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."
Mears says it comes down to industry perceptions of what those in the runway audience – high-end buyers, elite style-makers and the fashion press – expect. "What [agents and stylists] would say in round-about ways is that nonwhite women, particularly black women, are incompatible with a high-end look," she says, adding the catalogs and mainstream magazines are often more diverse in their casting, as they are aimed at a broader audience.
When minorities are included, critics say, it comes with a flash of tokenism, a reality even those in the industry admit.
"Tokenism does exist on the runways, that's why Calvin Klein will put one black girl in their show every odd season," casting director James Scully told Buzzfeed, " They do it to not get in trouble, they don't do it because they believe black women should be on that runway. "
The very few minority models who do break through may actually benefit from this effect. "When [a nonwhite model] is deemed the right kind of what I call 'the high end ethnic,' that woman will work quite a bit," Mears says. But it certainly hurts those trying to get their foot in the door. Agencies will tell them, "We already have a dark skin black girl, we only need one" or "we already have an Alek Wek," according to Mears. "Their looks will be defined by their race in a way that white women's won't," she says.
The CFDA was reportedly receptive to the Diversity Coalitions's criticisms, and says it has and will continue to push for more diversity. (Council president Diane von Furstenberg's fashion house is regarded as having one of the better records on the issue). In the past, however, designers have resisted, claiming the choice of their models reflects aesthetic choice, not racism, and they have the right to artistic freedom.
Market forces may have their effect in race and casting choices. "There was a moment when designers decided to put a lot of Asian girls in just because the Asian market was strong and they gave a lot of money to designers," casting director Barbara Nicoli told Buzzfeed.
However, critics maintain diversity should be about more than just market appeal, and the Diversity Coalition letter pointedly says that the lack of models of color "can no longer be accepted, or confused by the use of the Asian model."
Clicking through the Style.com slides of this week's shows, the designers the Diversity Coalition called out improved on their records. Whether by their own volition or responding to the recent scrutiny, most cleared the letter's minimum bar, including at least two or three African-American models in their shows. The attention now turns to the upcoming Fashion Weeks in Europe where the problem is considered even worst. A leader of the French fashion industry called the letter "unreasonable" and the head of the Italian Chamber of Fashion says the council "suggests to fashion companies to avoid discrimination, but it can't impose anything."
Mears thinks that it will take more than just a media campaign to change perceptions. She suggests that models may need to use collective pressure to make basic labor demands. "Even as I am saying this, I am having trouble imagining what this would look like," she admits.
"It's not simply a matter of changing people's hearts and minds," she says.