As part of an ongoing series taken from an essay I wrote to examine the lack of non-white visibility in fashion media, I feel it's only right to begin with one of the biggest game changers in terms of racial diversity for the industry: Vogue Italia's Black Issue, published in 2008. I've been longing to get my hands on this for quite some time as I feel that racial identity is one of the most important fashion issues that we face. I would love to see magazines and catwalk shows looking beyond the Caucasian idea of beauty and realising that they need to end their tunnel vision.
The fashion industry has never been short of controversy; in fact it tends to revel in shocking the public and going one step further than you ever thought possible. Yet this is also an industry which perpetuates myths about the ideal male and female figure, prompting the media to be horrified at the link between anorexia and fashion magazines, and rightly so. However the same level of press coverage and alarm has not been applied to the issue of racism in fashion, either because the public believes it to be acceptable or it just doesn’t care when a non-white model cannot find work or a European girl is painted black because it is preferable to hiring a non-Caucasian person. Luckily, one fashion publication decided to give non-white women the attention they deserve with the release of the July 2008 edition of Vogue Italia, which was (whether proudly or insensitively) dubbed ‘The Black Issue’, led by pioneering editor Franca Sozzani. That title is indicative of both the magazine’s content and the actual ‘issue’ or problem it is tackling head-on: racial diversity.
The Black Issue’s most obvious difference from other fashion magazines is that it has four alternative cover stars, all of whom are not white. Typically if a magazine does harbour a black cover star then the issue will have several alternative covers, giving the traditionalist consumer that “safe” option of a white model. Instead, Vogue Italia has used Jourdan Dunn (of African British origin), Liya Kebede (Ethiopian), Sessilee Lopez (Dominican, African-American and Portuguese) and Naomi Campbell (Afro-Jamaican and Chinese). Furthermore these cover stars did not deter the buying public; in fact, the issue is ‘the first in Condé Nast’s history to be reprinted to satisfy demand’. It is also a little-known truth that Vogue’s worst-selling issue did not feature a black woman on the cover and it was in fact Gwyneth Paltrow failing to shift copies at the newsstands.
The articles within this issue varied from the awkwardly-titled ‘Hair So Frizzy’ beauty feature to a highly insightful opinion piece by Robin Givhan on black models in today’s magazines. Givhan’s attack was well organised and reasoned. She wrote that ‘Fashion trends change like the tide, but the high tide of black models appears to have been a really long time ago’. The crux of this article came when Givhan posed the question, ‘why should the lack of black models not matter?’ (2008). This question struck me, as a reader in 2012, as something which still hasn’t fully been answered, and which I hope to determine in the course of this essay. Givhan may have decided that ‘we may not ever find out the exact cause’, but I hope this will not be the case.
The immediate response to Vogue Italia’s Black Issue
The Black Issue was met with mixed views and a lot of press coverage, which definitely caused more people to think about the over-population of white models and cover stars in fashion magazines. Many journalists hailed its publication as a sign that things were changing in society and minds were most definitely broadening, but others saw the edition as tokenism and fully expected future issues of the Vogue magazine family to revert to racism. The academic Priyamvada Gopal, writing for the Guardian, insisted that ‘the regular issue remains determinedly white’ and that the Black Issue itself contained ‘barely even a mop of curly hair. This is black-girls-as-white-girls: all aquiline noses, large eyes, oval faces’ (2008). Gopal is right to address the styling of non-white women in a traditionally white publication, as this is something which has angered many black consumers for being forced to conform to white standards of beauty.
Sola Oyebade, the owner of Mahogany Model Management and the head of the Black BUT Invisible campaign, said that:
‘Things seemed to improve for a while after the Black Issue, but they have now gone back to how they were before. This was very noticeable at London Fashion Week, as well as within the various top fashion magazines. The Black Issue has not permanently increased the visibility of people of colour within magazines; as I see it, publishers have tried to get round the colour problem by using mainly black celebrities. So in other words they can claim that black people appear in magazines and if they have to use them then they might as well be celebrities, to maximise the potential income for the publisher.’
In the words of Sessilee Lopez, ‘I’m hopeful that one day the industry will see that black — in all its shades — is beautiful’ (Blay, 2010). In light of Vogue Italia’s Black Issue it is evident that using non-Caucasian models does not damage circulation figures in the slightest, and consumers are clearly supportive of diversity in fashion magazines and on the catwalk. There is no real excuse not to take a leap of faith and give the public what it deserves, which is a fashion industry that won’t just take the money of ethnic minorities, but will represent them and acknowledge them as fashionable too, as Vogue Italia proved. Homogenous content is unremarkable and incredibly lazy in an industry which defines itself on being inspirational and creative, and it is time to move on, with editors like Franca Sozzani taking the lead and showing the rest of us how it's done.
Look out for part 2 of this series, where I'll be examining how damaging fashion editorial can be when it misrepresents black and Asian communities and perpetuates the insensitive stereotype of 'Blackface'.