledged the industry is still primarily white-driven. "As a black person, it seems as though we have become very complacent and we are kind of pandering to what they want," he said, noting as testimony to the fact that Liya Kebede, whom he described as relatively light-skinned, is one of the few African-American models to excel in the business today.

Iman jumped in from the audience, lambasting Ralph for his assessment of her fellow African-born model. When he tried to clarify his point that many appear to be pandering to the largely white advertising world, Iman shot back: "In the advertising world, there are very different white models who look different from each other."

In closing, Hardison urged attendees to keep the conversation going on as many levels as possible. "Every day, be how you would like the world to be," she said.

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