By  on January 25, 2008

NEW YORK — Most of the speakers at a discussion of industry diversity on Wednesday said they expect limited progress, rather than a groundswell of change, at New York Fashion Week next month.

Bethann Hardison, who organized the "Absence of Color" event at the Bowery Hotel here, said, "There is a lack of diversity...but the truth is it is slowly changing."

Many overworked designers have delegated casting to stylists, primarily for practical reasons. "I feel as though designers have lost their power,'' Hardison said. "It's not that they don't want to, but they're so busy with their handbags, their sunglasses, their underwear and their perfumes, they can't do the grassroots things they used to do."

Several participants noted how the demand for Eastern European models with prepubescent bodies in recent seasons has resulted in ho-hum runway shows, and urged a return to making charismatic models center stage. "What they're doing next week ain't going to be exciting," Hardison said. "It's going to be clothes, but it ain't going to be exciting."

A few participants criticized stylists for trying to duplicate the casting of the influential Miuccia Prada. With the exception of Prada, speakers backed away from naming names.

Casting director James Scully said stylists and casting directors should focus on what is best for their clients, not on what everyone else is doing. "No one likes to be called out, but it works," Scully said.

Former model Coco Mitchell suggested boycotting designers who do not use women of color on the runway. She noted that earlier in the day, at Bergdorf Goodman, she started to buy a Jil Sander dress but decided not to for that reason. Mitchell said she explained to the cashier why she changed her mind. "The boycott in Selma [Ala., during the Sixties] worked," Mitchell added.

On another front, Damon Dash talked about how a Council of Fashion Designers of America-type group would be a great help to black newcomers in the fashion business. Now that his designer wife Rachel Roy is a CFDA member, they have benefited from the CFDA, but that wasn't always the case."In my transition from the music business to fashion, I had to learn by experience,'' he said. "A lot of people think going into the urban [market] is easy — it isn't. This has been a very painful process. If I had someone like an O.G. — an original gangsta — I would rather learn from their experiences than my own. A lot of people took advantage of me because I was new to the business and new money."

Dash said he planned to share his knowledge with anyone who needed it.

One audience member, Patty Carpenter, talked about how America's standard of beauty influences the rest of the world. Some Chinese women are paying $250 to have their skin bleached and are paying to have rods put in their legs to make them taller, according to media reports. "This standard of beauty is much bigger than what may be in the magazines and on the runways,'' she said. "We have to think about this in a global way and what we can do."

Vogue's André Leon Tally noted in a letter, which Hardison read aloud, that the "first thing to do is to accept the issue as a reality."

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