Let’s Talk About It: Diversity in Fashion

Conversation is part of the solution


During fashion week, there is no way to assess how a garment moves on the body without noticing that white models are doing most of the moving. For one month, twice a year, the disproportionate representation of our global reality is on display atop endless runways. It’s certainly easier to see the lack of diversity here than it is within the industry as a whole — it’s in your face. This doesn’t mean it’s any easier to talk about.

No one wants to hear a white woman “pretend” to get this struggle. But as Robin Givhan, fashion editor of The Washington Post, said to me during an interview, “You don’t have to know how it feels in order to recognize when something is inappropriate.” That’s our responsibility as humans.

“I think sometimes there’s fear of getting it wrong or not being politically correct,” Givhan said in response to the fashion industry’s resistance to acknowledge wrongdoing. “Those are all absolutely legitimate fears. But the conversation won’t get anywhere if people aren’t willing to live with those fears and speak up.”

Fashion activist and former model Bethann Hardison has been speaking up for years. She founded the Diversity Coalition/Balance Diversity to eliminate racism during casting and get more women of color on the runway and in editorials. She recalled a time when designers “just weren’t seeing black people.”

The Fashion Spot collected data from 373 shows and 9,926 model appearances across the Spring 2016 runways of New York, London, Paris and Milan. They reported that “77.6 percent of the time models were white.” It’s a slight improvement from the 80 percent they reported for Fall 2015, and 83 percent from the previous spring.

Hardison remains undeterred in her mission to get the industry to change. “I am a very patient revolutionary,” she told me. “I believe in education. That change comes about with dialogue.”

Derek Lam’s inspiration for his Spring 16 collection was civil rights activist and musician Nina Simone. “The relevance of fashion is always changing,” he wrote via email. “Sometimes the emphasis is more on the frivolity, as an escape, like 1950’s fashion was a response to war time deprivation. And sometimes it is more in tune with social change, like the 1920s and 1970s.” Like right now.

Diversifying his runway was important to Lam. In comparison to prior seasons, his Spring 16 show demonstrated real change. “Fashion shows can be robotic,” he said, equating them to when a clock chimes and “the little wooden figures come out the clock door in a circular pattern again and again. Kind of monotonous and ridiculous.”

Rosie Assoulin, a designer who prioritizes diversity in her presentations, said something similar: “It’s about not having a static beauty ideal. It’s not about representing this idea of one. I want to celebrate the individual as opposed to ‘a type.'”

Says Lam of his Spring 16 model casting process, “I think a big credit should go to the model agencies who really dug deep and made the effort to present diversity.”

Aurora James, creative director of Brother Vellies — a brand that employs artisans in Africa, experienced the opposite. She had such a hard time getting agencies to send her models of color for her Spring presentation that she found and cast unsigned women herself.

“I was pissed,” she said. “I was like, how is this going to make all the people I work with feel? I want them to feel reflected and included.”

That word, “inclusion,” may be the most important talking point in this conversation. Inclusion can mean the difference between celebration and appropriation, as James pointed out. “Black culture is often the inspiration,” said fashion editor Shiona Turini, “but black people aren’t part of the conversation. When we’re included, we’re able to help make a more well-rounded product — runway show, beauty story, hair tutorial, editorial.”

Here’s where “talking about it” doesn’t cut it and action has to be taken: Magazines, websites, designers, agencies, photographers, stylists all have to diversify their employees. Yes: Man Repeller does, too. Models represent one fraction of the fashion world. “Don’t just look at the runway,” said Turini. “Look around at who is sitting next to you at fashion week.”

Keija Minor, editor in chief of Brides, is the first black woman to hold the title of editor in chief at Condé Nast. Eva Chen, former editor in chief of Lucky, was the first Asian American woman at Condé Nast to hold the title. But these two are outliers. Diversity is lacking across the entire industry.

Shiona Turini recounted numerous instances of being the only black woman at various magazine staff meetings. So too did Rajni Jacques, a creative director and editor at large.

“Our generation grew up to be PC,” Jacques said. “It created this tension when speaking about race, or why you’re influenced by a person of color. I’ve worked at magazines long enough to know when the topic of race does come up, it’s as if everyone is talking but no one’s really saying anything. What do they mean by ‘urban’? It could mean a lot of things. I want to get them to say ‘black,’ because if you can’t speak about diversity, how the hell are you going to execute it?”

“Urban” or “hip hop” or “safari chic” — it’s here that we get into the topic of trends: trending subcultures, trending models who represent the moment’s “look.” It’s important to consider diversity as the norm while being wary to not celebrate race as novelty.

