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COLORS OF THE REVOLUTION: Did the election of Barack Obama bring more faces of color to the runways this season? Some show attendees have noticed an uptick in the number of ethnic models during New York Fashion Week, although it’s hard to pinpoint whether that’s a result of the excitement over the new President and First Lady or the ongoing conversations about the lack of diversity in fashion.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an invasion” of ethnic faces, said Stephen Lee, an agent at Next Models. “But it’s an acknowledgement.” Popular models on the catwalks include Sessilee Lopez, Jourdan Dunn and Chanel Iman, whom Lee called “staples” at fashion week.
The progress came after much work within the fashion community to raise awareness of the lack of diversity in fashion, both on the runways and in the ateliers. A series of panels spearheaded by former fashion model and model agency owner Bethann Hardison helped jump-start the conversation about race and fashion in 2007. From there, small victories ensued, including the July issue of Vogue Italia that featured all black models — Iman, Tyra Banks, Liya Kebede, Dunn and Alek Wek, among others. This year, American Vogue featured Dunn and Chanel Iman in a well shoot in its January issue, and now has First Lady Michelle Obama on its March cover.
Still, observers agree the increasing use of faces of color in fashion partially stems from the impact of the new First Lady. “Every designer would love to be dressing Michelle Obama, so if you have someone in your show that looks like her, it probably isn’t a bad thing,” said Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour.
Joe Zee, Elle’s creative director, agreed, saying, “There’s a residue left over from the excitement of the inauguration. People just want to bring that sort of optimism or element of change on the runways.”
Even the modeling agencies are seeing more ranges of ethnic backgrounds come through. “The last two years have seen a broader, not just black, but whole range of ethnic girls,” said Lee of Next. “Girls are coming in with [different] skin colors, but they have a story to tell as well. The trip from, say, India to New York, or India to France, Australia to Milan is totally different. Clients are becoming more interested in that.”
Some are still skeptical, however. “You hear people paying a lot more lip service to it, but from the runway point of view, I haven’t seen such a surge,” said Memsor Kamarake, international fashion director of Vibe. “You go to the shows and you see only one or two faces of color. You do see Jourdan Dunn and Chanel Iman. But on the men’s side it’s quite deplorable. Not to say that there should be 90 percent faces of color. But instead of two black models, make it four. The world won’t come undone.”
Steven Kolb, executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said he noted no notable increase of models of color on the runway. He said the CFDA sends out a letter before each fashion week that, among other things, stresses the importance of diversity. “Promoting diversity is something we should all be doing,” he said.
There have been strides, but most stressed there is still a long way to go. “I’ve seen a more consistent use of black models,” said model Veronica Webb. “Does it have to do with the Obama effect? Since the Black issue of Vogue and since the Obamas took the White House, that inspiration is running through a lot of the collections,” said Webb. However, she added, “I still don’t see more of different kinds of faces, but we’re getting there.”
Hardison stressed that, as much as the Obamas help the cause, they won’t become the standard images of beauty. “We made an extraordinary impact. The Obamas help in the fact that when we have images of color in high places where whites can see, it always improve subliminally the thinking,” said Hardison. “You start getting more accustomed to the idea. It helps to have images of color around because it helps people feel more comfortable about adding color to their aesthetic, as one designer loves to keep saying. It’s not going to change the world of racial thinking completely because our President and First Lady are of color. But it helps.”
— Stephanie D. Smith and Marc Karimzadeh