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Has There Been a (President) Obama Effect in the Fashion Industry?

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I've written before about the myriad of hopes and expectations many of us placed on President Obama's shoulders following his election. Our wish list ran the gamut from the policy arena -- will he save the economy -- to the arena of race. This perhaps, more than any other is the domain in which our expectations were the most unrealistic and unfair both to him, and to ourselves. After all, he's not a genie in a bottle granting wishes and you can't solve three centuries of tragedy and conflict in one presidential administration. But that didn't stop many of us from wishing nonetheless. Would we begin to see more black elected officials? Would we begin to see more black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies? Would we see more black boys embrace education as a more viable path to success than the NBA? The answer to all of the above, so far, unfortunately appears to be no.* But one area in which "The Obama Effect" just might be having an affect is the world of fashion.

Despite the fact that we spend nearly $20 billion a year on clothes, in both editorial layouts and on runways, black women have long been treated like the red headed stepchild of the fashion industry. A 2008 article in the UK paper The Independent blew the lid off of the level of racism and discrimination that has continued to permeate the global fashion industry, even as the rest of the world begins to embrace a more multicultural future. According to its findings, a typical 362-page issue of Marie Claire had eight total photos of black women in it while a 312-page issue of Glamour had four. The New York Times recently exposed the practice of numerous modeling agencies and scouts exclusively recruiting new models from the parts of Brazil with the whitest ethnic makeup.

The lack of black models used for both fashion campaigns, advertisements and runway shows is such a widely acknowledged, and unfortunately accepted reality, that even those black models who have "made it," so to speak, have spoken out about the issue. Among them are supermodel Naomi Campbell and former model and agent Bethann Hardison, who spearheaded a series of roundtable discussions on the lack of diversity in fashion here in the industry's capital of Manhattan. But perhaps the greatest acknowledgment that there is a problem came in 2008, when Italian Vogue published an all black issue; an issue that would not have been necessary if many of the models featured were working regularly in any of Vogue's other incarnations. (For the record, the special issue sold out around the world. So clearly there was an audience for it.)

Now for those of you tempted to draw analogies to the NBA for instance, keep in mind that professional sports are based on objective criteria. If you make the basket or touchdown then eventually your race becomes irrelevant which is why sports that were originally all white like baseball were able to diversify once the Jackie Robinson's of the world were given a chance to show what they could do. The problem with fashion is that besides needing to be tall and thin, it's entirely subjective but you can't even get your foot in the door unless a few gatekeepers let you in. But so far many of fashion's gatekeepers have not shown a propensity for diversity.

An analysis published on the Huffington Post last year noted that some foreign designers specify that no black models ("no raggaze di colore") be sent to their castings, while high profile American designers like Vera Wang and Nicole Miller have held recent shows featuring more than 30 models without a single one of them being a black model. Some American designers not only excluded black models but models of color, period. This lack of diversity has not only been found on the runways and inside of magazines, but on covers too.

The industry's reigning queen, Anna Wintour, admitted the role that race plays in the choice for cover models for her magazine and others, saying in a 1997 interview that:

The colour of a cover-model's skin dramatically affects news stand sales. Although it is rare for an issue of Vogue to go without one or more black models featured prominently inside, black models appear less often than I, and many of you, would like on Vogue's covers.


So when it was announced that actress Halle Berry had snagged the coveted cover of the September issue of Vogue magazine, I was not the only one who erupted with glee. I traded e-mails and Twitter messages with ecstatic friends who, like myself, all vowed to buy multiple copies. The reason? Because the September issue is the most financially important of any fashion magazine and women of color almost never appear on it. In fact, Berry was the first woman of color to do so in twenty years. She acknowledged the significance of the cover by explaining that while she has turned down recent interview requests, she agreed to Vogue's because:

What that means for a woman of color and what that means in the fashion world, what that means to pop culture, there was no way I could say, 'No, I'm not going to be on the biggest issue of the year.'


But that was not the only good news for we fashionistas of color. It turns out that the September issue of W magazine also has a black model, Yaya DaCosta, prominently featured in a group photo on its September cover. Which got me wondering: have the tides officially begun to turn in the fashion world and if so, what or whom has begun to rock the boat? Well, I have a theory.

It's worth noting that Italian Vogue's all black edition was published when "Yes We Can" fever was reaching a fever pitch in during the presidential primaries. It's also worth noting that since President Obama's election Vogue has not only featured women of color on its cover, but for the first time in my recollection two black women in a row were featured on its cover when Beyonce, followed First Lady Michelle Obama.

Vogue's Anna Wintour recently hosted a celebrity-studded fundraiser for President Obama, and it was not the first time. During the 2008 election she raised funds for his campaign at an A-list gala featuring the First Lady. (Perhaps the prez has replaced Roger Federer as Wintour's primary non-romantic crush.) I'd really love to know what the leader of the free world and the high priestess of fashion talked about at this recent soiree. Part of me wonders if the president mentioned how gorgeous his wife looked on her Vogue cover, and then maybe, just maybe, he gently suggested to Wintour that she and the rest of Vogue, "keep it up."



*Note: Though dropout rates among black boys have continued to rise in recent years, a Vanderbilt study did document the elimination of the achievement gap between black and white students during key moments of Obama's presidential run.

This piece originally appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a political blogger.