Wednesday, February 13, 2008

White's the Color of the Season at New York Fashion Week

Tracy Reese @ New York Fashion Week, 2008

But Sean P. Diddy/Puff Daddy/call me "Sean John" Combs decided to buck the system by casting all black models for his fall 2008 show at New York Fashion Week this month (the casting video can be seen here) Tracy Reese joined the ranks in being one of the few designers to feature a diverse set of models, as women of various ethnic backgrounds were represented on the catwalk or her collection. In an odd twist of fate, lately, "women of color [have not been] a trend," as former supermodel Naomi Campbell noted when asked about the dearth of non-white models. Though in the 1970s, 1980s, and even early 1990s, black models, at the very least, experienced a mini-heyday, the late 1990s and early 200s have ushered in quite the color shift, with runways experience a total whiteout.

The models of color were not the only ones disappearing. As the model sets faded to white, they also began to shrink in size, marking an interesting trend. The days of curvier, bustier models were over. Not only were more diverse body shapes and colors vanishing, but so were the more inclusive beauty ideals. The only option left was to be white and sickeningly thin. Well-known designers such as Diane von Furstenburg have encouraged other designers to raise the diversity factor on the catwalk as well as the weight of the models they employ, little evidence has proven this goading method a true catalyst for change. Some designers are truly making an effort to have women of color model their fashions, only to be disappointed by the results:

Nick Verreos says he has asked agencies to send models of color only to have them send mostly white women. And Venditti, also director of "Billy The Kid," says there are so few ethnic girls at the casting calls that there are not many to choose from. Some of the models of color are eliminated because of fit or walk.Still, she doesn't blame the agencies. She asks, why should an agency bring on lots of ethnic models if no one is calling to book them?Verreos admits that some designers simply won't use models of color."I have heard rumblings that the girls of color take away from the garments, that they are so fierce and have so much of a persona, you notice them first as opposed to noticing the clothing," he says. "So there are a lot of designers who would rather have the clothing be noticed and have a pale background. I just don't think that's right."

It's a complete Catch 22 with no one as the true culprit. Following Fashion Week 2008 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, however, frustrated models ended pushing for more diversity in a more vocal way, as authorities are now probing into the odd statistic that only 2.5% of the models during the SPFW were black/exhibited features of being of African descent (statistics on other models of color are not available). The majority of the models were of European descent, phenotypically white, technically a minority within a country that has the largest black population of any country outside of Africa. By taking their concerns to court, the models of color in Sao Paulo Fashion Week are making quite the mark. Prosecutor Erika Pucci from the Sao Paulo State Public Ministry, who is heading the inquiry, noted that "if it was shown that agencies or individuals involved with the show were deliberately discriminating against non-white models, criminal charges could brought." The story goes on to explain that "alternatively, civil action could occur if it turned out that the Brazilian fashion industry was not deliberately excluding blacks, Asians, or indigenous models, but was overlooking them because of marketing bias."

At Rio's Fashion week, black models staged a silent protest as many were not hired for the event. Model Alessandro Faria, citing a common excuse of designers, noted that that designers and agencies only wanted to cast black models for summer shows, and he didn't understand why. Could it be a case of color contrast or simply racism? Brazilian model Rafaela Favero thinks there may be other factors involved. "I think the business is smaller for black girls," says 19-year-old. "But I don't know if it is because we are just black - but we are different, our pattern of beauty is different - our hair and our bodies."

But isn't that was fashion is all about? Being different, cutting edge? If fashionistas really want to be bold, they would hire more models of color. Afterall, we still buy their clothes, why not give us a preview of what we'd look like wearing them?

- Wendi Muse

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