When diversity is limited, it means the range of faces within diversity is further limited, which means only a tiny representation of a rich culture or ethnicity is showcased in the images that dictate society’s already narrow perception of “beautiful.”

“People are driven by what they know,” Robin Givhan reminded me. “Ideas of beauty are driven by what they know. That’s the prime argument for being concerned about diversity in the broader sense — not just who walks down the runway.” It’s why we need to remain mindful of the world around us.

“What is fashion if not an industry founded on the fundamental idea that things come and go,” said Givhan on trending beauty ideals. “I can think of a dozen models who were ‘it girls’ for two seasons, now they’re barely on the runway. I don’t think that’s solely about race. It’s about a short attention span.” Bethann Hardison had a similar sentiment, though both women agreed that problems arise is when the industry moves away from prioritizing diversity. “That’s not a trend,” Givhan said. “That’s ignoring a whole customer base.”

Keija Minor said that in order for there to be a change in the industry, there needs to be a change in mindset. “As more people stop looking at increasing diversity in their editorial content and staff as the ‘right’ or ‘cool’ thing to do and start realizing that it’s the business-savvy thing to do, we’ll see meaningful change. 44.2 percent of millennials identify as part of a minority race or ethnic group. To not be more inclusive is leaving audience share on the table. As Shonda Rhimes said, ‘being more inclusive in media is not about diversifying, it’s about normalizing to accurately reflect the world we live in.’”

To normalize, we have to keep having these conversations. I think we forget the very real power of words to incite action. As Sophie Theallet — a white designer whose Spring 16 show featured 60 percent diversity, not to mention a plus size model — wrote to me over e-mail, “Change never comes from the top; but from within.”

Shiona Turni asked why I was writing this story. She didn’t ask it to challenge my intentions but rather to help us both focus in on what she would say, and what I would write.

So I quoted Bethann Hardison: “If you’re not color conscious, something’s wrong. You have to keep it real and not be afraid to say things.”

Afraid? I’m terrified. But I do hope I’ve kept it real.

Runway images via Vogue Runway; collage by Krista Anna Lewis


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  • LP

    “They reported that ‘77.6 percent of the time models were white.'”
    This statistic is meaningless if you don’t know the makeup of the pool of models they were selecting from. I am not arguing that minority models weren’t likely under represented but your statistic doesn’t support anything. What if, for example, the original pool of models was split 20:80 between white and minority models? That would mean something very different than if the pool of models was split 80:20 or 50:50.

    • Bee

      This is something I’ve thought about a lot when reading these reports. It’s difficult to garner a real understanding of the situation when you don’t know the context from which the statistics were derived. However, I’ve read many articles lately with testimonies from designers who have had difficulties with agencies withholding models of color for political reasons. I think this is an interesting topic that goes a lot deeper than flat-out racism.

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    • Guest

      That statistic is important regardless of the original pool of models. If there weren’t enough models of color in the original pool, that is a problem in itself. If there were plenty of models of color in the pool and they didn’t end up on the runway, that is still a problem. It’s an issue either way. Not sure how you don’t see that.

      • LP

        My comment didn’t suggest that there isn’t an issue but that the statistic is not valuable. Without enough information you are left to infer, and inference does not lead to sound conclusions. I would be interested to see a statistic about the makeup of models signed to agencies. Although this still would still lead to tenuous conclusion because you don’t know what models showed up to the casting. It requires a more in depth statistical analysis to really have a clue. Simply citing that 77% on the runway were white is not enough.

        • sepiolidae


          These statistics are fine*, but can’t address the question of how many designers are consistently demanding diverse models, and if they are, the limitations of that request for diversity. We don’t get a sense of how many agencies are holding back their non-white models unless told to send a diverse group. And then there’s the whole issues of diverse designers in the first place (a group more likely, according to BoF’s stats, to request non-diverse models…)
          But we can make some pretty smart inferences based on the effects of systemic racism; irrespective of who’s dropping the ball, 33% of “non-white” models in 2015 should be alarming.

          *The premise of these stats also seems to assume that equity might look like 50% white models, 50% a homogenized group of “non-white” models, which includes biracial, indigenous, black, latina, east asian, indian etc. women. That’s a very limited reading of racial diversity in a global fashion industry.

      • Preach.

  • FunkyForty

    Great post. Did you also notice the ever increasing Asian influence in Paris – I thought that was ever so interesting!
    Yvonne x

  • Pam

    I would really like to see diversity in body-type in addition to diversity in color. Why can’t that be a conversation also? Maybe agencies would have an easier job recruiting models if their criteria weren’t ridiculous.

