Mirror, Mirror: High fashion's new diversity

Puerto Rican model Joan Smalls landed Elle's January cover and a nine-page spread.
Puerto Rican model Joan Smalls landed Elle's January cover and a nine-page spread.
Posted: January 30, 2014

The latest issues of our favorite women's magazines are filled with high-fashion ads featuring beautiful - dare I say, aspirational - African American women.

Rihanna, dressed in funky, oversized pink herringbone checks by designer Olivier Rousteing, is the face of Balmain's spring 2014 campaign.

Riccardo Tisci selected not one but two chocolate-toned ladies - neo-soul singer Erykah Badu and runway newcomer Riley - to model his Japanese silhouettes and African-inspired prints for Givenchy.

And it was incredibly forward-thinking of Miuccia Prada's team to place Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong'o in its sporty yet chic Miu Miu advertisements. (Nyong'o makes me want to buy a pair of knit turquoise tights right now.)

It's as if the fashion industry is finally catching up.

After September's controversial show season - it began with a public plea from former model Bethann Hardison to include more black women on the runways, and ended in Paris with a gaggle of angry black women stomping down Rick Owens' ready-to-wear runway - let's hope this is a sign of a permanent effort to diversify.

"I don't think it's happenstance," said Rakia Reynolds, a Philadelphia-based industry insider and owner of PR firm Skai Blue Media. "The industry has to service the people who are supporting it. And it's been pointed out time and time again that that wasn't happening . . . . Everyone was so behind."

Black women weren't always so overlooked in fashion. After the black power movement, many models of color were muses: Yves Saint Laurent was inspired by the pecan-colored Martinique-born Mounia, and Pat Cleveland was a favorite of Halston. In 1973, 11 black models walked the Chateau de Versailles for five American designers, including Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass, changing the way black women were seen throughout the world.

But the diversity didn't progress. By the late 1990s, magazine models were replaced with celebrities. Some brands, like CoverGirl, continued to celebrate all complexions with spokeswomen like Queen Latifah and their latest, Janelle Monae. However, by early in the new millennium, catwalks were dominated with super-thin pale women who hailed from Eastern Europe.

Not only were black women ignored in high fashion, but also women bigger than a size 6 were considered plus-size and not considered for runway work.

Now we have a generation of up-and-coming designers who are tuned in to all women who want to be a part of high fashion. Whether it's through real-time chitchat on Twitter or immediate image-sharing on Instagram, real women are sharing their thoughts and finally being heard. It's why even Lena Dunham had a shot at being on the February cover of Vogue (whether or not you approved of how those images were Photoshopped).

Some of these designers, like Philipp Plein, acknowledge using black models to make a statement. The German designer, who is 35, featured only black models in his spring 2014 show in Milan because, he said, he wanted to move people out of their comfort zones.

In other instances, as in the case of Balmain's lead designer, Rousteing, the choices are more organic.

Rousteing, who is 27 and of mixed race, is a fan of Rihanna's music, and the two have been palling around since Ri-Ri visited his French studio in June. She shared her experience with her more than 11 million Twitter followers, and Balmain created his spring collection with her in mind.

Is Rihanna's lifestyle aspirational? Absolutely not. Check out her Instagram page if you don't believe me. But the girl can wear some clothes. That makes her appear aspirational, much like Marc Jacobs' choice of Miley Cyrus for his spring campaign.

We are seeing this same kind of diversity trickle into editorial this year.

Actress Kerry Washington made the December cover of Lucky, and Zoe Saldana will be on February's.

Puerto Rican model Joan Smalls landed Elle magazine's January cover, as well as a nine-page spread with her in pleats by Givenchy and a jumpsuit by Gucci.

And nestled in the January issue, Vogue paired veteran model and actress Liya Kebede with the fresh face of Imaan Hammam to showcase spring's dizzying floral trends.

"It was so naturally and organically diverse," Hardison said of the January Vogue issue. "That's how it should be."

But, Hardison warned, diverse celebrity faces aren't the same as working black models.

Black models bring more staying power to the industry, Hardison said. Because the audience focuses on the clothes, not the star power, that makes for a more authentic shopping experience for women who often are excluded from fashion.

Hardison said to look at the fall 2014 runway presentations that get started next week at Lincoln Center to know how dedicated designers are to diversity.

"At the end of the day, you need consistency on the runways," Hardison said. "It has to be for more than just a few seasons."


ewellington@phillynews.com

215-854-2704

@ewellingtonphl

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