New York Fashion Week
A model prepares backstage at the Mataano fall 2013 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Landmark on the Park on February 11, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

“I think people do discriminate in the fashion industry, but that it’s unconscious,” Hannan Saleh, street photographer for Essence magazine, told theGrio at the most recent Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week held earlier this month in New York City.

What prompted her observation? I was yet another reporter on the style beat asking: Is fashion racist? 

The fashionable becomes the political

It goes without saying that Fashion Week isn’t just about the sumptuous designs. In addition to being a scene for showcasing eye-catching ensembles, some are transforming it into a seat of political action.

New York Fashion Week’s glittering stage has been under scrutiny yet again for the lack of diversity on its runways – a fact made clear as I watched predominantly white models stalk down the runway in Native American headdresses to the tom tom of tribal drums at the Spring 2014 Nicholas K show just days ago.

It was a display of utterly un-ironic cultural appropriation that is surely the stuff of political progressives’ nightmares, and hardly the only evidence of homogeneity.

Bethann Hardison, former model and agent-turned-activist, sent a letter this month to address such displays to governing bodies of fashion internationally, receiving widespread attention for the plight of models of color. Yes, Fashion Week has become an instrument of resistance.

But, beyond the underrepresentation of black models, there is also a startling dearth of black designers, casting agents, publicists, photographers, stylists, and editors in this billion dollar industry — deficits that are rarely publically addressed.

Race problem beyond the catwalks

During Fashion Week, among a gaggle of fashion fanatics in their most daring sartorial creations, I interviewed celebrity stylist Beagy Zielinski to delve into this broader issue.

Zielinski has styled Tyra Banks, actor Alan Cumming, and Kelly Rowland, and contributed to America’s Next Top Model during cycle 16 – in addition to styling for major fashion magazines. You would think that such an accomplished woman in style – who is also NOT a model — would have escaped the barbs lesser talents have experienced.

Yet, on the question of whether fashion has a race problem, Zielinski responded with an unequivocal: “Absolutely.”

For Zielinski, who grew up in Germany, there is a persistent misconception that, if you are black, your creative references must be limited to stereotypical associations with black culture.

“As a black stylist, I have people in the industry who, when they meet me in person, assume I must style rappers,” she told theGrio. “It’s clear it’s about what they think black means, and has nothing to do with my personal aesthetic or professional experience as a stylist. It’s the same when I go to showrooms and the client assumes I’m the assistant. There is a sense that you can only achieve a certain level.”

Professionals like Zielinski are painfully aware of racial discrimination within the industry, but also feel pressured to conform to industry practices that perpetuate these inequalities.

For her own portfolio, Zielinski admits to featuring white models prominently, or else she risks her ability to book clients. “If I do include black models, they have to be very recognizable,” she said.

In her work, Zielinski has observed how often only a handful of black models are sent for review out of dozens of white models, which feeds the self-perpetuating phenomenon of there not being enough experienced black models to cast, thus leading to there not being enough famous black models to feature.

She said starkly, “If casting agents don’t send black models, they don’t get seen.”

Black designers: Their challenges

Black designers face similar challenges. But black-specific platforms such as Harlem’s Fashion Row – which showcases designers of color in a separate presentation during Fashion Week — only further segregate black designers and professionals, Zielinski stated.

What’s the solution? “We need to stop talking about it and be about it,” she said about creating all-around diversity in fashion.

She sees real change coming from within the industry through programs like the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Fashion Incubator, which cultivates young designers, including talented black creators.

Sources of industry change

How can black designers gain access to this and similar programs?

According to Ayaan Mohallim, co-creator of the breezy Mataano line with her twin sister Idyl, black designers sometimes lack the resources to get the attention of needed contacts.

“It’s about building buzz in the industry, or having experience with other well-known brands,” she told theGrio. “That gets you on CFDA’s radar.”

When these Somali-American twins started out, they created a buzz primarily among black media outlets with relative ease. They began receiving mainstream coverage only after investing more money into their business.

“In the high fashion world,” Mohallim added, “it’s about learning the language.” A language that might have less to do with black and white, and more with the color green.

“The industry itself isn’t racist per se,” the young woman observed. “It’s ultimately about resources. People don’t understand. It takes an army and a great deal of money for young designers to make it along the traditional tracks.”

Mohallim believes those interested in diversity – including African-American moguls and industry veterans – need to throw their weight behind more black designers. Supermodel-turned-businesswoman Iman has already supported Mataano through her cosmetics company.

“If Celine doesn’t want to use black models,” she said of one storied fashion line, “who cares? Why push the issue? We should be putting our energy into investing in ourselves.”

Optimism to overcome obstacles

Such potentials seem reachable after the successes of Shonda Rimes, the African-American writer and producer behind the hit shows Greys Anatomy and Scandal. “After establishing herself in the television industry she created a lead role for an African-American actress on a hit TV show,” the designer noted. “White people didn’t give us that opportunity. We gave it to ourselves.”

Despite the challenges blacks face, Mohallim remains optimistic about the direction fashion is moving in. Through the Internet, entrepreneurs, writers, bloggers and editors of color can thrive, rather than waiting for fashion insiders to bestow opportunities.

“We can grow our own businesses online and write our own editorials,” Mohallim explained.

Does she feel needled by the race question when casting models for shows?

Like the more established designer Tracy Reese, Mohallim stated that her consumer is global; thus, she creates diverse casts that reflect the world she lives in.

Tracy Reese speaks on diversity in fashion

Tracy Reese elaborated to theGrio her specific views on the need to create greater diversity in fashion.

“I believe in the beauty of all people and it is my honor to dress women of many different ages, colors and sizes,” Reese said in an exclusive statement. “As a designer, I am excited to see how my clothing can enhance all types of women. As a minority, it is important for me to see other minorities represented on the runways and in the ad campaigns of lines I admire. I want to know that I am included in the designer’s vision. If a designer’s ‘vision’ only includes one type of woman, it leads me to believe that that is the only customer they want to reach. As a consumer, I am starting to boycott these lines.”

Reese’s comments promote the idea of fashion diversity, while suggesting that real change, in an industry driven by the consumer, might also be born of the selective use of dollars and cents.

In a sense, fashion is a gilded mirror reflecting the inequalities that permeate all levels of American culture. We must also take an unflinching look into that mirror without compartmentalizing the problem, acknowledging where structural racism continues to obstruct access to basic education, learning and employment opportunities in black communities nationwide.

Holding fashion accountable

While it may seem counterintuitive to scrutinize a luxury industry built on images of exclusivity for not upholding democratic principles of diversity, ultimately, fashion is a product of the larger culture we live in, producing the images we consume daily.

I won’t be waiting for Calvin Klein, Inc. to solve the deepest of social issues, but to the degree that imagination becomes reality, fashion has a responsibility to diversify its ranks – on the runways, and among those that make the models pop: designers, photographers, stylists and more.

Those in the know believe this will be lucrative for fashion and greater society.

“It’s 2014, not 1964,” Reese stated. “The world is much smaller and fashion is much more accessible.  I am all about embracing the beauty of many cultures and growing my global empire.”

Chase Quinn is a freelance writer, art critic, and budding novelist, who has worked with several leading human rights organizations in the U.S. and the U.K., promoting social and economic justice. Follow Chase on Twitter at @chasebquinn.