Meet the Models and Designers Calling Out Fashion's Race Problem
Through wars, protests, and presidents, the fashion industry has been shaping the cultural status quo for decades. As 2015 edges closer and closer to the end, it’s essential to look back on the past year, and reflect on the ongoing relationship between fashion and culture. Some progress has been made in the industry, such as the current movement of transgender and gender nonconforming models of all shapes challenging the standard notions of beauty. But while the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s push for racial equality has dominated headlines and taken to the streets, it has remained curiously absent from the fashion world. It’s time to meet some of the designers and models who have been bringing a heavy dose of racial awareness to the industry.
Bethann Hardison’s Open Letter to The Racial Bias at Casting Agencies
After a long and illustrious career as a model and modeling agency owner, Bethann Hardison founded the Diversity Coalition to fight back against fashion’s diversity problem. She made headlines in 2007 for her press conference with over 70 designers, agents, editors, stylists and models, including Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Liya Kebede to address the issue. It’s been eight years since the conference, and the industry is still overwhelmingly populated with white models.
According to Business of Fashion’s survey of 117 key shows from New York, London, Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks, “of the 3,875 model bookings that were made during these four weeks, only 797 were models of colour.” For the readers who aren’t mathletes, that translates to white people making up 79.4% of the models at runway shows. If we break it down to just NYFW, The Fashion Spot UK found that 76.2 percent of models identify as white, and 28.6 percent as minorities (10.7 percent were black, 8.7 Asian, and 4.2 Hispanic.). With numbers that terrible, lack of racial equality in modeling is an epidemic than small problem.
It’s a problem that Hardison traces back to casting directors, stylists, and modeling agencies—but not for the reason you’d expect. The crux of the issue is that despite designers fighting for more inclusive models for the shows, many of the models of color in the industry end up getting suffocated under the pressure of agencies that don’t allow them to work with a “non-worthy” client or be seen in “the wrong place.”
It’s a trend that does more harm than good, yet ignores the reality of modeling in 2015. Agencies are no longer the only place to find new models (Instagram casting runs rampant). As brands like MADE designers and alums Hood by Air and Gypsy Sport and underground designers like Gogo Graham and Vejas have demonstrated, it is possible to cast a diverse array of models.
The Designers Making Black Political Power A Fashion Moment
The runway isn’t the only source of trouble when it comes to racial diversity in the industry. Designers have also been historically underrepresented, despite the deep-rooted ties fashion has within hip-hop and street culture. According to stats collected by the New York Times, “African-American designers accounted for approximately 12 of the CFDA’s 470 and helmed only 2.7 percent of the 260 shows scheduled for New York Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2015.” That such a deep divide still exists in such a historically influential industry is embarrassing, but there are a growing number of African American designers fighting back through their clothing.
One of the most profound moments of last month’s New York Fashion Week came from the Pyer Moss runway show. MADE alum Kerby Jean-Raymond’s label is no stranger to embracing political awareness through fashion. Jean-Raymond made waves earlier this year with the release of a t-shirt called “They Have Names,” which listed the names of black men killed by the police. For the NYFW show, the designer collaborated with friends to create a video that featured raw, unnerving footage of police violence against black men and women from the officers’ own body and dashboard cameras, intermixed with clips of his interviews with victims’ families and figures in fashion and entertainment. It was a profoundly powerful moment that paired expertly with politicized garments, many adorned with messages like “I Can’t Breathe.”
Jean-Raymond is not the only designer to draw upon the #BlackLivesMatter movement for inspiration. This week, two separate designers have announced plans to release (and rerelease) highly politicized clothing to the public. New York-based Kinship has teamed up with rapper Jim Jones to bring a fiery new garment emblazoned with nine Black Panther patches to stores in a limited run of 50 pieces. The bomber style jacket includes an oversized logo over 1966, which references the year that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (or Black Panthers for short) was created.
In contrast to this look back on history, DC-based GLOSSRAGS has announced the limited rerelease of their F/W15 “Stay Woke” collection. The brand, created last year by Randi Gloss as a direct response to the political protests that erupted across the nation, focuses around a mission to bring awareness to the social injustice and police brutality that plague the black community. The clothing became a staple in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and culminated in their most recent collection, which featured 48 nylon coaches jackets that were emblazoned with the Adinkra symbol for “law, order, slavery and captivity” on the front, as well as the “Stay Woke” logo on the back. The collection sold out almost instantly but will be back for a November 1 rerelease at the Maketto store in Washington, D.C.
The Model Calling Out The Racial Shortcomings of Behind-The-Scenes Beauty
Models of color have been speaking out about the problems they’ve faced when it comes to makeup and hairstyling. South Sudanese model Nykhor Paul went viral during fashion week for her Instagram post calling out makeup artists for not taking care of black skin. The 25-year-old asked, “Why do I have to bring my own makeup to a professional show when all the other white girls don’t have to do anything but show up?” This isn’t the first time the issue has been brought up, and it led to a roundtable discussion by Huffington Post on the shortcomings that face models of color in the industry.
Across all aspects of the fashion industry, people of color are fighting an uphill battle to reach a level of equality that is long overdue. Change is (slowly) coming through a mix of politicized garments and publicly calling out the racially unjust practices among casting agencies and makeup artists. But in an industry where nearly 80% of models are white, the burden for change cannot fall on people of color alone—it is up to everyone to stand up and speak out on these injustices.
Images via Fernando Leon, Glossrags, Andy Boyle, Kinship, and Styleblazer.