The (not so) Many Shades of Fashion

How diverse is the fashion industry?

The fashion industry has yet to catch up with societal strides to promote racial integration. The optimistic side of us likes to think that the expressive nature of the industry yields diverse models; however our favorite designers seem to be light years behind the curve, to a disheartening degree.

At the 2013 International Fashion Week, the models were 87.6% white. Only 6.5% of the models were black, 6.1% Asian, 2.1% Hispanic, and less than 1% were of another non-white race. A number of the designers had absolutely no models of color in their shows. This homogeneous pattern continues with the models featured in magazines, advertisements, and billboards.

I do want to note that not everyone in fashion turns a blind eye to these upsetting inequalities. Top designers including Diane von Furstenberg, Zac Posen, and Oscar de la Renta cast diverse models in their print advertisements and for the runway. There were also sparks of hope when Vogue Italia did an all-black issue in 2010 which was heralded as the future of fashion. Vogue continues to celebrate diversity by selecting white and non-white models in print and on their websites. Unfortunately, other mainstream publications have yet to join this movement so Vogue stands to be the only major fashion magazine to materialize some level of racial diversity.

Why ignoring diversity in fashion is problematic

I take issue with this lack of diversity for a number of reasons. For many, the fashion industry sets the standard for beauty so ignoring diversity sends the message that other races are not attractive and not worthy to participate in an industry that impacts most, if not all of us. This also propagates a sense of white superiority and can negatively influence a person of color’s self-esteem and for some who are young and impressionable, indoctrinate self-hate. The absence of diversity in fashion can impact all youth by creating dissonance in their identity and undermining relationships with peers from different backgrounds. I argue that this industry is more than the promotion of clothing trends; many, young and old, look to the fashion industry for validation and draw conclusions about society based on the campaigns of this industry.

The fashion industry’s neglect of diversity can harm the “self” and bleeds into all of our communities. If our media only shows one type of person and community, it makes it even harder to abort racial discrimination and advocate for integration in our neighborhoods and in other institutions. Representing only one race of people echoes a false portrayal of our society. This should not be a burdensome task that the industry takes on; diverse models and designers will enhance the depth and artistic expression of fashion. It is time that the fashion industry change its way of thinking.

Many experts believe that in addition to calling for more diversity within model casting, the industry needs non-white representation all over the board — from design teams to merchandisers and publicists — in order to improve attitudes towards diversity. I would go one step further to say that many of our communities are still racially segregated so if we want the fashion industry to be integrated and to be a true reflection of our society, we need more integrated neighborhoods.

Fashion has world-wide attention and the means to make a positive impact. We need to start a dialogue between integration advocates and this area of the media. To have diversity within fashion would be beautiful not only because it is esthetically pleasing, but also because it helps society to move out of the past and into a future which recognizes and celebrates the value of diversity.

By Morgan P. Davis, Fair Housing Policy Director