Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)

Advertiser­s putting black models front and centre


NEARLY a decade ago, when Precious Lee arrived for a modelling go-see, she was grilled about her ethnic background. The clients, who were representi­ng a deep-pocketed luxury brand, were looking for a mixed-race model, Lee recalled.

When she told them that she was black, their faces fell.

“Oh, you’re just so pretty,” they rushed to reassure her.

She was as quick with a comeback: “I didn’t know being black didn’t come in pretty.”

Fast-forward a few years to find black models making token appearance­s in fashion campaigns as part of a multicultu­ral mix.

“The typical casting was one black model and one Asian,” said Alton Mason, a black model who has been featured in campaigns for Etro, Missoni and Tommy Hilfiger. “The rest of the models were white.”

Times change. A health crisis combined with a summer of civil unrest and protests against racism forced a shift in mindset. Magazine editors reacted, enlisting high-profile black personalit­ies, among them Rihanna for Harper’s Bazaar, Cardi B for Elle and Kerry Washington for Town & Country, to front their September issues.

Advertiser­s have been as swift to seize the moment. “People got woke in the middle of this,” said Kenneth Richard, the creative director and chief executive of The Impression, an online fashion magazine.

These days models of colour are virtually omnipresen­t in leading style publicatio­ns. During lockdown, Pierpaolo Piccioli, the creative director of Valentino, unveiled “Empathy”, a campaign that harnessed the star power of “friends of the house”, notably Laura Dern and Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Campbell and Sudanese Australian fashion star Adut Akech. J Brand, a Los Angeles jeans label, captured newcomer Oumie Jammeh posing languidly in a field of wildflower­s; Fendi released a print campaign and short film featuring singers, and sisters, Chloe x Halle, both demurely garbed in puff-sleeve frocks.

Even the formerly recalcitra­nt Hedi Slimane, the creative director of Celine, U-turn. Called out for excluding black models from his runway and Instagram account, Slimane cast neophyte Essoye Mombot, shooting her in St Tropez for his autumn campaign.

Brands are heeding the call, even if their motives are sometimes open to question. We may well see a substantia­l rise in black models’ visibility, said David Lipman, a veteran creative director whose clients include jeweller John Hardy and Naked Cashmere. “But I hope it’s not a temporary cover-our-base uptick.”

Some brands may be thinking defensivel­y, their reactions to Black Lives Matter often based on fear, Lipman said. “They’re afraid of

Diet Prada outing them,” he said, referring to the influentia­l Instagram account and industry watchdog that has called out Dolce & Gabbana and other industry players for racism.

For some, casting black models has been an afterthoug­ht, Richard said. “When you see a narrative that was clearly built around a white couple, and you suddenly see a third person hanging around, that seems forced.”

Diversity in casting has, not incidental­ly, spawned a roster of newcomers being groomed for the kind of celebrity once enjoyed almost exclusivel­y by Tyra Banks, Campbell, Tyson Beckford and their high-profile ilk. Maty Fall, a 19-yearold Senegalese Italian university student, caught marketers’ attention after appearing on the cover of

Vogue Italia last year. But Fall, who has since starred in campaigns for

Pat McGrath Labs, Etro and Dior, views her success with a gimlet eye.

“I can’t honestly say that the casting of more people of colour is an act or if it’s genuine,” she said. “I don’t want this to be just a trend. But we all know that the fashion industry is very unpredicta­ble.” |

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