Though strides have been made in recent years to address the lack of colour on the runways, race remains a touchy subject within the fashion industry.
In an effort to tackle the issue head on, the Council of Fashion designers of America (CFDA) held a panel discussion in New York recently on the subject led by industry activist Bethann Hardison. With heavyweights like Prabal Gurung, Edward Emninful, casting director Anita Britton, Elle’s Samira Nasr and Laird+Partners’ Hans Dorsinville participating in the conversation, the scene was set for a lively exchange, through the resulting candid manner in which the talk played out.
“It has been something that concerns me as I grew up in the industry,” Hardison, a pioneer of diversity in fashion said at the discussion, according to a blog on the CFDA website.
“The fashion industry has struggled a great deal with diversity,” the former model added. “If television can be diversified, so can we.”
Hardison pointed to the late 1980s and early 1990s as a moment in fashion when the ethnic makeup of modeling began to diversify, but that didn’t last long, prompting Naomi Campbell and Talley to approach her with the plea to champion change. The first town hall meeting on the topic was held in 2007.
A takeaway was how different people have different takes on diversity, which can range from models and designers to age and size.
Bitton, a native of England, recalled how, when she started out back home, “It wasn’t a question of race but class. I came to New York very neutral and green. There’s a lot to be said for the word inclusive.”
Enninful said that when he plans a shoot, he looks for a character that fits the concept. “Beauty for me is beauty — whether it’s black or it is Asian, it doesn’t matter for me. I only use whoever is right for the story.”
Dorsinville said there is a “continuum” from runway to advertising—when it’s a mass brand, there is an opportunity to create a campaign feature a diverse group of multiple models, whereas a designer may just be looking for a face – a muse – to represent the brand, limiting options.
Gurung added that “Race is an issue that is not just in fashion. We need to address that immediately. As a designer, I want to work with the best girls, who are the best girls for me. Sometimes, an agent says ‘If you want this black girl, you have to use this white girl,’ whom I may not like.”
“Diversity, not just in race but also age and size, is very important to me,” he added.
Nasr, who is Lebanese and Trinidadian, said the issue of diversity reaches beyond models, and includes the designer community and other professional fashion environments. Addressing the audience, which also included models of diverse backgrounds and modeling agents, she noted, “This is most colorful room I ever seen in the fashion industry, and I want to say if we want to have change, we need to grow this room.”