STYLE

White Wash: Will Quotas Make Fashion More Diverse?

27/06/2011 16:02 | Updated 22 May 2015

Another day, another fashion industry scandal.

No, this time it's not a case of models being too thin or too young (although, let's be honest, there's probably a good chance of that, too). Today's issue is that the catwalks are 'too white.'

Specifically, the topic in question is last week's distinctly un-United Colors of Benetton-like procession of models during São Paulo Fashion Week in Brazil. The lack of racial diversity during the shows led protestors to call for a 20 of models to be black was agreed upon by event organisers. This year, reports in the Brazilian press are suggesting that the quota is being ignored by designers.

Considering that in the diverse melting pot that is Brazil, where over half of the population is nonwhite, finding long-limbed stunners to strut down the catwalk shouldn't be an issue. So why is it that the only top models' names we know from the country are all of European extraction - think Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima, Isabeli Fontana and Alessandra Ambrosio?

As with many other issues in fashion (like minimum age requirements and weight limits), arguably designers aren't doing anything to change the problem, and they have no incentive to do so. It's not like they're being penalised or banned from presenting their collections for refusing to represent their local populations.

Those quoted in the Guardian article blame a lack of experienced black models and a lack of black consumers in the country, with some clients rejecting the association between luxury goods and black models.

Here lies one of modelling's many (perplexing) paradoxes: The correlation between racially diverse models and high-fashion wares is apparently low, yet 'artistic' blackface on white models is still rendered in top international magazines. This perverse privileging of European standards of beauty (and simultaneous exploitation of other ethnicities) is offensive and nonsensical. Why not just use a black model?

This is an issue that permeates all of fashion and isn't just limited to Brazil's catwalks. It has been said before that the fashion industry on the whole is racist. Is it? Or is this global industry just so disconnected from reality and discriminatory on other fronts (like size and age), that this is just another part of the same disconnect that the fashion world seems to have with mirroring reality on all fronts? Racial diversity - or lack thereof - is as big of an issue in the fashion and beauty industries as the size 0 debate. Between a recent Cadbury ad where Naomi Campbell was likened to chocolate, to the scandal-causing Dove VisibleCare ad which some people have interpreted as 'turning' a black woman white, things haven't been looking good on the advertising front. Add hairstylist James Brown's racist rant and John Galliano's anti-Semitic comments and you're left with more than a bad taste in your mouth when you think about racial diversity in fashion and what the real reasons are for not promoting more diverse beauties.

This isn't to say that there aren't many prominent black (and other minority group) models, stylists, designers, photographers, makeup and hair stylists and other industry figures around, or that ethnic diversity isn't celebrated in fashion. From Estée Lauder's recent campaign featuring more globally representative beauties like Joan Smalls and Liu Wen and Franca Sozzani's Vogue Black web portal on Vogue Italia, multicultural beauty is being embraced by some of fashion's major players.

Then why does it still feel like fashion is lagging behind the times, or that including a nonwhite model in a campaign is like ticking a box or filling another quota?

Maybe because of glitches like this: A leading fashion magazine recently featured a story championing the rise of Asian models in luxury and high-end fashion. Fantastic. Very unfortunately, the mag misidentified a photograph of Liu Wen on the catwalk and credited her as Du Juan. Yikes. In addition, the issue featured no Asian models in any fashion or beauty spreads, despite the inclusion of a Japanese-themed shoot, starring a white model. One step forward and how many steps back?

Much as I love the fantasy, the glamour and the exquisite beauty and craftsmanship of the clothes and the creatures inhabiting them on fashion's catwalks, I do wish there was more than one kind of beauty to worship and that diversity in modelling meant more than an androgynous seven stone model versus a 'curvy' seven stone one.

The fashion industry needs to make a concerted effort to promote - and truly embrace diverse beauty, on the catwalks and beyond. No more 'whitening' skin in magazines (of celebs as well as models), no more blackface shoots when there aren't enough women of colour being represented in the mags.

At least Brazil is responsible for producing one of modelling's most diverse faces: World-famous transgender model Lea T.

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