Mirror, Mirror: Racial issues on the runway

From The Inquirer to Miss A to fashion week, images of beauty stir controversy.

Posted: October 10, 2013

The Style & Soul section produces four fashion issues a year, spring, bridal, fall, and holiday.

For September's issue, I used a pretty, brown, girl-next-door type to show the season's wearable fashions.

The comments started the morning the section was published and trickled in over the next few days. They went something like this: Nice section, but why did you have to use only a black model? It made me not want to buy the clothes.

Ouch.

Apparently, seeing a brown-skinned woman in a faux leather, cobalt blue peplum jacket turned some readers off. One reader even accused us of reverse discrimination.

It was a first to hear that kind of contempt - whether the model we've hired was white or black or Latino or Asian. . . .

But it seems rancor is going around, as this has been one of the most racially charged fashion seasons we've seen in a while. And the talk has gone beyond the usual grousing about the lack of color on the national and international runways.

It included Kanye West's rant (petulant, yes, but not without merit) to BBC host Zane Lowe about how, despite his participation in high-fashion circles - he's designed sneakers, a women's wear line - he's been excluded as a creative because he's African American.

The hate even touched Atlantic City's Miss America stage where Nina Davuluri, 24, made history as the first Indian American winner. Hooray, right? Nope, her victory was met with a stream of racist tweets.

For some, I'm sure, her new stature challenges the notion of American beauty, which usually means a slim, white woman. If you look at our runways, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with any other conclusion.

Advocates like Bethann Hardison, a former model and advocate for racial diversity on the runway, is just about tired of it.

In early September, she wrote an open letter to fashion week organizers in New York, Paris, London, and Milan demanding designers use more diverse models. She specifically criticized the designers showing at New York Fashion Week, where models are generally white.

"Not accepting another based on the color of their skin is clearly beyond 'aesthetic' when it is consistent with the designer's brand," Hardison wrote. She was addressing the usual defense cited by brands who claim they choose models whose look reflects the artistic message of their collection.

"Whether it's the decision of the designer, stylist, or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society."

Although I don't think Hardison had Rick Owens' spring 2014 presentation in mind when she pictured diversity.

Last week, Owens sent a group of grimacing, mostly black, plus-size women stepping - more like stomping - down the runway.

The clothing was typical Owens: layers of leather ensembles in shades of black, white, and tan. But the spectacle, touted by Owens as "athletic," came dangerously close to being stereotypical, even cartoonish. Owens may have been trying to make a point, but instead of coming across as inclusive, it merely drew attention to a bunch of angry women. And that's far from fashionable.

"We shouldn't cast black models because they fit into a theme or because they make a point or because they are exotic," said Sean General, a Philadelphia-based fashion entrepreneur who has cast models for many a New York Fashion Week runway.

Even as the industry makes attempts to include diverse models, many high-fashion designers still don't believe their audiences will aspire to be like them.

It's as if they don't see women of color, or plus-size women, for that matter, as "their girls." At best, they are dark tokens, thrown into a sea of pale. At worst, as in the case of Owens' show, they are disgruntled others.

That's a shame, especially because black celebrities and socialites - like Kerry Washington, People magazine's "World's Best Dressed Woman" - sit front row at the shows. Black women. Heavy women. Short women. All women want to buy fashion. And we do.

But it would be wrong to paint the entire fashion industry with such a broad brush. The good news is that the face of the fashion entrepreneur is changing to include people who haven't always felt part of the scene.

It may not be happening at Lincoln Center, but many regional fashion weeks and trade shows are organized by people of color and those who are plus-size. (Even this weekend is a Curvy Closets fashion show at the Crane Arts building.)

The same is true with up-and-coming young designers. Talented creatives such as Philadelphia's own Bela Shehu and Kristin Haskins Simms are on their way to the big tents. Their work embodies the idea that beauty is diverse, and the evidence is their models.

One day, the rest of the fashion industry will join them.

And when a woman who looks like me is the sole model in The Inquirer's fall fashion issue, it won't be brave, as Philadelphia NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire called it.

It will be normal.


ewellington@phillynews.com

215-854-2704 @ewellingtonphl

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