Why is the Fashion World So White?

Jennifer Lawrence is on the September cover of Vogue, the renowned publication any respectable fashionista considers their bible. While Lawrence is deserving of the honor, there's no escaping the cold reality that she's yet another in a long list of white cover girls. Vogue has a disturbing history of ignoring racial diversity and even notoriously featured white models in black face earlier this year.

What makes the lack of racial diversity in Vogue particularly disheartening is that it echoes a problematic industry standard, and 2013 has been a specifically bad year for white-washed fashion overall.Take February's international Fashion Week: since events are staged in New York, London, Milan, and Paris, one might expect the backgrounds of the models would point to that international diversity. Unfortunately, of all the models who walked in shows this year, a staggering 87.6% were 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.

What's worse is non-white representation at New York Fashion Week has actually decreased this year. In fact, some major designers had no models of color in their shows.

What happened? Some blame the modeling agencies for not fostering people of color in the same way they do whites. This creates a void of experienced multicultural talent, leaving only white models with the training and qualifications to walk the runway. Others point out that fashion is all about "trends," though it seems pretty racist to equate skin color with the little black dress.  

Strangely, though, the trend argument seems to be the biggest excuse for this lack of diversity. Calvin Klein was one of the labels with the distinction of not having used any models of color in its 2013 shows. They could point to their theme — a film about World War II-era Russia — but there are a couple of issues with this. Russia is a vast empire that includes Asiatic regions, so it would stand to reason that Asian models would fit in with this motif. More importantly, the fashion world isn’t exactly a bastion of verisimilitude. Featuring a black model would not endanger the flawless historical accuracy of a Calvin Klein runway show.  

What’s more baffling is when a label chooses a "cultural" theme and then includes only white models, the Araks label did with their Hawaii-inspired show. It seems counterintuitive not to showcase native Hawaiian and Polynesian models, but that’s exactly what they did.

As Vicki Woods told Vogue, homogeneity is the biggest trend. The reason seems to be that there has been a move away from the model-as-personality that characterized the industry through much of the '90s. Then, the models were marquee names — Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell — and the clothes were almost secondary.

We may now be in an era where designers don’t want the clothes to be overshadowed but why does that translate into using only white models?

Likely, racism is at the heart of the issue. Woods points to an unnamed designer that says black women are stereotyped as “too strong for the clothes.” White models therefore make better "hangers" because there’s little risk that their personalities will outshine the clothes.

Of course, there is the requisite tokenism, wherein one non-white girl is featured so designers can say, "See, we are ethnically diverse!"

Chanel Iman, a highly successful biracial model told The Times earlier this year that designers have told her: "'We already found one black girl. We don't need you any more.'"

Her story is not unique. Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, both household names, have revealed they received much the same treatment even as their fame grew in the '90s. They were pitted against one another for high-profile jobs while their top-name white counterparts got to take their pick of assignments. 

Given that society has (somewhat) evolved concerning race since the '90s, why has the fashion industry remained so homogeneous? There were sparks of hope in the late '90s, when Brazilian models rose to prominence. Vogue Italia did an all-black issue in 2010 which was heralded as the future of fashion. That future never materialized.  

For her part, supermodel Iman advocates a boycott of designers like Calvin Klein and Araks. "It feels to me like the times need a real hard line drawn, like in the '60s, by saying if you don't use black models, then we boycott," Iman told Vogue UK.

Whether it’s a boycott or finally putting people of color in positions of influence in fashion, a change is necessary. However, if 2013 is any indication, we're only moving backwards.