Thursday, 23 January 2014

Racial Inequality in the Fashion Industry

by Rhiannon Lasrado

I’ve recently discovered TED talks – is that bad? I feel a bit behind – and with this came my second discovery: Cameron Russell’s talk entitled “Looks aren't Everything. Believe me, I'm a Model". For those who don’t know, Cameron Russell is an American fashion model, walking the runways for everyone from Louis Vuitton to Victoria’s Secret. In fact, she’s on the February cover of Elle UK. Also, did I mention that she has a degree in economics and political science from Columbia University? Thus, her talk was extremely intriguing, within which she remarks how her success is down to “winning the genetic lottery” and advises young women to stay away from that career path. However, the thing she said that struck me the most was this: “In 2007, a very inspired NYU PHD student counted all the models on the runway, every single one that was hired, and out of the 677 models that were hired, only 27 were non-white”.

This is not an isolated incident. 40 Afro-Brazilian models went topless last year out of protest for their lack of representation on the catwalk, despite Brazil having the world’s second largest black population. The numbers don’t add up. If 50% of the population is black, why are only 4% of the fashion models of colour? For example, Malaika Firth is the first black model to appear in a Prada campaign since Naomi Campbell in 1994. That’s twenty years of campaigns only featuring white women. Even when black models do in fact appear in campaigns or on catwalks, they are only usually one shade of black (similarly to how white models tend to be one shade of blonde and tanned). In 2008, Carole White, co-founder of Premier Model Management, spoke out about racism in the industry by describing how hard it is to find work for her black models in comparison to her white models. Interestingly enough, the catwalks of the 80s and 90s were reportedly filled with black women, so why the regression? Ms White put it down to “less diversity among black women” and “the designers’ lack of confidence”, neither of which I’m inclined to agree to after seeing the likes of Joan Smalls and Jourdan Dunn in recent years.

It seems absurd that there is still racism on this level in the 21st century but is racial inequality in the fashion industry the biggest problem of racism we face? Probably not. Though the fashion industry in Britain alone is worth £21 billion. Fashion is everywhere, in the streets, in the media, it shapes the perception of men and women everywhere; how they should look, what they should wear, what is attractive. It serves to represent all people (all people being those who are skinny and white of course). Imagine growing up a woman of colour being told that the only women considered beautiful are white. This creates an incredibly warped perspective of the world, which can later lead to psychological problems at the very least. It is hard to combat this problem without enforcing “quotas”, which often cause resentment because on the one hand, the majority feel that they’ve been ousted out of the job yet on the other, the minority deserve to be employed without the need for quotas. The simplest way to achieve racial equality in the industry seems to be the continuation of education and campaigns, led by successful Women of Colour, in order to see the Western World change its own self-perception.

Finally, in the words of Naomi Campbell, “Women of Colour are not a trend.”

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