Fashion industry insiders react to Bethann Hardison’s letter alleging racism on runways

theGRIO REPORT - It seems every that Fashion Week, a spate of articles comes out pointing out the dearth of black models on the runway.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

It seems that every Fashion Week, a spate of articles comes out pointing out the dearth of black models on the runway.

Now that New York Fashion Week Spring 2014 has ended, we are finding that there are ruminative calls to action and not just complaints about this trend.

This new take on the issue is an abrupt change.

Past takes on an old problem

The New York Times has written about the lack of diversity again and again, most recently in August 2013, about a month before the latest edition of New York Fashion week ended on Thursday.

The feminist web site Jezebel has fastidiously tracked the gaping absence of models of color on high fashion runways, breaking down black model usage by the numbers season after season, and the results remain the same. “A Godd**n Problem,” stated one recent report starkly.

Perhaps even more frustrating is the response of some designers to the issue. Calvin Klein’s women’s creative director Francisco Costa, for example, once told the Times that, “There are only a handful of top-level, professionally trained models of color at a particular level out there now, and they end up being booked by other fashion houses and can be seen on dozens of runways each season, which is counter to what we are looking for. We try to present a unique and interesting cast with as many exclusives as possible to create and emphasize that season’s aesthetic.”

Open letter demands runway diversity

Industry veteran and activist Bethann Hardison is not having it — and is focused on changing things.

At the top of New York Fashion Week this season, the former model and modeling agent fired off an open letter via her Diversity Coalition to the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), the British Fashion Council, the Fédération Française de la Couture of France, and the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana of Italy asserting that while designers might not be intentionally racist by consistently overlooking models of color when it comes to casting their fashion shows or ad campaigns, the result is in fact racist.

“No matter the intention, the result is racism,” reads the letter, which was sent to the most important governing bodies of fashion internationally. “Whether it’s the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.”

A follow-up Good Morning America appearance that included Naomi Campbell, model-turned-cosmetics-mogul Iman, and Hardison gave the Diversity Coalition of which they are all a part an even greater platform from which to discuss the issue.

During this interview, Iman noted, “There were more black models working [in the ‘70s], than it is happening in 2013.”

Industry reactions to racist accusations

Reactions to the letter by fashion’s governing bodies has been initially mixed. The Huffington Post has reported that “Didier Grumbach, president of Chambre Syndicale in France, deemed the letter’s call to action ‘unreasonable,'” while the American CFDA says it has emailed designers to remind them to be diverse in their model casting.

Industry insiders on the ground at Fashion Week gave a compelling, contrasting perspective.

“I do think designers should aim to diversify the models that walk their runways,” designer and Project Runway alum Samantha Black told theGrio at her Fashion Week presentation. “There are so many amazing models of different backgrounds out there, they have the walk, the look and the right stats, so it’s so unfair to me that they aren’t being booked for shows.  It’s because designers are choosing not book them and it’s sad.  Even one of each background would at least make some difference, and I believe things need to change!  Bravo for Iman, Bethann and Naomi for making a stand. Hopefully this will be the change we need.”

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The designers behind Timo Weiland’s Spring 2014 collection—Weiland, Alan Eckstein and Donna Kang—used at least six models of color in their show at MILK Studios, but they said it was not a conscious decision.

“Beautiful people are beautiful people,” Eckstein told theGrio backstage after the show, adding about the models cast, “We use a lot of black models because we love those models.”

Yet, like many fashion insiders, they are wary of being compelled to make the effort to cast specific types of models, because it would make the creative process inorganic.

“If it’s forced, it doesn’t turn out as it should,” Weiland said.

America’s Next Top Model judge and fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone agrees. “Every brand owner has the right to establish their brand and what that stands for,” she told theGrio.

That said, she thinks it’s just plain bad business to willfully decide against using a diversity of looks. “I mean, that would be kind of limiting themselves on a global level,” in terms of earning potential, she added.

For Cutrone, the most effective way to censure designers who refuse to represent the diversity of their customer base with models of color is to stop patronizing them.

She said people need to say, ’‘You don’t represent me in your store, you don’t represent me in your advertising… I’m not giving you my money.”

Is a boycott the answer?

In theory, a boycott of certain designers and fashion houses would work, but in reality, the answer is more complex.

The entire industry is built on an aesthetic fraught with racism and classism that reinforces the idea that thin white women are the aspirational ideal, many critics believe. Last October, Victoria’s Secret model Cameron Russell admitted during a Ted Talk that went viral that she had won “a genetic lottery” and is imbued with privilege for being born tall, thin and white.

Wittingly or unwittingly, fashion designers are complicit in the seeming conspiracy to make women aspire to an aesthetic that is not realistic for them. It’s what their businesses are based on, some believe, and not hiring models of color is possibly one aspect of this phenomenon.

And this does not stop the excluded from participating in the system.

Cutrone concedes to this point. “I’m a 47-year-old single mother who’s overweight. I’m not represented there either.  Do I still go and buy brands? Yes I do,” she said.

Complexity of diversity

Designer Azede Jean Pierre points out another layer of complexity, which involves a possible laziness on the part of modeling agencies to even find diverse models to cast.

“The problem is also bigger than designers’ willingness or responsibility,” Jean Pierre told theGrio. “Agencies don’t seem to sign many women of color. Only two black girls showed up to my casting [and] they were so much in demand that I could not afford to book them. The few black models in my presentation were friends or free agents, who we reached out to separate from an agency.”

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Could this be why when Jezebel analyzed the numbers last season, in February 2013, the outlet announced that runways were “getting whiter”?

Almost 83 percent of the models used were white, six percent were black, and only two percent were Latina.

A sizable 9 percent were Asian, but as Bethann Hardison insinuated in her recent letter to international fashion federations, this casting occured likely not out of a true love of diversity, but out of a pecuniary interest in appealing to the luxury market in China. She told fashion leaders that true diversity should not be confused with the sporadic “use of the Asian model.”

Where does fashion go from here?

Due to the efforts of her Diversity Coalition, a multicultural group of people in fashion concerned with its homogeneous nature, Bethann Hardison has scheduled talks with the CFDA and the British Fashion Council to look for solutions to these problems, according to reports by Women’s Wear Daily.

As this issue continues to percolate, the roles of designers, who ultimately choose the models, and the consumer, who ultimately decides who to buy, will come under greater scrutiny. The positive takeaway is that many people in fashion already believe there should be a change.

“I think it’s really about the brands thinking…” Cutrone said, “by choosing these visuals [and] representing [their] brand this way, ‘Who are we welcoming and who are we not including? And how do we as a brand feel about that?’ And if the answer of the brand is, ‘We feel good about it,’ then that’s their right as a business. That’s capitalism. Is it good capitalism? Not when I’ve met really wealthy people globally who don’t fit into the picture of, you know, ‘Western Caucasian.’”

For some, it’s not about quotas, but making sure the true portrait of the buying customer is represented.

“I feel that designers do have a responsibility and should aim to achieve diversity when casting,” Jean Pierre added, “but that the ratio should aim to represent the market place or customer rather than straining to include individuals just to achieve an arbitrary equality. That being said, I don’t believe that the runways are a good representation of the market or customer.”

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder Necklace and founder of the blog People Who Write. Follow her on Twitter @nanaekua.