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'Whites-Only' Designers Reap What They 'Sew' with Mrs. O?

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The coolest thing about being African-American and bilingual Italian is that when you go to a model casting in Milan and are pointed to the sign that reads "no ragazze di colore" (no colored girls), you can: a) understand it; and b) get sent right back to the casting as a Brazilian and instructed by your agent not to speak English to anyone.

Last week, in an article titled "Dressing Michelle: Major Designers Wait for First Lady's Call," Women's Wear Daily (WWD) posted the outrage of American designers like Oscar de la Renta, who stated, "I don't object to the fact that Mrs. Obama is wearing J. Crew to whatever because the diversity of America is what makes this country great. But there are a lot of great designers out there. I think it's wrong to go in one direction only."

Um. EXACTLY. So where is that sentiment decade after decade as U.S. designers send all-white models down their runways? I don't know whether to shake with laughter or with disbelief!

Let's start with the lede from WWD: "Where in the world are Donna, Ralph and Calvin?" Now let's reply with the numbers. The recent numbers.

In Feb 2009, New York's Fashion Week featured 116 labels and 3,697 runway spots. 668 of those spots -- 18% -- went to models of color. Not 668 models, mind you, because three of the top ethnic girls took up half of those spots with repeat appearances). That's right, 18% women of color -- any color -- on the runways and 82% white models. In New York City. So the real question should be "Donna, Ralph and Calvin, where in the world are your ethnic models?" And the answer is:

Calvin Klein: showed 1 look with an ethnic model out of 35 he sent down his runway.

Donna Karan: showed 3 looks with ethnic models out of 45 she sent down her runway.

Ralph Lauren: Nearly 50% of his looks were worn by Black, Latina and Asian models. That explains why WWD's Photoshopped look of Mrs. Obama wearing a Feb 2009 U.S. runway design was from Ralph Lauren's show -- where they could actually find someone with brown arms and legs. (As for the above quote from Oscar de la Renta, comme d'habitude, his runway diversity was nearly 50%).

Understand that Feb 2009 marks a 50% increase over the year before, due to the concerted efforts of model-turned-agent Bethanne Hardison and designer Dianne von Furstenberg to diversify U.S. runways. As stunning examples, in 2008, Donna Karan cast 1 ethnic model out of 23, Calvin Klein cast 1 out of 21, and Jill Stuart had NONE (Paris's entire 2008 Fashion Week -- 40 designers -- also had none -- but they're not demanding that the president's wife wear their clothes). Two years earlier in 2007, one-third of the U.S. runways (101 shows) had no models of color whatsoever. We know that because WWD reported it... so how can they now champion the cause of the same designers to be represented by our African-American First Lady?

Organized complaints about the "whitewashing" of the world's runways date back to the '80s (there was a diverse period before that in the '70s). I still remember the documentary When Supermodels Ruled the World, when Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista confessed to standoffs with designers who did not want to put a Black girl on their runways. The two supermodels stood firm -- "No Naomi; no Christy or Linda." And Naomi Campbell was one of the biggest models in the world at the time! In 1993, I was at the press conference when at least a dozen of the top Black models lodged firm complaints about the blocking of ethnic models from runway and print. But when reporters pushed them to name names, they were unwilling to. That has long disappointed me -- it's addressed below.

Let me explain my personal connection to this insanity. I was a working model in New York in the '80s, booked for "out-of-towners" in Philadelphia with the big names but blocked from the Manhattan circuit by an agent who advised that [insert almost any big name designer here, like the ones above] didn't put Black girls on their runways. Twenty years later, designers are still arguing that they don't hire models of any color because they don't want to be labeled "an ethnic designer" or they cannot find any ethnic models to hire. Seriously. They say this out loud.

Araks Yeramyan, designer:

The problem us there aren't enough working ethnic models... There aren't enough minority girls to go around, so they're only walking in a few shows. That's just how it is.

["Reeeally, Michael Vick?" Please explain that to Italian "no ragazze di colore" Vogue, who managed to fill 100 editorial pages in July 2008 with nothing but Black models in response to the homogeneity of international runways. That's without featuring any Asian or Latina girls.]

---------------

Michelle Smith, the designer behind Milly:

"[The modeling agencies] are not giving us any people to choose from."

[Please explain that to DFV, Tracy Reese and other leading designers who had 30% diversity or higher on their runways.]

Now they clamor for our African-American First Lady, who one month ago wouldn't have seen anyone who remotely looked like her on their own runways, to wear their clothes because "the kind of worldwide attention Obama and her labels are getting can boost an entire corporate psyche from designer to ground floor. It can boost sales as well." Well, hiring ethnic models could boost their professional psyches -- and boost rent payments, as well.

I have never given a dime to any of the designers who actively blocked Black girls from their runways in my working years. I have returned gifts of perfumes and bags from those designers. And I have shared my stories with friends, to let them know exactly what those designers they are spending thousands of dollars on think of women who look like us.

As Oprah confirmed, that Tommy Hilfiger myth absolutely was not true -- but the following list IS. Here are the designers in 2009 who did not feature a single woman of color or any Black models during Fashion Week in New York:

No models of color
  • Altuzarra
  • Davidelfin
  • Jenni Kayne
  • Julian Louie
  • Koi Suwannagate
  • Temperley London
  • *Vera Wang Lavender Label
No Black models
  • Alexandre Herchcovitz
  • Behnaz Sarafpour
  • Costello Tagliapietra
  • rin Fetherston
  • *Halston
  • Marchesa
  • Max Azria
  • Milly
  • *Miss Sixty
  • Monique Lhuillier
  • *Nicole Miller
  • *Philosophy
  • Reem Acra
  • Tibi
  • TSE
  • United Bamboo
  • Vena Cava
  • VPL
  • *Vivienne Tam

*indicates major label designer

So full rant aside... there are many people who will read this and rail against the fashion industry in general or think it is the sour grapes of a former model or deride all of the attention paid to Mrs. Obama's wardrobe in the first place. To that, I must reply -- I understand. I do! But if you think the extraordinary attention paid to the looks, grace and style of our country's first African-American First Lady truly will not have enormous societal and international repercussions, and for generations to come, you are incorrect.

It mattered to Oprah when the Supremes showed up on Ed Sullivan. It mattered to me when Beverly Johnson showed up on the cover of Vogue. It mattered to the girls in my teen programs when they saw my insanely airbrushed face on a city bus. And it matters to people all over the world -- not just young Black girls, but everyone who ever will interact with a Black woman -- that Mrs. Obama has become the leading icon of womanhood that our country now exports. It matters. And it may actually change these darn runways and magazines at last, after decades of resistance, so that all of our kids will see a more diverse image of beauty, not just for their own self-esteem, but in the face of a woman they may one day hire, work with, work for, befriend or love.

For the record, I loved Friday's black dress. Go, Mrs. O., go.

Many thanks to the many sources for this post that echoed the same concern in great and appreciated detail:

New York Fashion Week and models of colour
How Did New York Fashion Week's 116 Shows Treat Models Of Color?
No Black Models: Who Is To Blame?
Is the Fashion Runway Racist? (ABC News)
Fashion Week Runways Were Almost A Total Whitewash
Crossing Fashion's Thin White Line
NO BLACK MODELS IN PARIS FASHION WEEK: John Paul Gaultier rep says 'the agencies have none.'
Diversity may be Fashion Week's latest victim