The fashion industry is one of the most rapid growing businesses in the world. From an evolutionary standpoint, every year there is a new trend emerging that will ultimately redefine pop culture forever. A style hits the runways, then retails, then right into my closet. If you’re anything like me, fashion is a priority and style is a necessity. I spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on the latest styles because it helps me to express a very cultural aspect of my identity. But what if the one business that I give most of my paychecks to isn’t very cultural at all?
Whether society is ignorant, or just plain oblivious to the matter, the fashion world lacks serious color. Let’s talk about the most basic events: fashion week. Fashion week takes place all over the world, inspiring different artists to make their debut into the industry from Paris to New York and all the way in between. In the 2015 New York Fashion Week, of the 260 shows on the men’s and women’s wear schedule, only three with any global reach are by African-American designers: Tracy Reese, Public School and Hood by Air. The percentage of African-American designers who are members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America: approximately 12 out of 470.
Not only is this drastic comparison seen within the designers, but also for the models. There is a huge underrepresentation of models of color, plus-size, transgender… the list can go on. In New York Fashion Week, around 80 percent of models on the catwalks are white. This underrepresentation triggered models like Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell and designers like Diane Von Furstenberg to petition the industry to hire more minorities. Along with underrepresentation comes fashion’s eagerness to exploit the style of minorities through the appropriation of baby hairs, headdresses, and “migrant worker chic” in vogue, or racist (yet clueless) sentiments such as A.P.C.’s Jean Touitou naming one his runway looks “Last Niggas in Paris.” In the Fall 2016 season runway, New York-based designer Zac Posen made a powerful stand that “Black Models Matter” by hiring an inclusive cast to model his collection. The collection itself was a tribute to a woman of color.
On the other hand, Demna Gvasalia, only hired one nonwhite model to walk the runway at Balenciaga. Casting director, James Scully, found this to be discriminative, posting to Instagram:
“So if you’re the designer the whole world is looking to right now, how great that your message is one of exclusion which is never in fashion. It must feel like a slap to all of the people of color who line up to buy your clothes that your message to them [is that] you don’t see them in your world.”
Harsh, but undeniably true.
This industry defines and advertises beauty, and with beauty comes self-confidence and privilege. What does this message send to African Americans, or any POC, that want to invest in a product by a brand that sees them as subpar? What about black children that aspire to become models or fashion designers? This isn’t arbitrary. The power structure within the industry isn’t arbitrary. It’s degrading, and although the situation seems minuscule to those who don’t follow fashion, let me be the one to tell you that it’s much bigger than that. Changing a child’s ideology of themselves and lowering their self-esteem because of their skin color? Allowing systemic cultural appropriation without recognition of its origin? These things are much bigger than that! We have to be mindful of how racism and power are interconnected, and the effects that this has on people. I want to see myself as beautiful, my future children to see themselves as beautiful, and society to see us as beautiful.