In­dus­try is fi­nally fig­ur­ing out in­clu­siv­ity — in ways that mat­ter

Windsor Star - - YOU - ROBIN GIVHAN The Wash­ing­ton Post

The fashion in­dus­try has be­come more di­verse, more in­clu­sive. More open. It is less them-vs.-you. It is us.

Yes, fashion still has its flaws. De­sign­ers of­ten still have tun­nel vi­sion. The in­dus­try still makes head-smack­ing gaffes. There are far too many cases of pro­found in­sen­si­tiv­ity and cav­a­lier cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion. (Will those Kar­dashi­ans ever learn?)

But in the past decade, it has opened its doors to more peo­ple of colour, plus-size women, trans­gen­der women and those who sim­ply don’t fit the in­dus­try’s clas­sic def­i­ni­tion of beauty. Most im­por­tantly, fashion is talk­ing about di­ver­sity in more nu­anced ways — and learn­ing from its mis­takes.

Two years ago, Brandice Hen­der­son, who de­scribes her­self as a “fashion coach,” was hav­ing din­ner with five de­sign­ers. They were all up-and-com­ers, lauded by fashion mag­a­zines, who had dressed an as­sort­ment of fa­mous women. The scene was typ­i­cal for New York with one sig­nif­i­cant ex­cep­tion: All five of de­sign­ers were black. This is no small thing. Four years ago, five women walked into IMG Mod­els and im­me­di­ately im­pressed the com­pany’s pres­i­dent, Ivan Bart. One of them es­pe­cially stood out. Her name was Ash­ley Gra­ham and she was plus-sized. But as Bart put it: “A star is a star is a star.” Gra­ham has gone on to be­come the rare model who is known by name well out­side the in­su­lated world of fashion. She is not a plus-size suc­cess story; she is, quite sim­ply, a suc­cess. This is no small thing, ei­ther. In 2017, Vogue ran count­less photo sto­ries cel­e­brat­ing Hol­ly­wood stars and cul­tural fig­ures, but it also pub­lished vis­ual es­says on Lati­nas in Los An­ge­les, Al­pha Kappa Al­pha soror­ity sis­ters, les­bian mod­els and black ser­vice­women. This is sig­nif­i­cant, too. Dur­ing the past decade, the New York fashion in­dus­try has been in up­heaval over the sub­ject of di­ver­sity, or the lack of it. The most egre­gious ex­am­ples were on the run­ways: in the mid-2000s, for in­stance, high-end fashion was for ema­ci­ated white teenagers.

There were no ed­i­tors-in-chief of ma­jor fashion pub­li­ca­tions who were black. The ris­ing gen­er­a­tion of de­sign­ers who had cap­tured the in­dus­try’s at­ten­tion were mostly white — some­times Asian, but rarely black, Latino or even fe­male. Plus-size women were not even part of the fashion con­ver­sa­tion.

In 2007, ac­tivist Bethann Hardi­son or­ga­nized a town-hall meet­ing to start a con­ver­sa­tion about fashion’s wors­en­ing di­ver­sity problem. In 2013, she tracked de­sign­ers’ hir­ing prac­tices and pub­li­cized the re­sults. The lack of in­clu­sive­ness was strik­ing. And Hardi­son un­flinch­ingly called such prac­tices “racist.”

Now, the in­dus­try looks sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent from the days of clone-like waifs and golden-haired muses. There is greater recog­ni­tion that fashion needs to change.

Last year, af­ter de­signer Marc Ja­cobs fea­tured mod­els — many of them white — wear­ing fan­ci­ful dread­locks in his spring 2017 run­way show, so­cial me­dia lit up in anger be­cause of his fail­ure to ac­knowl­edge the hair­style’s his­tory within black com­mu­ni­ties. Six months later, his fall 2017 show was an ode to hip hop; he cast mostly mod­els of colour and in­cluded show notes laud­ing the in­flu­ence of black youth.

Fashion has also had sev­eral land­mark mo­ments: A black man has been ap­pointed ed­i­tor-inchief of Bri­tish Vogue and a black woman is at the helm of Teen Vogue. Joan Smalls, who was born in Puerto Rico, be­came Estée Lauder’s first Latina spokesmodel. French Vogue fea­tured a trans­gen­der model on its cover.

There are more mod­els of colour on ma­jor run­ways. A range of de­sign­ers have in­cluded plus-size mod­els and older women in shows and ad­ver­tis­ing. A more di­verse group of de­sign­ers, in­clud­ing four black men, make up the 10 fi­nal­ists vy­ing for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award. Women are also well­rep­re­sented.

