The fashion industry has always had a complicated relationship with race. We might not all be interested in it, but fashion – like racism – is something that's difficult to avoid, even if you wanted to. For lots of people of colour working in the fashion industry however, it's more like fashion is avoiding them, as opposed to the other way around.
Last week, fashion casting director James Scully’s revelations were a damning indictment of the way non-white fashion workers are treated. “We have black and Asian casting directors being told not to cast black and Asian models to their face,” he said, before rejecting the idea that things are getting better with, “I work in a business I no longer recognise.”
In the fashion industry, racism is something that can take multiple forms. Structurally, while big names like black designer Willi Smith blazed a trail in the 80s, and Asian-American ex-Balenciaga designer Alexander Wang’s own-name label currently receives regular critical acclaim, there are few people of colour heading up the big fashion houses and labels that dominate the high-end market. Even fewer hold management or editorial positions at the magazines that keep the business going, which many point to as a cause of the lack of diversity elsewhere. Black and brown photographers are far rarer than white ones, and the same can be said for make-up artists and hairdressers.
And then, of course, we have models themselves – perhaps the most glaringly obvious example of the fashion industry’s race problem. To be blunt: on the catwalk and in adverts, models are mostly white. Even in non-Western countries, shadism can come into play, with lighter-skinned models getting more work and, in some cases, white Westerners modelling for African and Asian brands that reject models of colour.
Scully’s assessment tells a story that many models know well. While there are few people of colour walking in big catwalk shows and starring in campaigns, the black and brown models who are a part of the industry find it a tougher world to navigate than many of their white peers do. Looking back at the dearth of POC in the industry, the race problem has a domino effect. Models tell stories of white hairdressers not knowing how to style Afro hair, or make-up artists not having the right foundation shades for their skin. Photographers have even been known to claim to not know “how” to take pictures of non-white models, with Scully admitting that a photographer once told him directly, “I don’t shoot blacks.”
Photographers have even been known to claim to not know ‘how’ to take pictures of non-white models, with one photographer saying, ‘I don’t shoot blacks’
Exclusionary at best and point-blank racist at worst, the fashion world is a place where race is thrown into sharp focus under the glare of the camera lenses that are supposed to only put clothes under the spotlight. Despite problems, however, black and brown people in the industry have been fighting back. Successful black models like Leomie Anderson and Ebonee Davis have recently spoken out about racism in the fashion industry, while i-D deputy editor Lynette Nylander has used her large platform to highlight the racism she has seen in the fashion world. Blogger Dede Howard has recreated high-fashion campaigns to show how easily a black model could be in the spotlight, and more people in the plus-size fashion industry are speaking up about the lack of POC models. While there is perhaps a question to be answered about why it has been James Scully – a white man – whose comments have received so much attention, when models of colour saying the thing have not, at least his speaking out shows that it isn’t just POC who care. White allies in the fashion world are evidently needed and I, for one, hope Scully’s comments prompt his peers to speak out as well.
Saying all this, the fact remains that perhaps fashion is an industry doomed to reflect the racial inequalities we have already. The fashion world is, in lots of ways, a microcosm of inequality, a space where your value is directly related to how well you fit into a standard of beauty that is, at best, arbitrary and changing constantly – just look at the difference between the models of the 90s and those of today. Why should we expect better from the fashion industry than the world around us, a place that, to put it mildly, has myriad race issues? I’m not sure I have an answer, but I do know that small changes can lead to bigger ones. Representation matters and something as simple as recognising the problems the fashion world has with race, plus a few more POC backstage at catwalk shows, would make a massive difference for both the models on the frontline and the black and brown girls who love fashion, who appreciate design and the art of a catwalk show. Admittedly, I was never one of them when I was young – I felt too dark and round and small to ever fit in. However, I’d like to think that if I had seen more faces that looked like mine in the pages of magazines or across huge billboards, I would have been.