Fewer Models Of Color Work New York's Fashion Runways


After tracking diversity on the runways for several seasons, we took off last September because we thought the fashion industry was finally coming to its senses. Models of color were getting booked! How disappointing, then, to tally this season’s numbers.

As I watched the New York shows last week, I noticed that the casts were dominated by white models. An ethnic face might pass by here or there, alone in a lineup of 30-some looks — but the overall impression I got from my Z-row seat was that what’s gonna big for fall is being a white person. (Also: fur.)

It turns out this impression wasn’t just anecdotally true: it’s a plain fact. The New York runways were less diverse this season than last time we checked in.

Fashion week had been becoming more diverse — it was only in the fall of 2007 that fully one-third of shows in New York had 100% white casts. Two years later, we calculated that 18% of spots in show lineups were booked by models of color — a real improvement in the representation of black, Latina, and Asian faces in the crucible where the beauty standard is forged.

This season, fashion took a step back.

We counted the number of spots in each of the 122 fall, 2010, shows held in New York that were covered by Style.com. (Why Style.com? Because the online home of American Vogue strikes a good balance of breadth and noteworthiness in choosing which shows to cover, and it’s good about putting models’ names in its slideshows.) We counted how many of those spots went to models of color.

The numbers, as you can see, were not encouraging. Of 4,095 turns on the runway, only 662 went to models who weren’t white. That’s barely 16%.

Black models, at 323 bookings, were used the most of any single ethnic group, aside from whites. Asians were second, with 264. Latinas were a distant third, with 61 trips down the catwalk. Fourteen times during this fashion week, models of other races were used in a runway show.

It’s important to note that we were counting instances of a model being used in a show — not individual models. (A lot fewer than 4,095 models did the fashion week rounds.) Models who are popular with designers and casting directors were booked for multiple shows, and many shows send each model out in two or more looks from the collection. We counted not each model but each runway look — ie, the total number of opportunities for women of color to be included on American fashion’s biggest platform, and in the fashion week that kicks off the world’s ready-to-wear collections, which continue right now in London.

Most of the shows that took place used some models of color — just three designers, A Détacher, Alice + Olivia (full disclosure: an old client of mine), and Preen, chose exclusively white casts — but many used very few. Well over 60% of the shows, in fact, used casts that were 85% white, or more.

Nineteen shows used only one non-white model. Those designers included taste-makers like Calvin Klein, blockbuster commercial labels like Diesel, and the Olsens’ well-regarded line, The Row.

Eighteen designers booked just two models of color. That list included both Donna Karan and DKNY, Jill Stuart, Rag & Bone, and Nicole Miller.

One of the worst offenders was Max Azria. At his three high-profile New York fashion week shows, BCBG Max Azria, Max Azria, and Hervé Leger by Max Azria — each attended by virtually every important fashion editor, and worked by one of fashion’s most exclusive casts — diversity was practically non-existent. BCBG had one black model, Shena Moulton, and one Asian, Shu Pei Qin, out of a 29-look lineup. Hervé Leger had only the same two girls of color, in a 32-look show. For his eponymous line, Azria showed 36 looks, and used just one model who wasn’t white: Shu Pei.

It must be said that some models of color worked a lot.

The Chinese model Liu Wen, pictured here on the top left in an editorial for Teen Vogue, walked in 22 of the shows that we looked at for the purposes of this post, and Shu Pei, seen on the bottom in a Benetton ad, and Tao Okamoto, seen here in a Dazed & Confused editorial, each walked in 21. Those are excellent showlists for a single fashion week, and these models will almost certainly continue their strong runs during the European collections. But why weren’t there more models of color overall? None of the fashion shows I went to was even as diverse as the crowd that assembled to watch them.

Fashion week’s top black model, by number of shows and presentations booked, was Rose Cordero, pictured above on the March, 2010, cover of Paris Vogue. (Cordero is the first black model to be granted a solo French Vogue cover since Liya Kebede, in 2002.) The 17-year-old Dominican national was in 16 shows. Second, with 15 New York shows under her belt, was Joan Smalls, a Puerto Rican, shown below Cordero. On the upper left is Texan R’el Dade, who nabbed third place in a tie, with 12 shows.

Black models Sedene Blake, right, and Moulton, left, tied Dade’s tally.

Because as we all know “Latina” is an ethnicity, not a “race” — and since race is, after all, a social construct — it would be pointless to pretend that the models we counted as “Latina” were a comprehensive group. Where a Latina model was black, like Cordero, or the Brazilian Gracie Carvalho, we counted her as black. Where a Latina model was white, like the Brazilian Raquel Zimmerman, or virtually every other famous Brazilian model you can name, we counted them as white. So the “Latina” category we made up for the purposes of this analysis was necessarily gerrymandered; in fact, the only Latinas we counted as “Latinas” are models of mixed race and/or of indigenous descent. We did this because we wanted these categories to reflect the diversity of New York fashion week at the most superficial, visual level: during a show, did the girl walking by appear to be other than white? On the short list of things that casting directors take into consideration when choosing (or rejecting) a model, what passport she bears or culture she represents — those are not present. The color of her skin — that is.

We certainly wish that Peruvian Juana Burga, top, who walked in 10 shows, Bruna Tenório, a Brazilian of indigenous descent, pictured bottom left in a Neiman Marcus catalog, who walked in 8, and Daiane Conterato, who was fashion week’s third most popular Latina model, with four shows — and women like them — had been better represented at the collections in New York.

Tara Gill, left, a Canadian who is part Native American, and the Moroccan Hind Sahli, right, walked in four and five shows, respectively. Their combined efforts comprised the less than 1% of the total runway spots that went to girls of other races. Why doesn’t fashion have a bigger place for faces like these?

The importance of this issue can hardly be overstated. The United States is only around 75% white, and according to the Census Bureau’s most recent figures, New York City is only 44% white. And many of the least-diverse labels, like Calvin Klein, Diesel, and Donna Karan, are international brands. Wouldn’t they want their potential customers to recognize their own forms of beauty in their runway shows? The aesthetic standards set by the fashion industry affect all of our lives. Making a sample size that models don’t have to die of anorexia to get into seems to be a real head-scratcher for some designers, but validating the beauty of models who meet every one of the industry’s other restrictive standards, and also happen to be non-white, should be a no-brainer.

Certain shows were relatively very diverse. Tracy Reese and Sophie Théallet — who won last June’s Council of Fashion Designers of America Award, and Michelle Obama’s favor — both had majority-minority show casts, casts that reflected in some way the diversity of the city those designers call home. Diane von Furstenberg showed 16 of her 43 collection looks on models of color. Ports 1961 was as diverse as always, with five different Asian models, three black models, and Hind Sahli all walking in its Bryant Park show. Fully one in three of designer Rachel Comey’s looks was presented on a model of color. Daniel Vosovic, a designer whose show we did not include in our tally only because Style.com didn’t cover it, showed his collection on an all-Asian cast. Fellow Project Runway alumnus Christian Siriano opened and closed his show with a black model, Sessilee Lopez — and was one of only seven designers to choose to give a coveted opening or closing nod to a model of color. These designers, at least, are among those who see the value in a runway show that in some way tries to reflect the diversity of the wider world.

Maybe we should ask Max Azria — not to mention Francisco Costa — why he doesn’t.

Jezebel interns Madeleine Desmond, Lucy Zhihui Zhu, and Noorain Khan contributed invaluable work to this statistical report.

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