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Fashion's blind spot

By Eric Wilson | The New York Times | Updated: 2013-09-22 07:55

Fashion's blind spot

A stark absence of black models for many designers

Five years ago, the fashion industry faced a reckoning over the startling lack of diversity among the models on major designer runways. Reacting to complaints, Vogue, in its July 2008 issue, featured a substantial article that asked, in its headline, "Is Fashion Racist?"

This came shortly after Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue, published a provocative issue using only black models; Bethann Hardison, a former model and agent, initiated a series of panel discussions on the subject; and Diane von Furstenberg, the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, urged members to be more aware of diversity in casting.

And since then, almost nothing has changed.

The New York shows are as dominated by white models as they have been since the late 1990s, roughly at the end of the era of supermodels. After a notable increase in 2009 that followed extensive news media coverage, the representation of black models has remained fairly steady until this year. Jezebel, a blog that tracks the appearance of minorities in fashion shows, said they accounted for only 6 percent of the looks shown at New York Fashion Week in February (down from 8.1 percent the previous season); 82.7 percent were worn by white models.

In Europe, where Phoebe Philo of Celine, Raf Simons of Dior and others have presented entire collections using no black models, the opportunities have been even less favorable for minorities.

"There is something terribly wrong," said Iman, one of the most recognizable models in the world, who later created a cosmetics company. Her experience in the 1980s and'90s, when designers like Calvin Klein, Gianni Versace and Yves Saint Laurent routinely cast black models, was starkly different than that of young nonwhite models today, when the racial prejudice is all but explicitly stated.

"We have a president and a first lady who are black," Iman said. "You would think things have changed, and then you realize that they have not. In fact, things have gone backward."

Ms. Hardison said that, for her, the most astonishing aspect of the persistent lack of diversity is that there have been no real repercussions.

"No one in power slaps these designers around," she said.

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