“Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches design houses consistently use one or no models of colour. No matter the intention, the result is racism.” Last September, fashion activist and former model Bethann Hardison sent this in a letter to all the governing bodies of Fashion Weeks in London, Milan, New York and Paris. The message was simple: you are not racist, but the act of not using black models is racist.
Earlier in the year, Hardison founded the Diversity Coalition, with Naomi Campbell and Iman. The act of naming and shaming fashion houses that don’t promote ethnic diversity has sent a much needed message to the industry.
Jezebel.com has conducted a racial diversity report on New York Fashion Week since 2008. Last season they calculated 78.69% of the models walking the runway were white. The previous season, 80% of the models were white, the season before: 83%. These are small improvements, but most of us agree this is not enough; so what is to be done?
All Walks, who are promoting racial diversity through their Diversity NOW! initiative in universities throughout the UK, catch up with fellow diversity advocate Bethann Hardison.
Can you tell us exactly when and why you founded the Diversity Coalition?
We founded it last year, in February 2013. We’re upset by the constant lack of racial diversity and lack of change. A statement that a white casting director made, observing a similar attitude to not using blacks, coloureds, got him targeted. He contacted me and said “It’s time to get back out there.” He knew I was an advocate. We needed to put some light on the situation.
What feedback have you got back from people in the industry regarding the letter you put out?
You don’t hear nothing [sic]. You don’t really hear back directly from any one person. Maybe at the very beginning, the British Fashion Council responded to the first emails with a directive to designers. But no one really calls you. You don’t get responses from the fashion houses directly. The response I get is what I visually see.
Has fashion become more diverse since you sent the letter, last September?
Yes, you saw immediately. At New York Fashion Week it was slightly improved. London does what it does but it’s very difficult because it’s a small market and there’s not that many girls of colour that are always over there that you can pick from. Milan did very very well, it was great to us, it was really surprising. And Paris always has its moments of trying to get it together.
Naomi Campbell has said diversity is getting worse.
She was saying that reflective of any time before 2013. She was speaking about what she was looking at, at the beginning of 2013 and reflecting backwards, not that it’s gotten worse since the coalition made a point.
Could you tell us about your experiences as a model and any prejudice you have encountered?
I came up in the 70s and there was none. Back in those days runway models and print models were separate, it was two different worlds. The runway models were fashion designer’s models and the print girls just did editorial, catalogue and advertising, they didn’t work with the designers. It was a different time. The 70s was mad cool, it was right off the civil rights movement. It was a time when New York was really happening and so many interesting designers were around and everyone was interested in anyone who had style.
Why are designers so reluctant to use racially diverse models?
You don’t know what the reluctance is; if it’s psychological, or whether it’s something that they just don’t see happening around them. You don’t exactly know the reason why, but you know that it needs to start to shift. Sometimes when I look now, you see that there are design houses that are really embracing and using girls of colour. But there are a couple of houses that have their feet in the sand and you think wow, they really don’t get it. You wonder why; sometimes of course we have the effects of casting directors, but you wonder what is in the psyche of the design house that doesn’t take that responsibility.
How do you feel about people citing ‘creative freedom’ to not cast racially diverse models?
Creative freedom has nothing to do with choice of model, creative freedom would be how you put your collection together – who you present it on should be a conscious decision because of society and be something you feel responsible to do.
If you were open minded you would look to see what models are around. If you are closed minded you will stay in one lane. Even if you don’t think that you are racially charged, the results are racially charged. If you’re not going to use an American Indian, an eastern Indian, anyone out of the huge continent of Asia, if you are not going to use anyone of brown skin, we’re gonna think there’s something going on with you.
How does the word tokenism make you feel? Brands can use this as an excuse not use black models.
People do just one [coloured model]. You’ve got 35 selections, so try to hurt yourself, use two, there are some pretty girls out there now, and American Vogue is showing it. American Vogue in January introduced us to a beautiful new girl, and they are going to continue. It’s going to be like that and start to shift. When Jil Sander used one girl of colour last season in Milan, I was so impressed. People in the Coalition were so tickled about how excited I was about using just one. Armani opened and closed with a girl of colour, and Prada used five, but I know because Jil Sander was a big client of mine, that she never used any ever in her history, so to me, that was a step. You should embrace it and start to understand that it’s healthy – mentally, spiritually, and physically – for what we see to be diverse. You don’t have to make it 50/50, or 70/30, but you should definitely start to embrace it, because you’ll start to see how things will feel better.
Do you think that fashion still empowers the individual?
I don’t know if fashion empowers people. It’s a very glamorous business because it’s part of pop culture now, before it was an isolated little island that only those that were in the industry participated in it. Now you have people outside of our industry or who are privy to it. Now it is very glamorous to say that you are in the fashion industry, but I think for those that are actually doing it daily, it’s a grind.
Do you think that fashion helps our self-esteem? There are a lot of images of unattainable beauty put out.
That’s where it has gotten bad. What’s happened is because it has mainstreamed, fashion has become responsible for those who are a different size, and the fact that anorexia is happening. If you don’t see yourself in the pages, does that mean that you shouldn’t buy the product, being a girl of colour? I think fashion takes a huge hit that it shouldn’t take.
Are there any fashion cities that you think are more ahead than others with diversity? What is your opinion on London and diversity?
I don’t think certain cities are ahead, but I think certain cities – like New York would have to be, as New York is in America, and it has a history of black culture because of slavery and all of those things, we have a little bit more leverage. Whereas the other countries are not based on that culture. Milan has barely a black population. You don’t walk down the streets in Milan and see lots of black people integrated like you do in Manhattan. You don’t see them in the stores buying things, they are not Jay Z and P Diddy, you don’t really see that in Milan.
Do you think it should be representative of the city?
I think diversity should be representative of a global attention. I think that you look at what’s going on and modernise your mentality. Don’t book a girl of colour because she’s of colour, book a girl of colour because you look to see who will fit well in your campaign. And do it, do one, two, three, and see how much better it will be. When you look at the advertising, never in the history of fashion modelling have this many girls had advertising with fashion houses.
So you’re very optimistic?
I’m not very optimistic, let’s take it down a notch, let’s just say there’s hope. When I saw American Vogue in January, I was impressed. In New York diversity is improving because we are saturated with everything; it’s a very mosaic city. Because of the diversity initiative, people heard it and people are moving with it and trying to adjust, because no one wants to be brought up living in the land of racism.
I wish Paris would get better. But London needs a shot of models going over. I had a wonderful talk with Natalie [Massenet], the head of the British Fashion Council, and she said if you can help us get these girls over here, I bet you 10 to one you will see a better infusion. I do believe that. New girls are not going to spend dollars to go to London to go to castings. It’s costly and they can’t afford it.If someone of power takes charge, people follow, our industry is led by the energy of others. I am delighted in that sense. I hope it becomes more permanent, and something we don’t have to talk about anymore.
Elspeth Merry is a recent University of the Arts London Journalism graduate. She was Features Editor of her University newspaper Arts London News, and is the Features Assistant at 1883 Magazine. She has also written for the Huffington Post and spent last summer in New York writing for Zink Magazine.