On Monday, I attended Bethann Hardison's discussion "Diversity and Fashion - Race on the Runway: The Recap" at the Bryant Park Hotel in Manhattan. If you follow fashion at all, then you have undoubtedly heard the brouhaha that has been roiling since last year over the lack of non-white faces on the runway and throughout the fashion industry.
Bethann Hardison (top left) for those of you who may only know her through this topic - or for being Kadeem Hardison's mother - has been an important force in the fashion industry for many years. She started out as a model in the 1960s and eventually started her own modeling agency, Bethann Management, where she put Tyson Beckford on the map and cultivated many other models who went on to big careers. Recently, she cast the models for the now legendary "Black Issue" of Italian Vogue.
Several fashion people from across the board attended the forum including designers Rachel Roy (bottom right and above with Veronica Webb - sorry for the blurry shot) and Sophie Theallet (opening photo, top right) who caused a sensation by using all black models in her recent show. Constance White, Style Director for eBay was there along with several photographers, editors and modeling agents.
There were also several rising models in attendance including three of the four women in the Can You Name These Models? post from Tuesday (above l-r) Georgie Badiel of Burkina Faso by way of Paris, Joan Smalls of Puerto Rico, Lily Taylor of California and Jalika Gaskin (I need to find out where she is from!)
Georgie (above in Philip Lim) was not in attendance but I would say that she was there in spirit because everyone - from Bethann, to the agents, to Rachel Roy - was raving about her. "Georgie has a presence like Naomi," said Bethann, who would not declare such a thing lightly. "When I saw her in Paris I thought, "that's Little Bethann! She's just like me!" She went on to say that the way Georgie walks the runway and brings the clothing to life is just "innate." Rachel Roy told me later that she felt Georgie was just extremely elegant.
In the photo above: Jalika (top left) Lily (top right) Joan (bottom) left were there. In the bottom right corner is Veronica Webb and Tyson Beckford.
You may recognize Jalika from my coverage of the STEiNUNN presentation during Fashion Week and you may know Joan from her amazing campaign for Ports 1961:
Bethann started out by making sure that everyone knew that there were no sponsors for the event despite press reports to the contrary. She also said that she is constantly asked "why keep talking about it?" The answer; She also said that she was proud of the changes that have occured in the industry and wanted to call a forum to see what professionals on the inside thought about the changes. Initially, most modeling agencies refused to even speak to reporters about the issue.
Bethann also mentioned a recurring theme, a code word that keeps popping up as an excuse not to use models of color: "aesthetic." As in, "It's not my aesthetic this season," when asked if models of color will be hired. Bethann wondered if the word "aesthetic" was simply a cover up for "race".
Another thing on her mind - the lack of engagement between designers and models, especially in the age of "non-look" models who just blend in together as mere hangers for the clothes. "You don't compete the circle of fashion without models. You don't find the muse," Bethann said. "The designer has weakened their position. I want them to fall back in love with the fashion model. The idea of the designer not relating to the model is bothersome to me."
Calvin Wilson, a modeling agent with Elite also made the point that Black models were judged more harshly than their white counterparts. For instance, if a white model doesn't have great skin, she may be hired anyway. A black model who doesn't have great skin? Suddenly, "she's not right" - for anything! "They are not given the same chance and they are judged much harder." Bethann agreed that "a black girl must be three times better than their white counterparts to even be considered." Ditto for Asian girls." "You really have to come with it. You have to be beautiful, genius, in a league of your own. No pimples."
Calvin also noted that he felt the need to remind certain designers and stylists that "not all women of color look alike. " In other words, you can't expect every black model to look exactly like Chanel Iman. That is just as ridiculous as expecting every blonde model to look like Karolina Kurkova.
Emil Wilbekin, editor-in-chief of Giant magazine suggested that the young models in the audience read Joy Bryant's recent article in The Huffington Post on the obstacles that she faced as a model.
Another issue that was frequently brought up: advertising.
Constance White mentioned how all of the ads in the much vaunted Vogue Italia featured only white models.
an agent with IMG who has managed superstars like Liya Kebede and Heidi
Klum, said "the thing that motivates models is money. Shows don't pay
like advertisements and we need more black images in major ads." He
also noted how black models are rarely used in ads for luxury brands
with the notable exception of Liya Kebede in ads for Tiffany and Estee
Lauder. Another agent in the audience mentioned that many ad clients will ask for black models - but for less money.
The overall consensus of many pros at the forum
seemed to be that smaller designers were very diverse in their casting
but many of the bigger designers who had the power to have a diverse
cast did not. Many of the pros who specifically work with models noted that they did see more models of color this season at castings. No one, however, could agree on who and/or what was the "culprit." Who was ultimately responsible for the lack of women of color - Black, Latina, Asian, South Asian - on the runway? Another audience member made a great point that we all agree on: "Mainstream" does not always have to be white!"