Fashion Week: Black celebrities make a big splash as insiders question its relevance

Opinion

Share The GrioShare The Grio

When Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week rolls around in New York City, you always know.

Stylists can be seen hauling bags of garments down streets, and confused visitors look extra-gussied up in chic shoes carrying fabulous clutches instead of wandering in sandals and shorts.

But the biggest sign that we are leading into one of the hottest style times of the year is the celebrities who descend upon New York, partaking of an endless stream of parties, and of course, to take their spots in the coveted front rows of shows.

Sports stars such as Victor Cruz and Ama’re Stoudemire hit the red carpet of the 2013 Style Awards and kick-off of New York Fashion Week held at Lincoln Center on Wednesday. More low-key members of fashion’s in crowd, such as supermodel-turned-beauty-business-woman Iman and her modern-day mini-me model Chanel Iman, were spotted discreetly entering and leaving Lincoln Center.

Yet, amid all this fun and upscale frivolity, serious questions have been posed about New York Fashion Week’s fairness and relevancy.

Big questions in high fashion

A recent piece on Clutch Magazine raised the question in its title, “Do You Care About New York Fashion Week?” Many readers answered with a negative.

“That industry is racist, biased toward [abnormal] looking women and only financially realistic for the top 1%,” wrote one commenter. “How am I supposed to desire an outfit when it’s on a white child that’s likely only 14 years old? They use girls who are virtually babies so they don’t have to work around womanly curves, and then they all look sick or upset walking down the runway.”

Ouch. But this astute observer is echoing complaints about the industry that have been made for some time now, issues that are now coming to a head.

Model activist, agent and booker Bethann Haridson, for instance, has just sent a series of letters to fashion governing bodies in major cities including New York, Paris, and Milan, calling out the prevalence of all-white runways at their Fashion Week presentations.

“At the end of the letter, Hardison includes a list of ‘fashion houses guilty of this racist act’ based on last season’s shows in each respective city,” writes Julee Wilson of The Huffington Post. “The roster of alleged offenders reads like a who’s who of fashion’s top designers and brands– Donna Karan, Versace, Céline, Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen, Calvin Klein, BCBG, Prada and Chanel, just to name few.”

Hardison has called for a social media shaming of these brands that do not practice diversity in their selection of models.

Is Fashion Week worthwhile?

While many prepare to take on the ongoing question of racism in fashion, others sincerely doubt the value of New York Fashion Week itself.

In a cutting critique published at the start of what many people call the “Super Bowl of fashion,” The New York Times documented several industry leaders speaking on the record about how Fashion Week is on a decline.

“What I created worked in a time and a place, but now I think it is over the tipping point,” Fern Mallis, the woman responsible for making New York Fashion Week wildly popular, told the paper. “I don’t know anyone who likes going to those tents any longer.”

Good thing there are many shows during New York Fashion Week beyond the official tents branded with a luxury car name.

In addition to shows in the coming days from huge designers such as b. Michael and Tracy Reese, many African-American designers in particular will be showcasing their latest looks in other exhibition spaces.

Fashionista.com has published a comprehensive list of black designers to look out for, some of which will be holding shows independently of the main Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week glitz and glam.

Fashion Week: A party with a purpose

Caring about fashion, and blacks’ place within it, might be up for debate yet again this season, because pressing issues such as African-American employment and other challenges always seem more important.

Yet, as most men and women growing up in a highly-mediated society can attest, it is our society’s magazines, videos, style stars, and fashion icons that give us all the fodder to dream, and to outfit ourselves in new realities based on those dreams.

Fashion is one of the biggest engines of this collective fantasy, which ultimately feeds into how we develop our individuality. Without fashion, and African-Americans with prominent places within it, we will be left out of that collective dream.

This effective silencing would send the stinging message that black is not beautiful — a message we have heard too many times, for far too long.

So as black luminaries sip their champagne and pose in front of the runway, while some push for more black models on those runways, perhaps the subtext is that for some New York Fashion Week is a party with a purpose, far beyond the mere selling of clothes.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb