New York

The Fashion Industry

Over at Rachel’s Tavern, there is an interesting discussion about racism in the fashion industry. Several international news agencies are reporting that fashion designers, magazines, manufacturers and modeling agencies are engaged in the practice of racism. Excerpts below from articles linked by Rachel…

From the Washington Post:

Agents complained that some designers won’t even consider black models for their shows. Editors of publications aimed at black consumers described the politics of booking models for their covers. Some black models fear being pigeonholed as too ethnic, a label that can prevent them from being featured prominently in more mainstream publications. And a lawyer dissected the difference between making an aesthetic choice, which is legal, and a biased one, which is not.

A little context from Deutsche Welle:

It was in 1964 that fashion designer Paco Rabanne sent a black model walking down a runway for the first time. She wore a wedding dress made of white plastic.

“It was an awful scandal,” Rabanne said. “After the show, American fashion journalists came backstage and almost spit in my face. They said haute couture is reserved for white women and not those girls over there.”

From the Daily Mail:

A summit is to be held between fashion designers, model agency bosses, politicians and race campaigners amid claims the fashion industry is guilty of racism.

It will examine why black and Asian models find it so difficult to break into the industry and comes as a talent contest to find a supermodel “of colour” is launched in London.

The summit is to be hosted by Dee Doocey, the Liberal Democrat culture spokeswoman on the London Assembly who ran an international fashion company in the Nineties.

She said today: “I don’t think I was ever sent a model who wasn’t white – it wasn’t racism but total and utter ignorance. It’s very difficult for anyone to break in but for anyone who is just slightly different it’s impossible. It’s a tragedy.”

The Top Model of Colour competition will be held at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium next month. Sophia White, one of the organisers and head booker at Mahogany Models, said: “There are very small percentages of models of colour at any of the top agencies and it shouldn’t be like this.

Thoughts? (a little fuchsia for the fashionistas)

WaPo fashion editor Robin Givhan (quoted above – great Wiki), 2006 winner of the Pulitzer Prize in criticsm, provides some interesting context here:

At the Jil Sander show, for example, the models were so homogeneous that they were virtual clones: overwhelmingly tall, thin, pale and with hair ranging from platinum blond to honey blond to the occasional warm brunette. There is such a runway tradition of “white preferred” at this house — going back to when its namesake was at the helm and continuing with current designer Raf Simons — that one wonders whether anyone at Jil Sander has noticed that brown people actually exist.

Similar whiteouts occurred on the runways of Prada and Marni in Milan and at Calvin Klein in New York. The explanation for these choices always comes down to aesthetics, which is a designer’s prerogative (my emphasis). The models have been chosen because they fit easily into the samples. Because they have a certain look. Because they convey a single, uninterrupted message on the runway. Because they do not distract from the clothes.

The question of the exclusion of Black and Asian fashion models is compelling on many levels. Months ago, I posted about the pervasiveness of white supremacist imagery in the world of cosmetics/beauty/fashion. And there was this:

“What is compelling about this is not the assumption that this type of marketing is odious. That’s hardly the point. The issue is that Africans, Asians and Latin Americans consistently remark that their nations are free from the “racial animus” or “color consciousness” of the United States. The comments are made in the face of some serious conflicting evidence. There is broad appeal for these products. Sales have spiked and the demand curves suggest new and more innovative campaigns to satisfy more and more customers.”

The international image industry (for the sake of this conversation will include no less than cosmetics firms, fashion designers, magazine editors, modeling agencies, etc.) is able to SELL products to persons it excludes from various positions of labor critical to those industries. There is no question that there are many complex historical reasons that white firms are able to capitalize on the creation, packaging and distribution of “whiteness.” After all, under the current dynamics (demographics of firm ownership, industry buyers, suppliers, advertising executives, etc.) the best case scenario is not an authentic expression of African and Asian and Latina images – but a gilded ( as in, to make superfluous additions to what is already complete) representation through “white” eyes. Models of color would have their images packaged in a manner that reflects the prerogatives of ownership and industry leaders.

The contradiction prompted me to consider parallels in other industries. This is difficult because the role of a fashion model is not wholly analogous to that of other “performers.” For example, fashion shows are not completely analogous to concerts or athletic competitions. One significant distinguishing feature is that fashion shows are generally for industry insiders. Consumers do not buy or wear runway fashions. Consumers wear derivatives of what is developed on the runway. This is but one aspect which complicates comparison.

With that said, models are not the same as singers or football players. If in music and sports the product is the recorded song and the game, respectively, it cannot be said that models are as fundamental to clothes as singers or quarterbacks. In a real sense, models are the assembly line (and these shows resemble that remark). In this dehumanizing business, models are like so many machine parts. And for me, Robin Givhan’s words highlighted the visual: “homogenous”, “thin”, “pale.” Are we talking about long, slender tubes of aluminum lined up at JFK or are we talking about human beings in the primes of their lives?

There is a difficult empirical question here. Can beauty be quantified? There is no doubt that there are different standards of beauty around the world. Not all of those standards are informed by culture or geography. Still, it should be obvious to see the interest that the image industry would have in making it’s current standard universal. It opens up markets. The image industry has recognized this and responded accordingly. There is broad appeal for these products. Sales have spiked and the demand curves suggest new and more innovative campaigns to satisfy more and more customers.”


For me, the fundamental question is one of the protection of Black labor and Black consumers. I do not believe there are any permanent protections for any form of labor – let alone Black labor. Models of all culture groups are in an unenviable position (believe it or not). So, with respect to these industries, I maintain that Black models will never have more than seasonal appeal (a.k.a. “Flavor of the Month”) because the world view of supremacism and its exemplar racism preclude the current industry leaders from operating in a non-racialized, non-hierarchical context. Simply, as long as the owners and consumers perceive themselves as “white” they will prefer to see “whites” as models. There is no rocket science here.

Would Black models have more than seasonal appeal if Blacks owned competitive firms in the image industry? Probably. The dynamic of racism would still exist. However, the potential and tendency for Black-owned firms to hire Black labor is greater than the that of white-owned firms. So, what would it take to build such a firm? That’s beyond my area of expertise – but I know there are more than enough women of color with the knowledge, revenues and connections to get this done. There are enough models, modeling agencies, magazines, manufacturers and component parts for the initiation of a coordinated approach. Perhaps most importantly, there are enough consumers whose mental health would be greatly aided and abetted by economic activity organized around authentic images for women of color.

Sometimes it’s not a bad thing when you don’t get an invitation to the party.


There is something to be said about 1957. There is something to be said for maturing firms serving consumers with an organic connection to one another. (If you “read this” as an endorsement of compulsory segregation at the foot of white supremacists, you need to a re-read or two.)

I believe that the Black people have the capacity to change their material conditions by focusing on what matters – and considering what lies beyond the protection of a few jobs. The image industry, as it is presently constituted, is wedded to segregation of images and creating caricatures of Blacks and Asians. Today’s world, with all of its open source technologies and distributed media, provides an unprecedented opportunity for authenticity and collaboration. It is not contingent on goings on in New York, Paris, London or Milan.

realwoc.jpg There are millions of people already engaged in this work, but a critical mass has not been reached. Many are underfunded and working in isolation. And there are many people who are doing quite well for themselves. Nonetheless, the courage to roll the dice and take a bold, audacious, coordinated and capitalized (monied) step into this arena with the goal of establishing NEW, REAL IMAGES of women will come from an unexpected place. It always does.