  • You know what pleases me about these kind of posts on your blog? The fact that you are white and still find it important to bring it up and make it into a discussion. I truly applaud you for that because it’s rare and nice to see a person that isn’t black speaking about black issues and diversity problems.

    It’s so interesting; the whole thing. As a young black woman, even I myself forget or push it to the backburner because its too uncomfortable or awkward or just, not “fun” to talk about. It’s important to bring up time and time again. It should always be thought about until there are no more, “First black editors or first asian editors.” Its 2015, WHY ARE THERE STILL FIRSTS OF ANYTHING?

    ok im done. Your team of writers amaze me, as always. keep on truckkkinnnnnnn.

  • Guest

    Great post MR! Keep having the conversation…hopefully one of these days we will start to see a REAL change in the industry. LOVE me some Bethann! I admire her consistency on this important issue. As a sartorial enthusiast practically since birth, I’ve noticed that the ONLY thing that really matters in regards to retail and/or designer brands is profit/bottom line $$. When that starts to fall off then I bet we will see them doing anything and everything to recoup their customer base. It sucks but cash rules everything (around me.) -The Fashionable Eye

  • Brie

    What an amazing article!!! I was very pleased to see this article!!! I am always adamant about the importance of talking about race. I am a young black woman on the climb in the fashion industry in Los Angeles and there is definitely a rare time when I can relate, or see a face that resembles mine. This is the reality of things but it doesn’t have to be. Race has always been a touchy subject (especially amongst white Americans) and I don’t think it has to be. I know this topic can be very uncomfortable but I believe as black people, we must also be approachable and open to teaching people or correcting them rather than scold them when a discussion arises. Thank you Amelia for shining the light on this!

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  • Caro

    I’ve been thinking about this piece for several hours.
    May I share what I’ve been thinking about lately in terms of diversity in fashion?
    Robin Givhan said that people are driven by what they know. I think they are also driven by their habits. When you’re a white girl from a white suburb- all you know is white people in fashion and a black woman used to signify “other” in ads, editorials, etc. Inappropriate, misconstruing, incorrect. It’s wrong. And it’s what I’ve grown up with. I do not say this to justify anyone or anything- I do this to share to share another place where changes need to be made. I feared that seeking out black models to post on my tumblr would come across as inappropriate, or inauthentic- but what if it’s seen as breaking a habit of posting only white people? What if I, a white woman from the Midwest who was born into a predominantly white city and who grew up being kind to black people but still saw them as other until I went to high school and college and started reading and hearing about the tragedy that is the romanticized, fetishized black person, the other, the totalization that is the “black perspective of the group” …and realized that I grew up in a place that gave me an inaccurate picture of what diversity and humanity, among 1,000 other different things IS. I had habits to break- I still have habits to break. And to that idea of wanting to feel authentic- I now see it as bullshit and I think it was my white privilege talking. I want to feel authentic with MY feelings?? It is not the white persons feelings that are #1 when it comes to discussing race, racism, diversity, etc. Sorry, this is NOT our struggle- this is the time for our arms of support to be used, to say I’m sorry, to break our white habits, to share and depict the reality surrounding us, and to bring blacks, to bring all people of minority, forward.

    Thank you for making this discussion a part of your work. I pray that you continue because the normalization of diverse faces in fashion is SO SO SO …I can’t even think of a good word, but it’s beyond necessary, beyond important, it’s beyond what it accurate and right and good for all people who love fashion.

    • HEY. I love you. Thank you. We need more people like you to stand up for us (black people) because when we do it, we’re too sensitive or we’re unfairly playing the race card. Our opinions and perceptions and real, lived experiences are not valued like yours are. It sucks, but it is what it is. So we need you on our side 🙂

  • humans are always humans first before they are used as aesthetically pleasing props.

  • Such a good, much needed post!

    Xx, Daria

  • I think about this a lot, and it’s not a problem that’s just in the fashion industry, it’s kind of widespread in the whole range of “aesthetic industries”– film, theater, poetry and so on.

    Maybe something that MR could do is to profile fashion weeks outside of the usual London-Paris-New York? Obviously it’s no substitute to pushing for more inclusivity within established industry spaces, but there are some really cool things happening and being created on the margins of established industry eg. fashion weeks within the US that have a POC focus or fashion weeks in Africa and Asia.

    Thanks for writing this, Amelia.

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  • Great article! I understand you are terrified to speak on the subject, I am too! This is a great inspiration on how to talk about diversity challenges and acknowledge change is needed. Thanks!

