From the Runway

Fashion industry continuously perpetuates black urban stereotype

Connor Bahng | Staff Photographer

Zac Posen casted exclusively black models for his collection's showing at New York Fashion Week this year.

Naomi. Iman. Tyra.

Names that elicit feelings of nostalgia, a bygone supermodel era. But more importantly, an era of inclusivity.

Three of the biggest names in modeling at the height of the ’90s were black, and most importantly, featured on the runway and in campaign ads alike. Since then, we’ve seen a decline in black model representation, and an even further decline in representation among Asians, Latinas and other ethnic minorities. Time and time again, we are bombarded with images of similar white faces who seem to be the only option in conveying a message of what it means to be ‘beautiful.’

In addition to the messages of ideal beauty standards, we are presented with how people of certain ethnicities should dress. Why is it that when we do see black models or other models of color, they are almost always in streetwear or urban campaigns for brands? Or they are stereotyped and modeled in ‘exotic’ or ‘tribal’ looks because that’s what a designer sees when they look at black models. One of the most prevalent arguments designers and casting directors make about their model decisions is that it’s “not their aesthetic,” according to a Vogue article published in 2014.

In a recent New York Times article titled “Fashion Week’s Shift Toward Diversity,” author Ruth La Ferla wrote a first-hand account from the front-row of New York Fashion Week.  At the Zac Posen show, she spoke with former model and agent Bethann Hardison who said, “Zac set the tone for the rest of the week.” His decision to cast 25 Black models was bold, successful and necessary for fashion.

Posen demonstrated his fashion worldview as not just being exclusively white models in couture, but that it included black models in couture who are just as capable of conveying an image of beauty and grace that white models are so often portrayed as having.

In the same article, La Ferla spoke with designer Lamine Kouyate of Xuly.Bet. He mentions that he wants to cast an all-black show, but that it was proving difficult due to the inexperience of some of the models and lack of black models at agencies. The experience was frustrating: “Since the 1970s, women of color have given input to the industry,” he said.

The supermodels of that era were in fact very influential, but over the years, that influence waned and gave rise to a new class of models. A new class that was decidedly less diverse and inclusive than before. Fashion marketers have taken notice of such a dilemma and are trying to double their efforts in reaching black consumers, and becoming more inclusive. While this is encouraging, it raises the risk of making it seem like labels are only increasing diverse campaigns to up their bottom line.

One of the biggest issues facing labels and trying to be inclusive is the risk of pandering or “tokenism.” Fashion consistently takes from black culture and others, but in terms of influence, there’s no other group that’s produced more influence. Even designer Tom Ford, as quoted in a Vogue article, said, “it’s the dominant culture,” in reference to black culture, hip-hop especially. But in using and appreciating that culture, fashion companies don’t want to exclusively use black models or models of color for a singular aesthetic.

Instead, the companies only see black or non-black consumers of color in one way, which alienates them. Black consumers are, “the ones who want to wear the clothes…be reflecting back to them versions of themselves on the runway,” said Kevin Amato, a casting guru, said in the New York Times article. This idea of reflection is key in understanding how companies project onto their potential consumers. If brands only view a certain demographic as one way, it causes alienation.


Connor Bahng | Staff Photographer

For example, one could criticize rapper-designer Kanye West for designating his streetwear clothing to be featured only on black and multi-racial models. Some have argued against West’s decision to only cast black models, most notably seen at his Yeezy Season 3 show at New York Fashion Week.

On one hand, West’s brand, Yeezy, is a streetwear brand. The clothes are minimal, sporty yet lux at the same time. Thus, his decision to mostly cast black models could be seen by some as perpetuating the stereotypes that black models fight to break. Yet, he is giving models of color opportunities to work, which might not be normally available to them.

Casting directors and model agencies alike should begin casting African-American models in roles typically designated for white models, such as “preppy” styles. The classic American looks as exemplified by Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren are attainable by black models and can be achievable. To achieve the featured looks I would suggest investing in quality pieces such as tailored button downs, handmade bags, and watches.

From runways to print campaigns, there has been a longstanding tradition of emphasizing the Eurocentric beauty standards that plague the fashion world and the globe at large. But in recent years, we have seen a shift in perception, and people speaking up about the very real lack of color in major fashion shows. From these challenges we have seen change — models Chanel Iman, Imaan Hammam, Fei Fei Sun and Liu Wen walk for major brands and houses. Though these women are making strides and garnering attention that they so deserve, it’s important that we expand the conversation.


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