Michelle Obama is arguably the most important fashion star of the moment. When she wears a designer brand, the endorsement is literally heard around the world with everyone from fashion bloggers to hard news journalists documenting the decision, as they did with her repeat choice of Jason Wu at the 2013 Inauguration. Likewise, Rihanna’s and Beyoncé’s hair, make-up, nails, and outfit changes are regular fodder for magazines, style blogs, and fashion news programs.
Meanwhile, in the fashion industry itself, some of the most iconic personalities in the business today include Naomi Campbell, Andre Leon Talley, and Tyra Banks. Speaking of Tyra, Black personalities dominate fashion reality TV with June Ambrose, Nicole Richie, and Talley among style’s small screen stars; and Rihanna and Campbell are coming soon to a TV near you.
But in spite of the fact that these celebs and personalities belie the fallacy White consumers won’t patronize publications or products bearing a Black face, most African-American models struggle to book work consistently, while some Black designers express anxiety about being seen as catering only to Black customers.
In a recent interview with EBONY, current season Project Runway contestant Samantha Black admitted, “I have to make sure that when people look at my clothing or the way that it’s photographed… they don’t think automatically, ‘Oh my God, it’s a Black designer.’”
She elaborated, “I have to be very careful with my music selection for my fashion shows. I also have to be careful when I shoot my lookbooks.”
Be careful, 'Black' means avoiding an “urban” soundtrack for shows. “Alexander Wang,” she gives an example, “he uses Black music artists all the time in his shows… He’ll use the most ratchet music, and it’s seen as fine and great, but if I did the same thing, I would be ridiculed.” Casting models for fashion shows and the lookbooks that get sent to editors for review consideration is also a delicate process. “I can’t have an all-Black cast of models,” she says.
Of course, just as Michelle Obama, Beyoncé, and Rihanna don’t feel compelled to only wear Black designers, for example; not all Black designers feel forced by an invisible (White) hand to cast their fashion shows or lookbooks a certain way.
Laura Smalls, who designed the memorable plum-colored print dress with bateau neckline Mrs. Obama wore to the finale night of the Democratic National Convention said, “I never feel any pressure at all to use models of color.” She adds, “I do work hard to try to showcase and use all different ethnicities when I present my collections."
The difference in Smalls’ approach seems to be that the (White) fashion powers that be are not working as hard to represent different ethnicities. In fact, they remain stubbornly oblivious to fashion’s race problem.
Discussing the topic in the documentary About Face: Supermodels then and Now, legendary model-turned-modeling agent Bethann Hardison shared an exchange she often experienced:
“The designer would call me and say, ‘Okay, I gotta talk to you. You gotta find me a great Black girl.’
And I say, ‘Okay, sounds good. How many girls are you using?’
‘And you want me to find you one great Black girl.’
He said, ‘Yes!’
And I said, ‘Now, don’t you see there’s a problem with that right there?’”
Hardison continues in the film, “No one wants to think of themselves as racist, but no matter how much they say ‘Oh, it’s not my aesthetic. It’s just not my aesthetic.’ The word ‘aesthetic’ is borderline racist at this point.”
Also featured in the documentary, Beverly Johnson—the first Black model to cover American Vogue in 1974—adds, “I just don’t think discrimination can be a trend. In the stadium at Fashion Week, every culture is there, but particularly a lot of people of color are there. And here on the runway are just all white models, very clone-like. And here we are peering into this sacred world.”
In a recent TED Talk that went viral, Victoria’s Secret model Cameron Russell cops to the “genetic lottery” she “won” by being born White, tall and thin. “For the past two centuries, we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry that we’re biologically programmed to admire; but also as tall, slender figures, and femininity, white skin. This is a legacy that was built for me, and it’s a legacy that I’ve been cashing out on.”
Russell’s note about lottery and legacy point to the root of fashion’s race problem—as well as the heart of America’s race problem. Russell admits, “It was difficult to unpack a legacy of gender and racial oppression when I’m one of the biggest beneficiaries.” Cognizant or not, many of the (White) fashion powers that be act on a vested interest in maintaining the legacy of privilege attached to white skin—even when that legacy is forced to bump against the reality that fashion’s biggest icons that are Black.
The danger in this racial fashion legacy is it reproduces itself, like a trend, if it goes unchecked making some Black designers feel compelled to play along and avoid using a hip-hop playlist / casting Black models; and making it a coup when one Black model rises through the cracks to find her place in the sun. As the industry strives toward better fashion, it must strive to do and be better too.