The question of racism and fashion is one that comes around every couple of years, like palazzo pants. And since March, thanks to the toxic tirade of John Galliano, the industry has once again assumed the position in front of the firing squad and the age-old discussion has returned to the front page debating whether or not fashion is racist, exploitative and responsible for such scourges on 21st society as anorexia, underage substance abuse and the general erosion of a generation of young girls' (and their mothers') self-esteem.
In a recent rant in the Daily Mail, Liz Jones boldly announced, "the truth is that behind the headlines there is something much more sinister and, ultimately, more damaging and institutionalised going on in fashion." Vogue Italia's egalitarian EIC, Franca Sozzani (she is the creator of All Black Issue of July 2008 and subsequent website, Vogue Italia Black) shot back that things are indeed improving and that media sensationalism of this kind is just that: "When people want to raise controversy in such a narrow and meaningless way, I feel sorry for being a journalist..." wrote Sozzani. "Controversy sells....So fashion is condemned for racism. Without a trial."
But it seems to me that Franca is too quick to exonerate, and that the case of Fashion V. The Status Quo has in fact been tried over and over again, though the verdict never changes, and neither does the industry. So before the champions of fashion re-take the stand to battle out the question once more, they would do well to cast an eye inwards towards a much-overlooked truth, that within the industry, it is the menswear sector, and not the womens' that truly presents a major disappointment on the progressive front. Having just returned from my first ever round of menswear shows in Milan, I was truly struck by the lack of diversity on the catwalks, where the number of black and Asian boys could literally be counted using one hand, if even--tokenism at its most cliché. Some designers even opted out of playing the token card altogether, preferring to send out onto the runway instead small Aryan armies of blonde-haired, blue-eyed, chiseled eighteen-year old clones. But unlike womenswear, where if an entire week of shows passed by showcasing only the who's who of Eastern Europe, an angry picketing mob would literally tear the tents of Lincoln Center rafter from rafter in fury. But when it comes to the boys, no one seems to notice or care.
Jones' article, for instance, was published mere days before the two weeks of menswear shows kicked off on the Continent and Franca's rebuttal posted online in the midst of it all. Yet neither woman even spares a sentence for the boys. Franca writes: "It is true that there are very few black models around. It is also true that those who make it to the top become everlasting stars, from Naomi to Iman, from Pat Cleveland to Jourdan Dunn, to Liya Kebede, Tyra Banks and many more." Not a single male name makes Franca's list.
It's tough enough for girls of color, as Carole White, founder of Premier Model Management explained to Jones, "[In Paris and Milan], they absolutely don't want black girls. A black model has to be a real star before you can take her there. They only take a black girl when the biz is buzzing about her." But in the world of male modeling, where the opportunities to catapult from clothes stallions to "real stars" are few and far between, black men, for one, are often cast in campaigns to fulfill a "prop" like role, hulking anonymous (and shirtless) accessories draped over the arms of their female counterparts, like a Prada fox stole or chunky YSL cuff (Fashion Bomb Daily collates some strong imagery on the subject).
That menswear has long since languished in the shadow of its glamorous womenswear sister, is of course a self-evident fact: men simply don't consume fashion in the same way as women. Tyra has yet to launch America's Next Top Male Model and those who still think "Acne" is the bane of teenage complexions rather than an understated Swedish label would be hard pressed to name a famous male face, even that of current catwalk king and Dolce & Gabbana face, David Gandy. Unlike the now massively mainstream and commercial celebrity-studded soiree that constitutes the womenswear fashion weeks, menswear is still very much an industry-only affair: the general public is not watching. And so, with the boys, the fashion industry can get away with behavior that's less savory and less P.C.. Nobody puts a male model on ana-watch because he logs four-plus hours a day in the gym and sips Creatin for dinner or laments the overt-sexuality of a sixteen year old boy flaunting his greased-up six-pack bundled into a tiny swimsuit on the runway--he's supposed to be the paradigm of testosterone unbridled. And on the flip side, aesthetically, if a lurking stick-thin androgynous ideal, like this season's breakout new face, Karl Morall, who found himself in high demand the moment he stepped off Prada's runway two weeks ago, waifs down the catwalk, no one so much as bats an eyelid (by the way an article in the Mirror in March estimated approximately 10,000 British men suffer from eating disorders, 10-12% of all afflicted in the U.K.). But send a mostly naked, malnourished fifteen-year-old girl out onto the catwalk and words like "pedophile" and "masochistic" tend to drop out of editors' mouths.
But while the boys may be somewhat immune to many of the social stigma faced by their female peers, they are subject to a sort of reverse inequality on the fiscal front. According to Forbes in 2009, a top male model may take home anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 annually, which pales in comparison to what the top-notch ladies rake in (which can tip the scale into the millions), just like the pornography industry.
"Trust me to end up working in the only industry in the world where women get paid more than men, and treated loads better," stand-alone male supermodel David Gandy told the Sunday Times Style last year. "We're trying to change that. In the hierarchy of a shoot, you have the photographer, the female model, the stylists, the assistants, then the male model. You are the lowest of the low."
Fashion may be an industry that fancies itself to be innovatively liberal and socially ahead-of-the-curve, but it need only look to its treatment of its younger male members to see hypocrisy hard at work, one that the mainstream will not be able to overlook for much longer. As blogs and the mushrooming expanse of social media open up new avenues for new voices to express themselves, a burgeoning community of eager fashionistos has sprung up and in the last year/six months, men's fashion has gained a newfound visibility (what is the launch of Mr. Porter?) and I doubt they'll abide these double standards for too much longer. Who knows, maybe the next campaign Mr. Gandy will front will be that of the equal male model rights movement? I know I'll be there, picket in hand, chants of diversification for all walks of life on all catwalks, poised and at the ready.
Suggested Further Reading:
Follow Kristin Knox on Twitter: www.twitter.com/clotheswhisper