The Impact Of Diversity On The Catwalk


Every season, New York fashion week comes around, giving us all endless opportunities to gawk at front-row celebrities and trends in the making. And every season, this website tracks the racial diversity — or, more bluntly, the lack thereof — on display among the models who are cast for the top shows. This season’s numbers are in, and fashion week was slightly more diverse than usual.

This is good news, obviously — but it’s especially good news coming on the heels of last season, which was the whitest in years.

This month, for the spring-summer 2012 fashion season, brands mounted some 142 shows and presentations in New York City. Those shows presented some 4,657 different women’s wear looks; of those 4,657 opportunities to use a model, 3,837, or 82.4%, went to white girls. Some 394, or 8.5%, were given to black models. Asian models were again the third most popular ethnic group, getting 316, or 6.8%, of the available runway spots. Non-white Latina models were once again trailing in fourth place; out of those 4,657 looks, just 93, or 2% were given to them. During all of New York fashion week, models of other races were used just 17 times.

Diversity in fashion isn’t just a nice ideal. It’s also of crucial importance to fashion, and its whole image-making machinery. The runway is the conduit through which the fashion industry picks its stars. Picture a giant hopper; that’s fashion week. Pour a bunch of models in. The ones that work the most, and the ones that work the best shows, have already been noticed by the top casting directors. On the runway, they’re seen by the editors of the world’s most prestigious fashion publications. Backstage, they work with some of the industry’s most talented and influential stylists. To the casual shopper, one runway model may look very much like another. But the runway is where models get noticed by the people who will have the most impact on their careers. The runway is where the path to much more visible work — like advertising campaigns for major designers, editorials in the biggest magazines, and, ultimately, if a model is very lucky, multi-year contracts with cosmetics companies — begins. If the girls who go into this hopper are mostly white, then the faces the rest of us will go on seeing in ads, magazines, and billboards will be white. And then the kind of beauty another generation of girls and boys will grow up being taught to value above all others will be white.

And as paltry as giving a mere 17.6% of runway spots to models of color might seem — hell, is — in a city where whites have been in the minority since the 1980s, and in an industry where sexual minorities and many men and women of color hold prominent positions, it’s even worse in Europe. The Milan shows are ongoing; many of the non-white models who worked most successfully in New York (like Genesis Vallejo, a new face who booked five shows) didn’t even work at all in Milan. As much as it feels like getting excited about a 40-degree day, for non-white models to get 820 out of 4,657 runway spots is, relatively speaking, good news. For comparison, you can see a graph with numbers for the diversity of New York fashion week since 2008 at left; click to enlarge.

If there was one area that showed particular improvement this season, it was in the number of shows that were all-white. Whereas in the fall of 2007, one third of New York shows had no women models of color at all, this season there was only one: the designer Billy Reid’s show.

Among the many international brands whose New York fashion week shows serve almost more as glossy, stage-managed advertisements for the many ways they target consumers — the perfumes, the underwear licenses, the lower-priced lines, the shoes, the handbags, the scarves, the eyewear, the collaborations with chain stores — than anything else, there were some that valued diversity and some that didn’t. Assuming brands like Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger all want some of the estimated $23 billion that black women spend on clothes annually, it’s interesting that Calvin Klein, as per usual, gave just one look of his 32-look show to a model who wasn’t white, Jasmine Tookes. Donna Karan’s show was about as diverse as fashion week as a whole, giving seven out of 42 looks to black and Asian girls. Michael Kors booked eight non-white models for his 51-look show. Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren’s shows featured 5/42 and 9/58 ratios of non-white to white models, respectively.

Of all designers, some had shows that were more diverse than average. 3.1 Phillip Lim, Alexandre Herchcovitz, Betsey Johnson, Bibhu Mohapatra, Sophie Théallet, Costello Tagliapietra, Cushnie et Ochs, Diane von Furstenberg, Duro Olowu, Elie Tahari, Imitation of Christ, Jason Wu, Jen Kao, Oscar de la Renta, Peter Som, Rachel Comey, Suno, The Lake & Stars, Thom Browne, Tracy Reese, and Zac Posen all had show casts that comprised 20% or more models of color. (The Lake & Stars, a lingerie brand, also had a plus-size model in its show lineup, though we didn’t “count” her in this tally because the model in question, Inga Eiriksdottir, is white. But props for size diversity.)

And there were some shows that were less diverse than average, too. Marc Jacobs gave 6 out of 46 runway spots to models of color, or 13%. Max Azria broke with tradition and booked not one but two black models for Hervé Leger — but he still only assigned 27 out of his 30 runway looks to white models. Jill Stuart, two looks out of 40, and no black models. Preen, one out of 42, and no Asian or black models. Theyskens’ Theory, the collection Olivier Theyskens does for Theory, had just one black and one Asian model out of 45.

Among the models, the most-booked non-white girl of this season was Liu Wen, the Chinese supermodel. She walked in 20 shows. Following her were Fei Fei Sun (19) and Xiao Wen Ju (18). The most-booked black model, Jourdan Dunn, walked in 17 shows. The other most-booked black models were Louis Vuitton face Nyasha Matonhodze (14 shows), Anais Mali (13), Herieth Paul (12), and Melodie Monrose (12). Isabella Melo, a Latina of mixed racial heritage, was in 13 shows; Juana Burga (nine shows) and Simone Carvalho (seven) were also successful. Some models of other races did well, too. Nastasia Ohl, a mixed-race model of Jamaican, European, and Asian descent did five shows; the Tunisian face of Lancôme Hanaa ben Abdesslem did four; and Jenny Albright, who told a New Zealand fashion blogger that she was of part Native American descent, did three.

Some of the season’s most exciting new faces included the Nepalese model Varsha Thapa, who did nine shows; Tookes, who notched up eight shows in addition to Calvin Klein; Latina model Cris Urena, who did seven; the aforementioned Genesis Vallejo; a Canadian national of African descent named Senait Gidey, who did seven; and the black model Crystal Noriega, who did four. To see photos of these top models of New York fashion week, check out our full slideshow.

It will be interesting to see what happens next season. Will the fashion industry take this seasonal swing towards slightly greater racial diversity and turn it into real momentum? Or will we get another step back?

For the first time ever, we’ve decided to publish our full runway diversity report as a document. Check it out.

Douglas Barry and Noorain Khan contributed to this report.

Pictured: black models at New York fashion week. From left: Crystal Noriega at Marc Jacobs, Genesis Vallejo at Milly, Jasmine Tookes at Peter Som, and Senait Gidey at DKNY.

Related: The Fall-Winter 2011 Report
The Spring-Summer 2011 Report
The Fall-Winter 2010 Report
The Fall-Winter 2009 Report
The Fall-Winter 2008 Report

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