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.

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