NYFW and Race: We Have A Problem

I’ll be the first to say that I love New York Fashion Week. Twice per year [more if you count international shows and previews], we catch a glimpse into the possibilities for the upcoming season. From colors and patterns, to daring cuts and mastery in tailoring, we get to see the best in business arrive and show us that the best is still ahead.

But much like a parent to their rebel child, we need to have a talk. A serious talk. Because as season to season rolls around, there is one huge conversation we’re awkwardly avoiding. We know what to expect when it comes to models: tall, thin, waif-like beauty and classically stunning features. And white. Look at the major shows, the most talked about models, and you’ll start to see an alarming trend. Beyond the criticism of promoting unobtainable beauty ideals, we have a fundamental problem when it comes to high fashion, and it’s that the majority of the models look the same.

What good is "diversity" in design if all the models look the same?

Some criticisms stem from the idea that the models are simply there to showcase the designs, and should be as uniform as possible so as not to distract from the designs [are you rolling your eyes yet?? I don’t even know where to start with that one.] But, as September covers have proven in recent years, models are increasingly popular in the public eye, and have taken on a greater role in shaping popular culture and consumer purchasing. They have social influence and are in effect role models. People look to models for cultural cues on how to look, dress and act. If the collective “model culture”, and pop culture by extension, looks and behaves as a white woman, it’s no wonder that we have a problem.

But is the problem really the models? After all, they work hard to get where they are, no one can fault them for that. Or is it the designers who pull from a culture [or “are inspired by it”, as the magazine bios go], but yet do not include models who represent the area of which they appropriate. Or is it the agencies? They cast the same women, who embrace similar standards in beauty, and hold back the ones who might break the mold. No, it’s far easier to pull a wig on and white powder and cat liner and call it an Asian-inspired show than to showcase women who could legitimately represent those beauty ideals.

Fashion collectively has a problem, and I truly don’t mean to be overly critical, but someone has to say it. Silence is compliance and an agreement that this representation, or lack thereof, is decent and acceptable.

But the problem is not just the white-ness, it’s the lack of true diversity. Look at the most popular women of color in fashion. Do they not look identical in features to the “traditional” models, but with darker skin? They beauty ideal is the same, and the true diversity in look is weak at best. For just one example, how many black models can wear their hair natural and be booked? Look at the runways and you have your answer. There are exceptions for sure, but they are few and far between.

Even the biggest names in fashion, hailing from different parts of the globe [even major models from parts of Africa and South America] have their pseudo-whiteness in common. Finding women of different ethnicities who look white and align with white beauty ideals is not diversity. With fashion, it’s not a “can’t” but a “won’t”. The biggest houses in couture have the freedom to design a world in which a new vision of diversity and creativity can coexist. But they don’t. Year after year, we see the same women wearing different clothes, and even as the trends change, the women wearing them stay the same.

Have I missed the mark? Tweet me your thoughts!

(photo via)