“I think fashion is be­com­ing more de­moc­ra­tized,” says Hen­der­son — for con­sumers as well as those hop­ing for a ca­reer in the in­dus­try.

As fashion de­sign­ers un­veil their spring 2018 col­lec­tions over the next few weeks, it will be an op­por­tu­nity to see whether fashion’s for­ward tra­jec­tory con­tin­ues or stalls. “There’s a con­sen­sus about hav­ing an in­clu­sive run­way,” says Bart. “I’m hope­ful at this stage.”

Bart has been work­ing in fashion for 30 years, and the first model he rep­re­sented, back in 1986, was a young black woman who was part Rus­sian. When a jew­elry com­pany was look­ing to hire some­one “tall, pretty and ef­fer­ves­cent,” Bart sug­gested her. The com­pany hemmed and hawed and “fi­nally said, ‘We’re not look­ing for black peo­ple.’ “I dropped the phone.” He ul­ti­mately got her the job af­ter trav­el­ling to per­son­ally show them her portfolio.

Af­ter Hardi­son’s 2007 town hall, Bart con­sid­ered his place in the fashion business. As the head of one of the in­dus­try’s larger agen­cies, with a ros­ter in­clud­ing Smalls, Kate Moss and a host of celebri­ties, he de­cided to help lead the way.

“I think the in­dus­try got lazy,” Bart says. “We’ve got to start telling (clients) what they need. When peo­ple say no, we have to tell them why they’re wrong.”

That’s why he de­cided not to sim­ply tar­get Gra­ham for the plus­size mar­ket, but for wom­enswear in gen­eral. On the com­pany’s web­site, she and fel­low plus-size mod­els Candice Huffine and Mar­quita Pring are not seg­re­gated in a sep­a­rate cat­e­gory or called “plus­sized.” They are sim­ply mod­els.

What the fashion in­dus­try does is im­por­tant to the broader cul­ture, Bart says. He re­called ac­tress Lupita Ny­ong ’o’s heart­felt speech at a Black Women in Hol­ly­wood Lun­cheon in 2014 about find­ing val­i­da­tion of her own dark-skinned beauty in the im­ages of Su­dane­se­born model Alek Wek, who IMG signed some 20 years ago.

“It’s OK if peo­ple are re­sis­tant,” Bart says. “They will change if you stay the course.”

The web­site the Fashion Spot, which tracks di­ver­sity on the run­way, has tal­lied about 30 per cent non-white mod­els in re­cent sea­sons. There are mod­els in hi­jabs, mod­els with vi­tiligo, mod­els with phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties.

The Vogue web­site has be­come a more di­verse, global ex­pe­ri­ence than the print mag­a­zine, speak­ing to “more peo­ple and dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” says Sally Singer, cre­ative dig­i­tal di­rec­tor. It even reads as if it is writ­ten by a va­ri­ety of voices that share a com­mon in­ter­est, rather than the sin­gle voice of print.

The in­ter­net is also broad­en­ing the ranks of de­sign­ers. Ten years ago, Hen­der­son founded Har­lem’s Fashion Row, a pro­duc­tion com­pany aimed at sup­port­ing mul­ti­cul­tural de­sign­ers.

Back then, “I could barely count three de­sign­ers of colour ... get­ting the at­ten­tion of the fashion in­dus­try,” Hen­der­son says. To­day, she can rat­tle off nearly a dozen. So­cial me­dia and e-com­merce have low­ered the bar­ri­ers to suc­cess, mak­ing it eas­ier for de­sign­ers to con­nect di­rectly with cus­tomers.

De­sign­ers can mar­ket them­selves around the globe with a sin­gle web­site and an In­sta­gram ac­count. If an ac­cept­ing au­di­ence isn’t in New York, Los An­ge­les or a smaller U.S. city, per­haps there’s one in Sin­ga­pore or Qatar.

“For de­sign­ers 10 years ago, it was just all about the art. They didn’t want to hear any­thing business-wise,” Hen­der­son says. “I was dif­fer­ent, too. Some­thing in the econ­omy woke us up.”


The fall 2017 ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign for the Calvin Klein 205W39NYC col­lec­tion by Raf Si­mons of­fered a nod to­ward a di­verse Amer­i­cana.


Top: Mod­els of all sizes were part of de­signer Pra­bal Gu­rung’s fall 2017 show. Cen­tre and above: Mod­els walk the run­way as part of Alexan­der Wang’s fall-win­ter 2017 col­lec­tion.



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