Black women in America spend over $20 billion annually on clothing, patronizing some of very designers who refuse to use Black models on their runway. Namoi Campbell and other prominent Black models say its time for a change. This is another example of how we as Black people spend money supporting and creating jobs for others who could care less about us.
Race on the Runway: Italian Vogue's all-black models issue aims to change the racial makeup of the industry. Is it an indication of a new trend toward diversity on the runways or just a fad?
By ELVA RAMIREZ July 2, 2008
Italian Vogue's new edition featuring only black models once again brings to attention the issue of diversity in the predominantly white fashion world. The topic has generated some buzz in recent years, but has had little lasting effect on the runways and in magazine fashion spreads.
The magazine's July issue, which arrives in Italy this Friday and the U.S. next week, features nearly 100 editorial pages of the world's top black models, including Liya Kebede, Sessilee Lopez, Jourdan Dunn and Naomi Campbell. Modeling agent Bethann Hardison, who is behind much of the recent diversity-awareness efforts in the industry, contributed to a feature on 10 up-and-coming black models. Celebrity photographer Steven Meisel shot the spreads.
Italian Vogue editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani says the issue was inspired in part by Barack Obama -- "If America is ready for Obama, why won't they be ready for black models?" she asks. Also important were her dismay at last season's mostly white runways, and complaints from models like Ms. Campbell.
"I thought maybe we should make a change," Ms. Sozzani says.
But implementing lasting change is difficult in an industry based on appearance, marketability and flighty trends and gimmicks. Jezebel, a blog that covers women's magazines, tallied non-white models in last season's runways as well as some fall magazine issues. Its analysis of December magazines found that in 22 fashion spreads in nine magazines, only one featured a black woman (singer BeyoncÃ© Knowles) in a fashion spread. Jezebel's rundown of last February's New York shows found that 112 black models were used to fill 2,278 slots-- about 5% of the total.
The anticipation surrounding the Italian Vogue issue filtered into coverage of last week's menswear shows in Milan and Paris, when some blogs questioned whether the DSquaredÂ² show in Milan, which featured black models, was an early crest of the trend.
The trouble with trends is that they eventually end. The pale, predominantly blonde look of the past few seasons might soon give way to more diverse runways, but if fashion has its way, it could, like everything else, just be a short-lived fad.
"You have to accept that as the nature of fashion," says model Veronica Webb, who appears in the issue. But when the trend cycles back out, perhaps now "it may not be so pronounced," she says. "It may be that if you're a black girl and you dye your hair blonde, you can work -- you're not categorically rejected if you have dark skin."
Indeed, Ms. Sozzani says she's hoping her issue will provide a more long-term impact. "We're not looking to start a trend. We think this could be a normal thing -- to use a white girl [or] black girl without any difference," Ms. Sozzani says. "When we shoot Naomi [Campbell], we don't care that she's white, black or yellow. She's just Naomi."
But the spotlighting of black models in a grouping of their own -- not integrated with any other races -- could have unintended implications. The issue also fails to recognize any other ethnicities that are underrepresented in fashion.
"It's a slippery slope towards reversing the kinds of problems that the magazine was trying to overcome by making this gesture," says John L. Jackson, Jr., a professor of media analysis at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. "The danger is that all [the editors] have done is find a different way to single out the difference of European beauty, by marking off these racialized bodies in their own special issue."
So far, fashion insiders are cautiously optimistic about the long-term impact of an all-black issue.
"You celebrate and remind people of the contribution of the black image," Ms. Hardison says. "I think where we win is when it becomes all inclusive. I don't mind being the minority as long as I'm part of the flow."
The runway seasons to come will be telling.
"This season we're going to see a lot of black girls in shows," says Neal Hamil, North American director of Elite Model Management. "It's the season after this one that's going to be the test."
Unless We Embrace Our Own Beauty As Black People, Most Of Our Children And Especially Our Girls Will Continue To Suffer From An Inferioity Complex With An Increasing Number Of Our Lost Boys Showing A Preference For White Girls.