  • sepiolidae

    “Inclusion can mean the difference between celebration and appropriation, as James pointed out. ‘Black culture is often the inspiration,’ said fashion editor Shiona Turini, ‘but black people aren’t part of the conversation. When we’re included, we’re able to help make a more well-rounded product — runway show, beauty story, hair tutorial, editorial.'”
    This is such an important point when conversations about diversity in fashion seems to stop at the number of non-white models (a significant issue, too, of course). It’s staggering that we want to think of fashion as a global industry that’s always inclusive of diverse viewpoints…but the levels of appropriation (in 2015!) without actual engagement with POC across the globe is saddening. If fashion is supposed to be the worldwide playground that houses things like MR’s quirky treehouse, then it’s gotta admit everyone…not just take their stuff and tell them to hang out somewhere else.

    • EmmaBird

      “It’s staggering that we want to think of fashion as a global industry that’s always inclusive of diverse viewpoints…but the levels of appropriation (in 2015!) without actual engagement with POC across the globe is saddening.”

      Preach! Feeling this so hard.

  • kneelbeforetigers

    MR – please keep to your word and make sure to update readers on your efforts to diversify your staff. As a long-time reader, I appreciate that you’re shining the light on a serious industry problem, but unless leaders in the fashion world put up or shut up, nothing will ever change. Thanks!

  • EmmaPulido

    Thank you for this post. It’s nice to see you guys following up on the round table. This is such a complex issue when we take into account the things that fashion, shows and editorials intend to sell us: a lifestyle. When thinking about that, it’s really disturbing that the industry at large does not see POC representation within that world. I’m so happy to see progress that has been made but it’s slow coming. That being said, Balmain x H&M campaign features 3 models of color and that was a beautiful thing to see! I’d love to see Man Repeller delve into the origins of certain trends and styles, especially given the level of appropriation and reimagining these days. Perhaps we can start with the harem pant =]

    In her acceptance speech for the GLAAD awards, Kerry Washington says “To be representated is to be humanized.” I’m Latina and rarely see myself represented in a multidimensional way. I want something else to look to than Shakira writhing in oil ( I love Shakira to the end of the world) or Sophia Vergara on a rotating platform on a stage while a white man speaks (and again, I admire that woman to no end). I hope our strides forward come much faster and quicker than they have come in the past.

  • NubianRadiance

    Thank you Amelia and Leandra for recognizing that monoethnic industry habits reflect dismally on everyone involved in fashion. More specifically, I am one of many younger Black women who relate to you as American women and appreciate that you see our blackness as an essential part of our American identity.

  • MN

    It is so incredibly important to speak up and have constructive dialogue on the issues of diversity within the fashion industry. It is an issue that not only affects who is represented and celebrated in fashion, but also who is represented and celebrated socially.

    As mentioned in the article, the fashion industry often showcases “urban” or “sarfari chic” garments by representing the ideas and values of other cultures, but then fail to fully embody them by their choice in model or execution. A perfect example of this is Kendall Jenner as the star of the Mango’s, African-inspired, “Tribal Spirit” line. It is quite frankly disjointed and culturally insensitive to use a white model as the face for an African-inspired line. There are hundreds of gorgeous African men and women who are equally capable of representing the Mango brand effectively.

    It is important now to state that the issues of diversity are not just black and white; it is an entire spectrum of unrepresented ethnicity. Change within the industry does not come by placing a few black women on the cover of the latest edition or sending a few black women down the runway. Instead it comes through the celebration and representation of ALL ethnicities equally.

    Currently there is this belief that men and women of color cannot go far in the fashion industry strictly because the do not fit the prototypical “look” and are consequently required to work infinitely harder. By showcasing men and women of color within the fashion forefront (and in the media generally) we can create a sort of cyclical ripple effect of acceptance. By creating a diversified industry that celebrates diversity, it will encourage men and women to accept their diverse features and aspects, which will encourage these men and women to feel comfortable in pursuing various positions within fashion. This then will form a more diversified staff and industry that will generate a more diversified content spectrum, which brings us back to the beginning of this cycle.

    The issue we face now is beginning this cyclical process and taking the first step towards diversification within the industry. By expressing a concentrated and educated effort towards reform in the fashion industry through education and exposure, we can shift the ways in which it is currently operating. We as a society can influence what happens within the fashion industry and we can do this by being conscientious of the things we buy and the things we commend. By supporting those who celebrate diversity and questioning or opposing those who do not, we can encourage diversification or at least begin the process of education on the importance of diversification within the fashion industry.

  • allison fargo

    so so important! i seriously agree with some of the comments below re: diversity at MR, though. your team is AMAZING but i’ve noticed a trend through your writers, staff, and interns– basically seems like a lot of white girls who come from wealthy families.

    *not only saying this because a MR internship is my dream and i’m worried my lack of designer shit will be a disqualifier but also because this is important AF!*