My colleague at MDC , Betty Sze uploaded a post on OTM titled, "Change Begins Today" which contrasted the inaugration of Barack Obama as the President Of The United States with the lack of color on the Milan FW 09 men's runways (as per a Guy Trebay article in the NY Times). The following day I was at a shoot for frillr.com with an unsigned black male model. The subject of why there has been no black male super-star since Tyson Beckford came up. I was asked why did I think that was . I found myself stumped. Not because I didn't have a point of view on the subject but more truthfully, because I had several complicated and conflicting ideas about the issue. A whole frenzy of questions came to mind.
Was it because Tyson Beckford was a singular and astonishing specimen of male beauty who also just happened to be a great model on camera, as well as a very charismatic man? Was it that he has not been matched since? I'm being arch but..why the empty seat 10 years later?
What were the hows and wherefores of Tyson Beckford's career? Was it his first agent , Tyron Barrington ? Was it the agency head, Bethann Hardison that made that difference with their specific management strategy? Was it their handling of Mr Beckford's career that took his bookings in the 90's from a First Down campaign to a multi-million dollar Ralph Lauren contract, with stop-offs for Joop campaigns, Arena Homme covers and Only Guy L'Uomo Vogue stories along the way?
Come to think of it... what was going on at the shop called Bethann Mgmt that led to such massively lucrative careers for a fellow model like Richard Elms for clients including CK 1 and Versace? Was it personal relationships with fashion 's power brokers that made the difference? Was the racial climate and the fashion market so vividly different then? I don't feel that it is. Those models faced the same lack of open-mindedness that today's crop of black male models do.
In all fairness Sandy and Armando at Wilhelmina have been impeccably managed and probably are very well compensated. Armando, the only black male model on Models.com's Men's Top 50 still books flawlessly. His career has witnessed Only Guy stories in V Man and Numero Homme as well as a gushing profile in ID Magazine and in-demand runway presence, an eventually not matched by any of his current colleagues of the same race.
So I could equally ask myself...what are clients- even if inadequately in the form of this one model- responding to? Why Armando?
Do clients feel like directional, Milanese mens' fashion is not the purvey of a black, Asian or a Latino market ? Do designers resent being forced to express an aesthetic that is not organic or instinctive to them? Do they feel like models of color are not necessary to speak to their existing core market? Do they have the right to maintain the restricted nature of their vision?
How does Kanye West feel about all that? Should he re-think his dream internship at Raf Simons since Raf Simons produced another Milan FW 09 Jil Sander show with no black models in sight. Or is Raf exempted because the cabine for his eponymous SS 08 show was distinctly multi-ethnic?
Are Dean and Dan for D Squared absolved because they chose to do an "all ethnic" show last season, but not for FW 09?
And regarding Frida Giannini, the Gucci designer who stated to the Times "I think it would be great if there was an industry initiative on this issue, because I am always looking for black models, or even Chinese or whatever. For the shows I’m after a specific kind of look and I request the agencies — I asked last season — to send me someone interesting. But they never send me anyone very new.”
Does Giannini's sentiments code an exasperation with a exhausting and no-win conversation for her?
And then there is the issue forwarded by the agency Red, positing that during castings, amazing options on black male models came on the charts ...and then fell off. Why? What were the designers and casting directors looking for in the first place that they ultimately found lacking?
High end editorial mens' fashion I have always felt, is such a small and strange market, much like a niche within a niche within a niche. It was only a matter of time before that very hermetic and insular world should find itself challenged by a wider cultural cross-current.
After combing through those questions I've decided a write a feature on MDC on that issue. Usually I'd do at TI (think of this post as the research notes) because I've always felt it would be gauche to write personally about moral issues within the context of the knotted industry politics I work with at Models.com. I plan to speak to as many mens' agencies heads as possible on the subject and then cross-reference that body of perspective against my own views which are I admit, a little strong. But as I have been telling those close to me, 2009 is the Year of Realness for us all . You can either say what everybody wants to hear or you can speak your own truth. Ultimately anger and frustration are easy things to express. But how do you win the game.... definitively? That's the final question that drives me. I think an obstacle exists as much as your mind allows it to exist. Cut to Barack Obama playing a masterful game of political chess all the way to a Presidency. That success should indeed inspire every booker, model, casting director and designer that stereotypes are not eternal. Feedback (especially booking facts on Tyson's career) and comments on any of these questions would be a great help!