Breaking The Racial Catwalk Barrier

October 5, 2015

Fashion industry ponders how to make its catwalks more diverse.

Paris Fashion Week features a cosmopolitan roster of designers from New Delhi to Tokyo, but their diversity is not always reflected on the catwalk, where women of different ethnic origins remain a minority.

Though racism in fashion has always existed, the issue has hit the headlines thanks to a series of talks in New York organized recently by Bethann Hardison, an influential former model manager whose clients included Tyson Beckford and Veronica Webb.

“I think we are all responsible and I think we all need to up our game,” Hardison told The Associated Press.

It has been almost two decades since she co-founded the Black Girls Coalition with top model Iman to promote awareness for equal representation in advertising. Though the advertising industry now features models of all origins, the fashion world has actually regressed over the past decade, Hardison said.

That is due mainly to the replacement of supermodels by interchangeable girls, some as young as 14, who serve as a “blank canvas” for the clothes.

“The fashion designer is no longer involved with the fashion model,” Hardison said. “When you no longer want to have a girl with any kind of glamor, any kind of style, then you’re not going to want a girl that stands out at all.”

One notable exception is French couturier Jean Paul Gaultier — his show on Tuesday included Asian, North African, Latin American and African-American models.

Unlike other industries, fashion does not enforce equal opportunities policies, so rejecting a model on the basis of skin color is dismissed as a purely aesthetic choice.

“I think there’s a challenge for designers just to think in different stereotypes, to break out of the old molds,” said New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn, who has raised the issue with several designers.

British newcomer Jourdan Dunn, a 16-year-old who is being hailed as the “new Naomi,” unwittingly became the focus of a heated debate on Horyn’s blog ( last week when she was the first black model to walk the Prada runway since the 1990s.

It is a situation all too familiar to Chanel Iman, 18, a model of Korean and African-American descent. Her solution is to keep plugging away, with the hope that things will change.

“It’s very hard, but then again you just have to be positive,” she told The AP backstage after the Christian Dior show Monday, where she was the only model of color out of 60.

“I’m not giving up because of that. I definitely do want to be a role model,” she added.

With the luxury business rapidly conquering emerging markets, the lack of diversity on the catwalks seems even more anachronistic.

Hardison believes that a lot of designers are simply unaware there is a problem, and hopes that talking about it will open their eyes.

“Of course it’s going to make a difference,” she said. “They really don’t even realize what they’re doing.”

source: The Associated Press