Washington - It’s Fashion Week in New York, where fashion designers are presenting their 2014 spring and summer collections. There’s excitement in the air and a lot of money on the line.
And while insiders and laypeople alike have plenty of thoughts about next year’s styles, very few are thinking about activism – in particular addressing the lack of models of colour who grace the runways.
If you look at the advertisements that fill up fashion and lifestyle magazines or the billboards in big cities that hawk specific designers’ clothes, you quickly realise that the alluring images are not reflective of the current demographic of American culture.
That issue has been the cause célèbre for fashion revolutionist Bethann Hardison, a former model who has been stoking the flames of diversity in the industry for years. With her dear friends supermodels Iman and Naomi Campbell – as well as a corps of anonymous power brokers in the fashion industry – she has taken the complaint to all of the international organising bodies of the fashion industry to say it is not okay to have the token one model of colour or, even more frequently, none.
Associated Press reports that Iman, Campbell and Hardison are calling their unusual effort Balance Diversity to bring more black models to the runway
Balance Diversity is part activist group, part blog, part watchdog. They posed a catwalk challenge just before the seasonal style previews were to begin in New York.
“Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches fashion design houses consistently use ... one or no models of colour. No matter the intention, the result is racism,” said their open letter to the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
They called out by name some industry heavyweights, including Chanel, Prada, Versace and Marc by Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Proenza Schouler, The Row, Victoria Beckham and Calvin Klein -designers the group said used almost no black models in last February's shows. The website Jezebel calculated that 82.7 percent of that season's New York Fashion Week models were white, 9.1 percent were Asian, 6 percent were black and 2 percent Latina.
Their letter went to the heads of the London, Milan and Paris fashion councils. The European designers, according to Iman, are bigger offenders.
Things did change in New York this September: Calvin Klein, for example, increased its use of black womenswear models from zero to five this season, while The Row, the label helmed by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, used seven dark-skinned models, according to Modelinia, a modelling industry website.
Hardison, who received the New York Urban League’s Frederick Douglass Medallion earlier this year for her untiring work on behalf of black models, hopes that putting designers on notice may help spur them to take more inclusive action.
Hardison sat down to talk about where things stand now.
QUESTION: You started this exploration into the state of the black model back in 2007, hosting conversations with industry leaders – casting agents, modelling agents, models, editors and more. Have things changed since that time?
ANSWER: After that first meeting, things got better. The modelling agencies got better girls. Designers began to hire models of colour. Change did happen. But it wasn’t enough. It lacked a consistency.
Q: It feels bigger this time.
A: Before, it was a conversation, kind of a hug, a kumbaya moment, to get people thinking. This time it is bigger.
Last time, I was being pushed to say something by a few key people. This time, a group of us started talking about what was going on, and we decided we needed to do something more. It has been planned since April. We decided to write a letter because I don’t have 15 000 people on my staff to stuff envelopes and mail things. We needed to get the message out, and sending it to the organisers of the shows was effective.
It was time. Time has gone by and people are offended. People who work in the industry get offended by what they see: that the industry is just going through the motions. Designers feel terrible being called racist. But putting it out there was the only way it was going to (get their attention).
Q: What kind of response have you received?
A: People on the street have come up to me to say how proud they are. The designers have mainly been quiet. The British Fashion Council wrote to me to say they wanted to talk. One designer in London wanted to know why he was called out, because historically he has included many models of colour. We were basing our research on the shows in February 2013, when he only had one.
This is a wake-up call that it is not enough to have… one Asian girl and think that’s enough. I had Asian models at my agency when no one had any. I had three.
Q: Has there been any backlash since you sent the letter? You have gotten so much media attention via The New York Times, WWD, Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight, among many other outlets.
A: If there (was) any backlash, what would it be? They won’t invite me to their fashion shows any more? Or send me any clothes? I have nothing to lose.
Honestly, no matter what their intention was with their casting, this is the result of it. And many have taken notice.
Q: What are your thoughts about this New York Fashion Week and the plight of models of colour?
A: I am always happy to bring fun to the party. This, to me, is that. Fashion Week is corny to me at this point. I kept saying to the coalition that this is going to be fun.
When we do things like this, it helps to shake things up.
It brings energy and people who basically are in the status quo of it all, caught up in it, (who) need to wake up.
I really believe that it brings a certain pride to people, especially when I’m with the downtown kids. They feel like something has shifted. It’s important that people walk away thinking it is a paradigm shift. It is radical. Now we are preparing for London.
Q: Given the magnitude of this push, I wonder what made you feel you could take on the international design community.
A: You get to a certain time when you are on the earth and you just have to do it. I was one of the people in the industry who always knew I had to speak up. I come from the garment industry. I was a model. I had a modelling agency. And I am not afraid to speak up. You help others who know that they need someone to say something.
I feel like people in the industry are waiting for the bus to come. Somebody just needed to say it for them. The industry will improve one way or the other. But this isn’t one baseball (that) we hit out (of the park) and we get to go home. We have to keep on hitting.
Q: Why does it matter if there are models of colour on the runway?
A: It helps society. For me it’s bigger than that, too. It helps educate people around you. It helps smarten society. Designers are good people. I think most of them are good people.
Casting directors and stylists may have some issues selecting models because they are uneducated. This is a brief slo-mo education. They may think: “I’ll get a few black girls”.
It ain’t gonna work like that. We need more than one good black girl, brown girl, Asian girl, mulatto girl, east Indian girl. So we can show them. People have to (have) a sense of responsibility because that is how the world is shaped. And that is their customer.
Our industry is a wee bit of an embarrassment. If we keep it quiet, it ain’t; but if we turn the light on it, it is. I think it is important to help our industry look better and smarter.
Q: What is the bottom line here?
A: I am so sick of someone feeling comfortable doing the same thing over and over again. It’s because they don’t see (lack of diversity) as a problem. We know it is a problem. We need to balance diversity. Make them aware of that.
I am a revolutionist. I’ve learned activism needs to remain active. You have to keep a foot on the gas or the car seems to stop. We have to pay attention. This movement is huge. There is a lot more to come. – The Root /The Washington Post News Service, Sapa-AP