‘Diversity’ was a real buzzword in fashion this year. There were transgender models on the catwalk, a plus-size face on the cover of Vogue and the most racially diverse runway season in history.
But has anything really changed in the industry famed for capitalising on people’s differences and dropping them as soon as the next big thing comes along?
In a recent panel orchestrated by The Business of Fashion on the topic of diversity and inclusion, model Joan Smalls used a term that sums up the whole problem with the current focus on diversity: “Sometimes, people jump on bandwagons and do things because it’s cool for the season. The next season, they forget the message they were trying to send because it was a ‘fad’.”
And she’s right. Brands and publications have a tendency to jump on the diversity bandwagon and showcase the ‘flavour of the month’ – whether that’s models who don’t fit into a standard sample size or ones who sit outside of the traditional girl next door definition of beauty. The issue is it only lasts for one season with the designers and editors choosing to go back to what they’re comfortable with (i.e. young, white and thin) a few months later.
When it comes to fashion shows, it’s common knowledge that things such as ‘racial quotas’ exist. This means that you may spot a token black or Asian model; someone who doesn’t fit into the all-white show but is there simply to ‘prove’ that the designer is supporting diversity.
Now, we live in an extremely multicultural world. Showing this on a catwalk is surely the modern view of beauty. Again, Joan Smalls made a good point surrounding this, saying: “When I see a runway with all the same models that are just clones, I’m like: “Is that your beauty? Is that your world?” It’s very one-sided and bland. You should be reflective of the world you live in.”
One major brand that does attempt to represent the greater world is also a controversial one. Victoria’s Secret and the lingerie-filled show watched by millions is seen by many as an archaic demonstration of femininity. Yes, the VS show may only feature models of a certain size (and wouldn’t we all love to see Ashley Graham in some wings?) but it was one of the most ethnically diverse displays around with 17 non-white models walking. That’s almost half of the 52 women that were cast; a much more promising statistic than the ones coming from fashion month.
The Fashion Spot‘s biannual diversity report revealed that the recent SS17 season was the most diverse fashion month in history. Sounds encouraging but on closer inspection, the statistics are still sadly depressing. Just over 25% of the models appearing in London, Milan, Paris and New York were non-white. Although designers such as Ashish and Kanye West’s Yeezy used mainly models of colour (75% and 97% respectively), there were still some shows that disappointingly featured an entirely white cast.
Having almost left the industry twice, casting director James Scully is known for being open about his frustrations. In another powerful BOF discussion, he commented on the disappointing progress the industry had made: “[In the nineties,] you would look at a Calvin Klein show and there were 28 black girls, and it wasn’t just because they were black.” To congratulate the fashion industry for a measly 25% diversity in 2016 doesn’t seem acceptable or right. The only congratulating going on should be on how they managed to go backwards in the space of two decades.
One of the big reasons for a predominantly white aesthetic is the current reign of brands like Gucci and Vetements. Alessandro Michele and Demna Gvasalia seem to see beauty in only one shade, often choosing an all-white line-up for their shows (although Gucci can be commended for casting transgender model Hari Nef). Demna has also taken his Soviet style to his new role at Balenciaga, adding yet another bland casting to fashion month.
“Runway diversity is so important because we live in a diverse society and that should be reflected on the runway. Fashion shows are aspirational, so if we have all white models in a show, one has to ask what that says about us,” commented designer Ashish Gupta, who recently celebrated his Indian heritage with one of the most diverse London Fashion Week shows. “We are so lucky to live in a world that welcomes and is a home to so many different people, so how can the definition of beauty be so narrow?”
The answer? Money. There’s one version of beauty that’s guaranteed to sell. And that’s the size 6 European one. Joan Smalls, who is Puerto Rican, knows this all too well after being cut out of group shots that would be used in Asia because her face wouldn’t sell. It’s not surprising to see such harsh treatment considering the Asian market’s influence on the industry with Chinese consumers willing to spend a small fortune on luxury goods.
This begs another question: fashion is first and foremost a business but should designers have a social responsibility to promote inclusivity and equality? If young people from all over the globe look to magazines and campaigns for confirmation that the world accepts them, shouldn’t the industry reflect that need? After all, designers have long taken inspiration from far-reaching lands; one example being the tribes of Africa influencing Valentino’s ethereal gowns. Conveniently, very few black models end up featuring in these same designers’ shows or campaigns.
It’s a similar story for gender. With more and more options being given to those who don’t feel comfortable with the identity they were given at birth, fashion has inevitably swooped in on the few trans models signed to major agencies. Hari Nef, arguably the industry’s most popular mouthpiece for transgender issues, spoke of her beginnings in modelling to The New Yorker: “No one would even meet with me. The verdict each time was: ‘Hey, we think you’ve got a great personality and you’ve got a really unique look. We just don’t understand how we could make money off of you.’”
Proving that fashion has little care for the potential positive message they could send, Hari summed it up even more succinctly to Style.com: “Fashion is having a moment with trans aesthetics, not trans issues.” Hari’s had her fair share of being seen as of-the-moment, previously commenting on how she’s had to take her top off on countless shoots to “flaunt” her trans body. The only message this sends is that you will be accepted but only if you’re willing to be a silent exhibitionist.
Sadly, commercialising on someone’s differences appears to be the number one reason for choosing alternative models. Every time a plus-size model hits a big name cover or campaign, it makes headlines therefore creating a myriad of press (and hopefully sales) for the brand. And most of the time, these models’ bodies are fetishised with shoots featuring little clothing in order to show off their plus-size status.
“It’s not like you can just be a model. You have to be a trans model or a black model. Fashion is a powerful industry with a real clout in terms of informing the public what is respectable, what is beautiful, what is sexy, what is aspirational. If you do your homework, you can send extremely positive and empowering messages to a consumer base that is waiting for you to tell them who’s okay,” said Hari Nef in the aforementioned BOF discussion.
So how do we enforce change? Well, it’s time the blame game stopped. The entire industry is to blame so continue speaking out to each and every member. Continue to say you’re not accepting these whitewashed, one-size-fits-all ideals or these one season diversity wonders.
Everyone needs to work together to truly support diversity and show a range of faces, a range of bodies, a range of people. Magazines should feature black and plus-size models in every issue; not just to fill some quota but as an integral part of the publication. Similarly, designers need to ensure they are representing the widest variety of people possible.
The day will come when Ashley Graham and Hari Nef can star in a campaign as a plain and simple model. When their labels can be removed. Until then, keep calling out the people who discriminate and the people who refuse to move with the times.
And remember: diversity is a thing for life, not for one season.