By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) – As spring collections are paraded on the catwalks at New York’s Fashion Week, ethnic diversity is noticeably lacking among the models and some fashion industry insiders say discrimination is prevalent.
This week’s fashion shows, which are known for diversity among the clothing designs and the audience, come just weeks after famed black model Naomi Campbell accused fashion magazines of passing over black beauty in favor of fair-skinned models. “It is unfortunate that a white girl with blond hair is still the ideal of beauty,” said fashion art director Frank de Jesus, who said he could not find an Asian model for Sabyasachi. “I wish there were more girls of color and Asian girls.”
A spokeswoman for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the U.S industry’s trade group, said it was up to the designers to establish ethnic diversity. At New York’s Fashion Week many top designers chose to employ one or two black models and a few Asians in shows and some had none, Reuters reporters who attended over 40 shows by found. Blacks, and blacks in combination with another race, make up about 13 percent of Americans, U.S. Census data shows.
Diane von Furstenberg and Baby Phat were among the few that had a more equal racial mix of models. At least half the models used for Baby Phat, which features Kimora Lee Simmons’ glitzy urban designs, were black or Asian. J. Alexander, a runway coach on TV’s “America’s Next Top Model” who helped produce Baby Phat’s show, said the standard for using black models is “two girls, three maximum” per show. “And you normally get one to make it clear that she is obviously dark too so they don’t get any lip from journalists or any backlash for being racist,” he said.
BLONDES AND BRUNETTES FAVORED
While Campbell directed her criticism at the dearth of black models gracing magazine covers, some black models at fashion week said that also spilled onto runways. Model Godeliv Van den Brandt, of Belgian and Congolese heritage, said black models were used much less than whites. “They like to use a lot of blondes and brunettes,” she said. “Sometimes they use more (black models) when there is an inspiration, such as an African-themed style of clothes … but otherwise it is not too much.”
Several designers and a few models, including top black model Alek Wek, were reticent to comment on race, although Wek acknowledged difficulties at the start of her career. “There were people who criticized me but I took no notice,” the Sudanese model told Reuters. “You can see I am black, that’s who I am.
“Whether you are black or white, modeling is hard work and you have to be really determined to succeed.”
Some designers and casting directors said if their shows were not diverse it was due to problems finding black and Asian models. Others, like designer Carmen Marc Valvo, said the ethnic mix had improved. In the past, he said, “You always had the token African-American girl, but everybody else was blond and blue-eyed. Now you have South Americans, so you have some brunettes,” he said, noting Japanese supermodel Ai Tominaga was also emblematic of change.
Some designers said it was their artistic right to choose the color and body shapes that matched their fashion styles. “My clothes transcend ethnicity,” said Thuy Diep, a female designer from Vietnam. “My samples are a certain size and they have to fit right … and that’s more important than having one black person and one Asian person.” Rebecca Taylor said her only black model pulled out of her show and that the issue is “not something that should be over-analyzed.” “I don’t feel like, ‘Ooh, that girl’s pulled out, we have got to replace her with another one,”‘ she said.
George Coleman, a designer attending but not showing a collection in New York, said some designers use models to cater to their desired demographic. “For urban lines, you are going to have more (black models),” he said. “But is say, Ralph Lauren, gearing his stuff towards African-Americans? It’s more for Caucasians.” But a minority of designers and models, like Campbell, who has promised to start a modeling agency in Kenya to redress the imbalance, have taken the issue in their own hands. “America is a melting pot. I like diversification,” Valvo said.