At New York Fashion Week, buyers are as pleased as can possibly be expected given the recession’s devastating effect on their bottom line. For the most part, designers are walking the fine line between commercial appeal and creativity, sending out sellable ensembles that don’t sacrifice desirability, a favorable harbinger for next season’s retail numbers. Social critics, however, also have something to smile about, because the most important trend to emerge on the runway so far is color, as in models of color, who seem to have reached a critical mass in terms of their casting levels. In seasons past you could always count on a token black or Asian model to make an appearance at some point, usually as one, two, or at the max, three of the 40-50 exits that make up an average show. But something has changed—models of color are suddenly in demand.
It’s difficult to believe that Obama alone, or one sensational issue of a fashion magazine could have convinced one of the commercial centers of the world to reconsider its attitude toward racial diversity.
In a recent piece in the New York Times, Guy Trebay theorized that an "Obama Effect" might be influencing the fashion flock’s attitude toward racial diversity. There is an undeniable argument to be made that the president’s emergence into the collective consciousness has had a broadening influence on people’s ideas about race.
Fashion, however, is one of the few industries in the world where a complete disregard for social responsibility can be rationalized away as part and parcel of the neverending pursuit of new and stimulating forms of beauty. In the past, the mainstream fashion media hasn’t expressed much discomfort with the notion of limiting these representations to an overwhelmingly Caucasian group of women, but beginning in July 2008, with Vogue Italia’s " Black Issue," shot by Steven Meisel and starring a cast composed exclusively of the most famous black models in the world, the issue of race in fashion became more difficult to ignore.
It seems as if designers and casting agents have finally gotten the message—the army of alarmingly homogenous Eastern European girls who have, until now, hogged the limelight has been partially displaced by a surprising number of non-white faces. Both big and small labels have embraced a rainbow approach to casting—at Marc Jacobs’s ‘80s overload of a show, eight models were girls of color; at Carolina Herrera, an unofficial outfitter of the WASP-saturated Upper East Side, five, and at Diane von Furstenberg’s presentation, a jaw-dropping 10 girls of color made the grade. Younger designers were also getting in on the inclusive act—at first lady favorite Jason Wu’s show, black British supermodel Jourdan Dunn opened the show and seven more models were non-Caucasian. Dunn also closed the show for another of Michelle Obama’s fashion adoptees, Thakoon Paniguchul, while Maria Cornejo (also an Obama favourite), opened her show with another dark-skinned stunner, and peppered plenty of other black models throughout her show.
So what caused this sea change? It’s difficult to believe that Obama alone, or one sensational issue of a fashion magazine could have convinced one of the commercial centers of the world to reconsider its attitude toward racial diversity. I don’t mean to discount the role that conscience can play, but after all—this is fashion. In an industry that, ultimately, is all about manufacturing and commodifying glossy surface appeal, what matters the most is what sells.
How else to explain Conde Nast’s embrace of President Obama on the cover of Vanity Fair and Michelle on the cover of Vogue (only the second first lady in history, after Hillary Clinton, to land this coveted spot)? High-powered editors like Anna Wintour and Graydon Carter, who still wield considerable power to define what is "in" and "out," have come to the conclusion that black is beautiful, at least for now. Just as editors take the temperature of the zeitgeist and attempt to package their intuition into a product that will stimulate consumers to spend, runway shows, which can stretch into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, represent a major investment by designers on which they depend to get their "message" across. In other words, sleeping with a clear conscience isn’t their top priority—making enough money to keep themselves in 400-threadcount Frette linens is, and so, the statement they make with their models has to have a viable commercial appeal.
Jason Campbell, the editor-in-chief of online fashion site JC Report and one of the prominent black faces within the industry, observes that “with the current economic turmoil and the need to court [new] business, this may change [fashion’s] ways.” That said, he doesn’t feel that a strong season for models of color is going to be enough to sustain the forward momentum on its own. “It will endure if we keep the pressure on. I personally think that Oprah needs to put her voice to the issue. She trumpets all kinds of designers on her show but she should dig a little deeper and confront this very real problem. I think fashion is a racist business. For some strange reason… only white is synonymous with luxury and glamour, unless of course you're a celebrity or entertainer.”
Still, it’s hard to deny the feeling that things are at least beginning to move in the right direction. Fern Mallis, vice president of fashion at IMG and one of the most familiar faces in the Bryant Park tents, concurs, pointing out that, “thanks in large part to the efforts of activists and others keeping the pressure on the designers, there is definitely more inclusion. Many of the runways are now looking more like the world outside.”
Anita Bitton, the owner of Establishment, one of New York’s most influential casting agencies, has worked on some of this season’s biggest shows, including hot-ticket Alexander Wang. She says that she also senses that change is in the air: “It’s extremely clear that the tides are shifting. The global culture of "cool" is being forced to recognize that we live in a world of diversity. Obama’s values are being regurgitated and celebrated around the planet, and the global economy and its trendsetters are listening to what people want.” Bitton’s belief in the power of the market to facilitate social change is both encouraging and unsettling—after all, if we’ve learned anything from Project Runway, it’s that, in fashion, one day you’re in, and the next you’re out.
Let’s hope that models of color are more than just "of the moment," another trend to be consumed and then discarded like last season’s harem pants, while the fashion world feeds on the next big thing. That kind of cynicism would undercut the positive social momentum the US is building, and it would negate the hopeful impact of these first tentative steps toward balanced representation within the hierarchy of beauty ideals. As with Obama’s presidency, when it comes to racial diversity on the runways, I’m hoping it lasts for more than just one term.
Sameer Reddy is a special correspondent for Newsweek International, to which he contributes two columns—Top Shelf, which deals with luxury, and Tendencies, a survey of trends in culture. Based out of Berlin, he edits a recently launched blog about aesthetics, www.the-comment.com, while consuming large amounts of sausage and gluten-free pretzels.