In recent years, words like "diversity" and "visibility" have been tossed around the fashion industry in the efforts to calm the justified complaints of neglected demographics of talented individuals. People are becoming more and more aware that an alarming majority of designers tend to present their latest collections while casting clone-like models that fit outdated standards of beauty and today, some of the most successful models are as venerated as the superstars they hang out with, for daring to flaunt a "different" shape, size, or skin colour in the ruthless domain of fashion. And while this marks a step in the right direction towards broader and more accurate representation, the image of a mostly Caucasian casts on the runway still prevails.
With this dilemma in mind, it is interesting to see many designers recently opting to go the other way entirely, exclusively casting people of colour, almost as a slap in the face to the industry's whitewashed norms. Think of designers like Kanye West and Grace Wales Bonner who both managed to create a high fashion appeal and sophistication to their respective urban (and no, by urban I don't necessarily mean black) and African inspired collections, while exclusively selecting stunning models of colour. When you look at Wales Bonner’s collections, it’s no wonder she was selected for the LVMH Young Designer Prize. Her clothing and ethos is a breath of fresh air in the fashion industry, as is her decision to cast models of colour not just in the hopes of adding a little melanin to her collection, but to make them central characters in her tale of dark-skinned emperors and empresses in tweed suits amidst a high grass savannah-like background on the runway. Designers like Bonner didn't just use black models with European features either, she featured men and women with broader noses, and more voluminous lips.
This highlights another issue that can occur – that of fetishizing dark and/or brown skin. You'll often find that designers will pick models of colour not because of their ability, experience, or appeal, but because their skin tone goes well with a certain outfit or the roundness of their lips makes a lipstick really pop, or worse yet, they look “exotic.” The danger with this form of tokenization is that this prevents models from escaping the tight mold that they are confined to; the stereotyped image of what a black or Asian or Hispanic model can lead to a prejudiced perspective on P.O.C. in general.
This prejudice is oftentimes mixed with inaccurate representation. When designers pay homage to rock & roll or punk, they by and large cast white girls with shaved heads or shaggy mullets to conjure the image of the culture they are representing. On the flip side, if a designer were to pay homage to the Rastafarian culture, or hip hop culture, or disco-funk culture, wouldn’t it be logical to feature black models who already had dreads or afros, instead of hiring fairer-skinned blonde models only to add on fake extensions or wigs? Forget about the fact that a culture is best represented by its own people; forget even going near "culture appropriation" yet, and imagine the sheer effort involved in ‘faking’ the desired look. If we isolate ourselves from the (totally valid, very important) ethical arguments, pragmatically and economically speaking, cultural appropriation is also much more expensive and time-consuming than accurate representation is, and doesn’t even hold a candle to the ‘real deal’ anyways.
On the topic of representation, it has been almost a decade since Italian Vogue debuted their first-ever black issue where they exclusively featured gorgeous models like Liya Kibede, Alek Wek, Jourdan Dunn and many more. At the time it was published, the fashion industry was thrown into an explosive frenzy of mixed emotions; some saw this as a step towards an overdue all-out integration of P.O.C. on the international fashion market, while others (perhaps those who still question the importance of Black History Month, but not their own privilege when they go out chanting #ALLLIVESMATTER), saw this as a form of exclusion and a form of favouritism. One thing that is for sure is that most people were surprised to see an institution as commercially prevalent as Vogue being bold enough to represent where representation was due.
Also, one thing we can't forget is that the problem isn't all black and white. When we talk about diversity, especially in the United States, we think of a casting call that ends with equal parts black models, equal parts white models. But the issue of diversity is so much more vast than that. There's the issue of colourism within the black community and of course there is a whole world of models from a variety of ethnicities who are often left out of the conversation altogether. Whatever happened to the Hispanic models, the Asian models, the Middle Eastern models, or the Albino models? Kenzo’s Menswear SS18 runway featured an all-Asian cast, reminding bookers that if you actually want to provide accurate representation, you can’t forget about a demographic that makes up 40% of the world’s population. Unfortunately, these categories of P.O.C. usually don't even make into the great debate of visibility and are often put in the background or replaced by those who attempt to duplicate and appropriate their physical traits. But in order to fully address the issue of visibility, it is also important to include all races and ethnicities that are cast aside by Western beauty standards. The fact that we talk about quotas for the minimum amount of models of colour on the runway should not occur. Because when there’s a minimum, there’s also a maximum, meaning that when a designer is obliged to put models of colour on the runway, they usually don't make up the majority of the cast. They are put as short highlight and it generally their skin tone that serves as an accessory on its own. There is also a tendency to preference models of colour who still reflect some semblance of Eurocentric ideals, like having lighter skin or softer curls.
The fact that a show is often deemed newsworthy due to its selection of mainly non-white models proves that the issue is ongoing, and that we still aren’t a point where inclusion is the norm. The day we stop doing a double-take every time a runway is filled with men and women of all shapes and shades is the goal. The day we abolish any great debate on why a certain designer chose to cast outside the normative criteria of poker-face, Caucasian, slim-thin will be the day we can finally consider visibility and diversity a done deal. Designers shouldn’t get a pat on the back for fulfilling the most basic criteria of decency and inclusion; it should just be the expectation.
Main image c/o Marc Jacobs