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The Image That Sells

Are you buying it? Kinee/NY Models as the apotheosis of chic. Marcus Hill/Major as the embodiment of...you know.Are you buying it? Kinee/NY Models as the apotheosis of chic. Marcus Hill/Major as the embodiment of...you know.

There is an interesting debate brewing in the fashion press concerning the lack of representation of people of color on the current fashion runways. The first salvo was fired by Pulitzer prize-winning editor Robin Givhan of The Washington Post in one of her frequent articles on the issue, where she bluntly asserted "By defining which people are beautiful and which people are simply invisible, the fashion industry helps determine how much cultural currency someone has at his or her disposal." On October 5th, in the midst of the Paris SS08 collections, Hadley Freeman in the Daily Telegraph in the UK filed a report on "the whitewashing of the catwalk" . The article stated " It is one that suggests the fashion industry has not just a warped but a fully offensive mentality when it comes to judging how women should look. It is a problem that has been simmering for some time, but because talking about it might offend the designers and scare off lucrative advertising accounts, hardly anyone has spoken out - and things have only got worse. We now have a situation that could lead to serious problems not only for some models, but for the public as a whole, making millions of women feel ugly, undesirable and simply wrong " The mantle was then taken up by Guy Trebay of the New York Times in his article published on October 14 2007 titled " Ignoring Diversity, Runways Fade To White". Trebay threw some interesting statistics into the fray as follows " Although black women in the United States spend more than $20 billion on apparel each year, according to estimates by TargetMarketNews.com, it was hard to discern an awareness of this fact on the part of designers showing in New York, where black faces were more absent from runways than they have been in years."The phones have not stopped ringing, nor has my emails with this issue as the main subject abated. I'd like to share one of them with you.It was from a really bright kid slogging through his Master's at an Ivy League program trying to figure out if his "skills" will find a welcome in the fashion world.

Last night I attended an event called "Out Of Fashion: The Absence Of Color," a "conversation" hosted by longtime agent Bethann Hardison and held at the New York Public Library. The discussion attempted to draw attention to the question: Why have images of black models been in sharp decline in high fashion for more than a decade? Also on the panel: Designer Tracy Reese, casting agent James Scully, model agent David Ralph and stylist Lori Goldstein. In attendance were Iman, Vera Wang, photographer Marc Baptiste, industry insiders, writers, editors and dozens of black models.

Ms. Hardison began by explaining that in the '80s and 90s, there were many black models, but the decline has been steady -- and scary. She said she was hoping to bring a radical change in the industry, and named some of her pet peeves, including: Image-makers not having the eye to define black beauty; image-makers allowing only one black model at a time; hearing that black covers don't sell, hearing "I already have one or two black models"; the fact that agents have such a tough time selling black models that they get worn down. Also, modeling agencies often do not allow black "marquee name" models to be photographed for "black" magazines. She noted that since fashion has become such a huge industry and people around the world see images of runway shows, this is not a small issue. "Globally, it affects everybody."

James Scully has been in the business for over 20 years, worked in Milan, and in addition to booking models for Harper's Bazaar, had worked for Gucci under Tom Ford. He argued that if Tom Ford said, "Bring me a beautiful girl," he meant a beautiful girl of any color, which is how Liya Kebede ended up with an exclusive contract for Gucci in 2000. He went on to say that the next wave of fashion, which was lead by Prada, leaned toward blank, colorless models -- a runway in which all the girls were virtually the same, and there were absolutely no faces of color. "Everyone followed," he said, meaning that Prada set a trend for other designers. (Check the Spring 2008 Prada runway show and you will see: Zero black models.)

Ms. Hardison said that designers don't even like models anymore, explaining that in her day, a designer and a model were like a husband and wife, working together, in a relationship. Everyone seemed to agree that the trend now is toward younger, cheaper, faceless, nameless models.

Lori Goldstein acknowledged that the business has changed. "It's homogenous," she said, and admitted that there were a lack of "ethnic" girls in the packages that the agencies send out.

At some point, the discussion turned to black women who have narrow features -- do they represent black beauty, or are they merely "white girls dipped in chocolate?" Iman got pissed. "Each person in Africa is different, you cannot say that one look is 'African,'" she argued from the audience, with a microphone provided for her.

Blatant racism was discussed as well. Mr. Scully pointed out that when he was first working with Liya Kebede, some designers and photographers were not interested in working with her because she was black. Once they saw her in photoshoots he had successfully pitched for her, some of them said, "I love her, who is that?"

One editor recounted a story of working at Vibe, and told of how someone at Manolo Blahnik would not loan the magazine shoes for a photo shoot. Former editor Emil Wilbekin called Iman, Iman called Manolo Blahnik himself, and suddenly they had "a whole lotta shoes" for the shoot.

A photographer in the audience noted that fashion is about exclusivity, so naturally, minorities get excluded. Another audience member, who works closely with Louis Vuitton, said that they would often make sure there was at least one Asian model in the shows since Asia is a huge market for them.

Photographer Marc Baptiste asked, "It's 2007. What is the solution?" Ms. Hardison replied, "We're all trying to figure that out" and said it was important to keep talking. "It's a slow tsunami," she explained, "we have to keep rolling forward." She did say that she would meet with Diane Von Furstenberg and the CDFA soon. She also said, "I feel like there is one person, behind a curtain, like in The Wizard Of Oz, turning the knobs. And that person could change everything. And we all have to think, 'Who could that one person be?' Think of that one person," she urged the audience. "Don't say it! Just think it."

We have someone in mind, do you?

The Wizard of Oz, turning the knobs...funny image that... I've been asked on several occasions by several publications to comment on the issue. I'm going to think about carefully about my exact position on this (it will be a little radical for some) and post it without self-censorship in the morning...Stay tuned.

Taste is a dictatorship.

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