Saturday, 30 June 2012

Has Vogue Italia's Black Issue Changed Anything? Part 3: Views on 'Blackface'

If you've been following my blog posts about the need for diversity in the fashion world, you'll know that it's time for the third and final part of the series (and those of you who've not seen part 1 and part 2 can quickly catch up!). Now it's time for some more analysis, with help from, Sola Oyebade of Mahogany Model Management, and academic Carol Tulloch.

Models on the catwalk, and how this is inextricably linked to editorial content

It is also vital to consider the impact of catwalk shows on editorial content, because models that are frequently booked for the catwalk will also be used heavily in magazines, particularly those crowned ‘the next big thing’. Fashion shows are a great place to analyse the industry’s attitude to racial inclusion, especially as the designers themselves decide who will walk and who has the right look of the season. It is therefore unsurprising, in light of what I have previously discussed, that few designers actively support racial minorities on their catwalks and most are reluctant to discuss why this should be the case.

The website Jezebel has painstakingly analysed New York Fashion Week’s models in terms of ethnic origin and has written profusely on the findings. It transpires that non-white visibility has always been incredibly low and makes only small increases each season. By looking at the diagrams for the Spring/Summer 2011 shows provided by Jezebel, as seen below, it is easy to analyse the scale of the problem in the modelling industry. 

Analysis of ethnic origins and minority representation at New York Fashion Week
 [Image via]

As the image depicts, Spring/Summer 2011 was still a heavily Caucasian affair, with 81.8% of show models belonging to that racial category. Catwalk reports revealed that many shows shared the same non-white models, so their figure of 18.2% could be even worse than previously suspected as the number of non-white models hired will not be as great as 18.2% in total. The accompanying graphic proves to us that the use of non-white models is not improving year by year, as the media would often like us to believe, and indeed it seems to fluctuate. Obviously with black models occupying 4.9% in Fall/Winter 2008 and 8.4% in Spring/Summer 2011 then promising results can be achieved, but this is not to say that the statistics will not decrease next season. There is no sure sign of improvement to be seen in these statistics and no way of predicting the racial diversity of the Fall/Winter 2011 shows in New York, or indeed any other fashion capital, because there are no guarantees here. One could have easily predicted a sharp rise in the number of models of African descent following Barack Obama’s electoral victory at the beginning of 2009 (looking at the Fall/Winter 2010 statistics compared to those of Fall/Winter 2009), but the increase here was only 0.5%. New York Fashion Week designers clearly have no great desire to jump on the Barack Obama bandwagon in terms of genuine ethnic visibility. 
Britain is not immune to such racial discrimination regarding its models, and several modelling agency C.E.Os have stood against the grain and campaigned for change. Two of these would be Carole White, of Premier Model Management, and Sola Oyebade. Sola, the founder of Mahogany Model Management, based the company around the motto ‘Injecting colour into mainstream fashion’. Mahogany aims to properly represent people of colour in the modelling industry and Oyebade has also become affiliated with the annual Top Model of Colour awards. He has protested against London Fashion Week’s lack of ethnicity, saying that the organisers ‘refuse to put a fair proportion of models of colour on the catwalk... London Fashion Week & the British Fashion Council are blatantly open about the "industry Apartheid" they are practising’ (2008). In response, a spokesperson for the British Fashion Council (BFC) suggested that it is a designer’s responsibility to choose their own models and the BFC has no control over ‘the aesthetic’ of a show. However the BFC offered to write to the designers ‘to remind them of the culturally diverse community we live in when casting models for their shows and ensuring that those models truly reflect that diversity’. They also reminded Oyebade that ‘Model of the Year at the British Fashion Awards 2008 went to Jourdan Dunn, highlighting the role she is playing in increasing the profile of black models’ which, though a brilliant achievement for Dunn, hardly indicates a seismic shift in the attitude of the fashion industry as a whole. 

Meanwhile, Carole White has been working as a modelling agent for many years and ‘after a brief golden age in the Eighties and Nineties, Ms White's analysis suggests that fashion show designers and the industry media have regressed to an earlier, more blinkered approach’ to black models (Sharp, R., 2008). 

What are the detrimental effects of white dominance in fashion?

The fashion industry plays a vital part in the economy and is highly effective at reaching out to consumers and influencing their lives. The clothes we choose to wear every day can often be carefully considered and millions of people consult fashion magazines for advice or inspiration, most notably young women. So what happens when this main audience is presented with racially biased content on a weekly or monthly basis, and it becomes alien to see a non-European face within editorial content?
Carol Tulloch, a research fellow in Black Visual and Material Culture at the V&A, believes that ‘young black people will not struggle to find role models if there are none in fashion magazines, as they can use other outlets. These days there’s YouTube, internet forums and all kinds of music channels which will give them a chance to learn about black culture.’ However, she admits that ‘black women are under-used in fashion’ and greater visibility would be a positive change (to Polly Allen, 2010). 

Even one of the most prominent and successful black models, Naomi Campbell, is little-used in fashion magazines and her personal problems often overshadow her working life. Whilst Campbell appeared on the cover of Interview magazine and the key fashion shoot was staged around her, the narrative of this shoot detracted from the positivity of her prominence. Interview magazine chose to show Campbell as a dominatrix, subjecting her male companion to violence and humiliation, which seemed to painfully echo her real-life reputation as an aggressive woman who has been frequently accused of physically abuse her own staff. This overshadows Campbell’s position as a role model to many non-white women, which was discussed in the accompanying interview by Tony Shafrazi, along with her humanitarian work. 

Naomi Campell smokes a cigarette in controversial Interview magazine photoshoot
 Naomi Cambell for Interview Magazine, 2010, shot by Mert & Marcus. 
[Image via]

Carol Tulloch, like many other academics specialising in black culture, believes that ‘Naomi Campbell broke barriers – I know it’s a bit of a cliché to say that, but she did such a lot for black women, especially when she worked with photographers such as Ray Petri, who used black models when not many others would’ (to Polly Allen, 2010). The photo shoot in Interview magazine does not present Campbell as breaking any barriers beyond those of taste.  

What conclusions can we draw from this? 

As the journalist Nell Frizzell questioned, ‘Will the recession make publishers, advertisers and editors even more wary of having black people in their magazines?’ and it is honestly difficult to tell. Publishers are genuinely suffering in the recession, but knowing the success of the Black Issue, maybe greater non-white visibility would gain readers for a magazine as well as media exposure and revenue. However, there is the opposite risk of magazines using the recession as an excuse for not using black figures, leaving them to “play it safe” with Caucasian-filled pages. 

The way forward, as I see it, would be to start with the catwalk and then magazines will follow accordingly. Robin Givhan, blogging for the Washington Post, admitted that ‘Sure, it would be nice to have a veritable United Nations on the runway. But this is fashion and it's all about personal vision, not we-shall-overcome’ (2008). If the designers begin to see non-white people in their creative vision then our fashion magazines will be the first to jump on that particular trend. Yet model aesthetics do not change as rapidly as the seasons of fashion; Supermodels held court for the 80s and 90s until the waif look arrived with grunge, and that malnourished look has remained popular for the majority of catwalk stars ever since. With every attempt at differentiation on the catwalk, waves of scandal have followed, so it’s hardly surprising that ethnicity will not be embraced overnight. 

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. 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.  

What do you think - is it time for things to change? Let me know.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...