Style-watchers looking to this week's New York Fashion Week for new trends saw that blue and white are hot for spring. But critics were paying attention to another color: the color of the models' faces. A campaign launched by African American model-turned-agent-turned-activist Bethann Hardison revived the debate over the lack of diversity on fashion's most high profile catwalks. Her organization The Diversity Coalition sent a letter to Council of Fashion Designers of America – and its sister organizations in Europe – the week before NYFW's kickoff, decrying the lack of minorities on the runway.
"No matter the intention, the result is racism," it said, adding, "Whether it's the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society."
Hardison has stirred the issue before – in 2007 and 2008 she held a series of panels on the issue – but this time she called fashion's biggest designers out by name. The letter listed the 25 American companies that consistently used one or no models of color. Since then, she and her partners in the coalition, including supermodel Naomi Campbell and model-turned-mogul Iman, have been hitting the media circuit. The three appeared on "Good Morning America" earlier this week to air their grievances and other models are speaking out as well. Supermodel Jessica White told the New York Daily News at a Fashion Week event, "Fashion is constantly changing from decade to decade, but I don't see a change in how many black faces I see on the runway, and it's something we should talk about because it's a problem."
The numbers back up the coalition's claims. Jezebel crunched the numbers after the previous New York Fashion Week last spring, finding that more than 80 percent of the shows' looks were worn by white models and that 13 designers had completely white runways. Since Jezebel began collecting data in 2008, designers have shown little improvement in making their shows more diverse. But, according to some speaking out about the issue now, it hasn't always been that way. Iman, who began her career in the 1970s, told GMA, "There were more black models working then, than it is happening in 2013."
"It really started in 1996, when I left the industry. The girl of color disappeared for a whole decade until we began trying to get her back," Hardison said in an interview with Paper Magazine.
Without any decades-spanning studies on the issue, their claims should be taken with a grain of salt, says Ashley Mears, author of "Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model" and a Boston University assistant professor of sociology. "Even then we would still find there's quite a bit of exclusion and narrow def of beauty along racial terms."
Nevertheless, anecdotal trends are often tied to the whitening of the runway, from the end of the supermodel era to the rise of the "waif" look.
Aside from the obvious downfalls, the lack of diversity in the fashion industry has the wide ranging consequences that Jezebel's Jenna Sauers summed up thus:
There are many negative effects of the industry's preference for white skin — within fashion, it forces models of color to compete against each other for the one or two runway spots that might go to a non-white girl, it provides downward pressure on non-white models' wages, and it makes agencies less willing to invest in models of color, given that fewer opportunities mean a lower lifetime earning potential. And outside the industry — because the models who rise to the top of the heap doing runway are the models who go on to do the magazine covers, the cosmetics campaigns, the luxury brand ads, the billboards, and the TV commercials that girls all over the world can't help but grow up consuming — it promotes the idea that beauty means having white skin.
So who's to blame for fashion's blindness to minorities? Designers often blame stylists and booking agents for casting mostly white models, while stylists and booking agents say they're only meeting the demands of the designers. Those in the industry Mears interviewed in her research "would always bemoan the lack of diversity in fashion," she says. "Everyone passes the buck."