Diversity lacking in fashion industry

By Alexandrea Shields

When the venue went dark the audience waited with anticipation. And then, bright technicolor lights illuminated the room. As the first couple of models filed onto the stage, the audience went crazy. Between the music blaring and the screams of “yaaaaass” and “that’s my baby” the noise was deafening. The judges sat behind a table at the end of the runway watching each model closely. Each step and turn was electrifying and the fierceness could be felt a mile away.

Catwalk Classic is a fashion show battle between 12 high schools. Each school’s modeling and production team practices for 6 months and the prize for the event is $1,000. Catwalk Classic gives students an opportunity to see all the aspects of the media arts field (fashion, production, etc.) Catwalk Classic is an example of a culturally diverse event that encourages young people to pursue the careers they dream of doing. However, the Fashion Industry’s leaders have done a poor job with their encouragement of diverse runways and magazine spreads.

New York Fashion Week for Fall/Winter 2014 statistics showed that there was an overwhelming underrepresentation of models of color (meaning anyone who appears to be non-white or of mixed backgrounds); 78.69% of the models were white, 9.75% black, 7.67% Asian, 2.12% Latina, and 0.45% Other. These statistics may come as a shock to some but most people recognize that there has always been an issue. As for magazine spreads and covers; Harper’s Bazaar U.S. and UK, Vogue Netherlands, Paris, Ukraine, Russia, Teen Vogue, Numero, LOVE and Porter all failed to use a woman of color on their covers in 2014.

Vogue UK had not featured a model of cover on a solo cover in 12 years. A survey of 44 major print magazines showed that white models appeared 567 times out of 611 total covers and people of color only appeared 119 times. This means that white women have been chosen as the cover stars almost five times as often as non-white women.

Some models and influential fashion people have had quite a bit to say on the subject. Chanel Iman, 22, once said in an interview with The Sunday Times Magazine that sometimes she’s been excused by designers who say, “We already found one black girl. We don’t need you anymore.” Former models Bethaan Hardison, Iman, and Naomi Campbell were fed up with the lack of diversity on the runway. They all joined to form the Diversity Coalition, an organization that pushes for a more diverse representation in the industry.

Robin Givhan, a fashion critic for the Washington Post, shared her thoughts with me on lack of diversity in an interview. I wanted to know if there was a specific moment when she first thought there was a lack of diversity on the runways and in magazines. Her reply, “There was no particular moment, but in the late 1990s early 2000s was when the homogeneity was most dramatic. So much so that activists within the industry began to raise alarms.”

I also wanted to know what she thought about designers who cast almost all white models for “aesthetic” reasons or designers who use white models to display other cultures instead of models who actually represent the culture. She said, “That certainly is their creative right. But I think they are shirking the broader cultural responsibly of the fashion industry and they’re missing out on a lot of terrific models!” She also said that it seems like they’re creating an extra hurdle for their makeup artists and stylists. She noted that doing so raises complicated and interesting questions about authenticity and cultural tourism. One thing she would tell these designers is, “Be fully aware of what they’re doing; be intentional in your decisions; consider context; and try very, very hard to make sure the result is persuasive or at the very least thoughtful.”

Ultimately, there are a lot of aspiring models, designers, and writers who want to break into the industry but may feel that there is no one who looks like them in these positions. Ms. Givhan told me that she thinks it’s difficult to pursue a particular career path when you can’t imagine yourself in the field, but you have to focus on knowledge and skills.

She believes that talent still rises to the top. She said, “My advice to young people of any race is if you want to do it, go for it! Leap in. Pursue internships. Ask questions. Get your foot in the door. Work hard. Do the grunt work and don’t complain. Be polite. Don’t be entitled. Be patient— you’re not going to be editing at Vogue after only two years of work. Prepare to eat a lot of ramen noodles. The rewards are worth it. Fashion is competitive and tough.” Her last statement came out as more of a question and is moving to anyone young or old who has a vision for their life. “Why NOT pursue your dream?”


Founded in 1975, the Washington Association of Black Journalists is an organization of Black journalists, journalism professors, public relations professionals and student journalists in the D.C., metro area. WABJ provides members with ongoing professional education opportunities and advocates for greater diversification of the profession.