Black models and designers still excluded as fashion evades touchy subject of race

african kings


Michelle Obama is arguably the most important fashion star of the moment. When she wears a designer brand, the endorsement is literally heard around the world with everyone from fashion bloggers to hard news journalists documenting the decision, as they did with her repeat choice of Jason Wu at the 2013 Inauguration. Likewise, Rihanna’s and Beyoncé’s hair, make-up, nails, and outfit changes are regular fodder for magazines, style blogs, and fashion news programs.

Meanwhile, in the fashion industry itself, some of the most iconic personalities in the business today include Naomi Campbell, Andre Leon Talley, and Tyra Banks. Speaking of Tyra, Black personalities dominate fashion reality TV with June Ambrose, Nicole Richie, and Talley among style’s small screen stars; and Rihanna and Campbell are coming soon to a TV near you.

But in spite of the fact that these celebs and personalities belie the fallacy White consumers won’t patronize publications or products bearing a Black face, most African-American models struggle to book work consistently, while some Black designers express anxiety about being seen as catering only to Black customers.

In a recent interview with EBONY, current season Project Runway contestant Samantha Black admitted, “I have to make sure that when people look at my clothing or the way that it’s photographed… they don’t think automatically, ‘Oh my God, it’s a Black designer.’”

She elaborated, “I have to be very careful with my music selection for my fashion shows. I also have to be careful when I shoot my lookbooks.”

Be careful, ‘Black’ means avoiding an “urban” soundtrack for shows. “Alexander Wang,” she gives an example, “he uses Black music artists all the time in his shows… He’ll use the most ratchet music, and it’s seen as fine and great, but if I did the same thing, I would be ridiculed.” Casting models for fashion shows and the lookbooks that get sent to editors for review consideration is also a delicate process. “I can’t have an all-Black cast of models,” she says.

Of course, just as Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, and Rihanna don’t feel compelled to only wear Black designers, for example; not all Black designers feel forced by an invisible (White) hand to cast their fashion shows or lookbooks a certain way.

Laura Smalls, who designed the memorable plum-colored print dress with bateau neckline Mrs. Obama wore to the finale night of the Democratic National Convention said, “I never feel any pressure at all to use models of color.” She adds, “I do work hard to try to showcase and use all different ethnicities when I present my collections.”

The difference in Smalls’ approach seems to be that the (White) fashion powers that be are not working as hard to represent different ethnicities. In fact, they remain  stubbornly oblivious to fashion’s race problem.

Read the rest of this story on