By Clinton Duncan

“WE’VE already got a black girl”, “It’s not our creative vision”, “Our customers aren’t ready for that as yet”, “I need a more luxurious personality.” These are the excuses we hear time and time again to explain the lack of models of colour in the fashion industry.

With the amazing invention called “the internet”- particularly social media- providing a dais for experts and laypersons on basically anything, accusations of racism have been intensified in recent years. From all-white catwalks to makeup artists not being prepared to work with black models, to cultural symbols being appropriated and sold to the masses… we are [or rather should be] more aware than ever of how our complacent behaviour may offend others. Our tendency to pigeonhole black models into certain niches – such as “urban” or “exotic” – has left them underrepresented and underpaid in comparison to their white counterparts.

Terms like “tribal” and “ethnic” have been used to the point of plateau in fashion often without creative teams crediting a specific tribe that inspired their “tribal” collection or a media outlet exploring the origin of these motifs with any real symbolic depth. As a Researcher Fellow in the Sociology of Fashion, Anna-Mari Almila sees this as a consequence of broader issues in the world and explained why it’s unacceptable for the West to do this.

“When someone who has more power – socially, economically, politically – takes something from a community [with less power], then it’s a problem,” she stated. Almila believes the fashion industry’s race problem goes deeper than the catwalk, “It’s impossible not to connect this with the fact that women of colour around the globe are making our clothes very cheaply in poor conditions. There is a dreadfully unacknowledged global inequality in all areas of the way the fashion industry works.”

Looking at the rundown of the just-concluded London Fashion Week , out of the 226 designers showcasing their work there were only four of African descent which works out to be less than five per cent. The problem is not a lack of British Black designers (because there are many) but the fact is black designers do not get the support or funding it takes to show their designs in such prestigious events. Those who do make a name for themselves are often shunned by the industry or are [again] pigeon-holed into niche markets like “urban wear” or “African print fashion”.

Although more and more people are taking a stand against the obvious racism in fashion, it seems that this deep-rooted issue is not going anywhere anytime soon and our black models and designers will suffer on a long road trying to become accepted in a predominantly white world. All we can do as a community is to support those models making waves such as Jourdan Dunn, Malika Firth and Alisha White and continue the fight against this endemic in the fashion industry. And no, it’s not okay to use the few popular black icons like Naomi Campbell or Tyra Banks as your exemption to the rule. Five per cent is simply not enough in the market of clothing, which is fundamentally utilised by almost 100 per cent of the global population, save the three per cent of ethnic groups who still prefer to make their own garments or wear no garments at all.

By now most of you have probably heard about H&M’s latest scandal. The fallout for H&M seems to have been quick and has resulted in the termination of at least two celebrity partnerships and the closing of multiple flagship stores around the world. A commensurate apology and deletion of the offending image followed soon after. Moments like these serve as an important contextual background for the rise of black and non-black designers, editors, writers, and models currently being lauded by members of the fashion literati.

The recent focus and success of people of colour in the industry is significant, but in order to fully appreciate the gap between where the industry is at and where it needs to be when it comes to issues of race and diversity, one must see these repeated racial insensitivities as part and parcel of a culture that up until very recently, publicly abjured notions of diversity.

How do you create an industry with a huge blind spot when it comes to issues of race? You exclude people of color from positions of power and agency. In this way, H&M (and the fashion industry as a whole) can’t see these things coming because they don’t know what to look for. Concentrating on H&M, in particular, may be demonstrative, but addressing the issue of race ad hoc is not a sustainable reaction or a lucid response to a systemic problem.
Two other examples, taken from Jason Dike’s excellent piece “Classism & Appropriation in Fashion,” are Yves Saint Laurent’s famous muse, Lou Lou De La Falaise, referring to Andre Leon Talley with the “N” word; and Olympia Le-Tan proclaiming that a quality she looks for in a man is the inner fortitude to tell racist jokes. In his piece, Dike points out fashion’s reluctance to actually engage in discussions of race and racism:

“Our main issue with these statements is twofold: firstly, the statements themselves and then, the sheer lack of response to them. In the Leon Talley article, the writer noted that everyone in the room laughed at Falaise’s “nigger dandy” statement. In Olympia Le-Tan’s interview, Zahm [the interviewer] didn’t even question why she found telling racist jokes such a desirable quality.” Do we still live in the age of “I don’t see colour”? Maybe that should be interpreted to mean “I don’t see [people] of colour”, because that’s how I feel every time I hear that term flung about in the fashion industry. It’s as if people of colour don’t exist, or their existence simply isn’t acknowledged.

It is only when visibility becomes equal to all genders, and all races, and all skin tones that the fashion industry can be said to be truly “diverse”, but until then we will continue to turn up to castings that already booked a black girl, we will continue to turn up to bookings for companies whose customers aren’t ready for a Chinese brand ambassador, and we will continue to use every social media outlet available to us as megaphones of hope to shout: PLEASE SEE MY COLOUR!’ ”