Is white still the new black?


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Year after year, people from all walks of life gather in the tents at Lincoln Center for Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.

All ages, genders, and nationalities gather to receive a glimpse and anticipate what is to come for the next season. The crowds are a melting pot, but many are often baffled when runways continue to be a mosh of pale faces.

Some may argue that African Americans and other people of color are simply not interested in fashion. This is quite the contrary. In fact, Black Enterprise predicted in 2013 the African American buying power is due to rise to $1.1 trillion dollars by 2015. Our buying power tops that of both the Hispanic and Asian market.

So if African Americans are large consumers in the retail market, where are our representatives on the runway? This is a question that many people including fashion pioneer, Bethann Hardison, often ask.

Bethann is a member of the Diversity Coalition, whose goal is to promote the stronger presence of women of color on major designer runways. She shook up the industry in 2013 with her open letter to fashion councils across the globe noting the lack of black models on the  runway and challenging them to do better.

Hardison stood by her message and was not afraid to drop the names of designers she knew were not casting black models. After her letter several designers including Calvin Klein, Rodarte, and Rag & Bone made efforts t include more black models in their line up.

Since the letter many have aided Harrison with her message including Iman, Beverly Johnson, and Naomi Campbell. However, many ask what about the designers who use black models? Here is the root of the problem, how many Black models are in the business? And of that group you manage to see the same faces at a time each season.

Competition between Black models is tough considering some designers only cast one model of color as if to meet quota and argue that they are diverse. One Black model, and a sprinkle of Asian models are not going to cut it. Young model, Chanel Iman was once quoted in the Times of London recapping memories of being turned away by designers. Chanel even noted being told, “We already have one Black girl. We don’t need you.”

Last season, designer Rick Owens used all Black models for his September show. However, many argued that the show had nothing to do with diversity as the designer claimed and was more about the appropriation of a black culture reference and using it for more attention.

All the models featured in the show wore baggy, ill fitted garments, no makeup, wild hair, and grit faces as they yelled and stepped aggressively. While some praised him for being innovative others questioned his authenticity.

When I sat down with Beth Newcomb, a professor in the fashion department of North Carolina A&T, about the state of diversity in the fashion industry she had a lot to say. Newcomb made a valid point that the industry lacks diversity as a whole when it comes to gender, race, and sizing.

 “ The diversity in racial and ethnic background is one that particularly in the mainstream, such as New York Fashion Week, you do not see a lot of diversity. Very few African Americans get the spotlight. It’s not that they are not there, they just do not get the spotlight.”  

When asked if or how this affects the way she teaches fashion at an HBCU she made it very clear that her style does not differ from the way she might teach at an PWI. “ I think that fashion professionals and industry professionals need to have the same set of skills no matter their background,” Newcomb replied.

She does however acknowledge that students do seem to realize if they are going into a sector of the industry where there is little diversity they do have to do things in order to stand out more. Newcomb also noted that she believes that students coming from fashion programs based at an HBCU give them an edge.

“For the fashion industry to be progressive in some things, they really do lag in others,” noted Newcomb.

Fashion is supposed to evolve and be innovative. One of its main priorities is to be with the times. Instead is has not. Industry people of color have been playing in the background for a long time.

Not many are aware that it was a black costume designer, Zelda Wynn Valdes, who created the first-ever Playboy Bunny costume. Anna Cole Lowe, another black fashion designer, was the mastermind behind Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ wedding gown for her nuptials to JFK. Once finally credited she was only mentioned as “a Negro.”

Overall, the strides being made are not in vain. Many designers have stepped up to the plate and challenged the status quo. Others have remained silent.

Bethann Hardison knows that it will take time and consistency. Perhaps one of her greatest quotes on diversity read, “ Diversity is not difficult. The resistance to do so is intriguing.” Her watchful eye is always on the runway.

— Email Kourtney at  [email protected]  and follow her on Twitter @KPOP_OfColour

  • Kourtney Pope Scene Editor