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Is the Fashion World Finally Embracing Diversity?

Diversity in Fashion

Every so often, a fresh cohort of models arrives and announces a new moment.

With their multinational, multiethnic backgrounds—not to mention their cheekbones, upswept eyes, and long, beautiful limbs—they’re leading the sort of epochal shift that makes editors fight, designers throw money, and agents scramble. At long last, the “white-out” years that have chilled the heart of the industry appear to be on the way out.

Models of color—from Pat Cleveland and Beverly Johnson to Naomi Campbell, Liya Kebede, Joan Smalls, and Jourdan Dunn, among others—have had a place in fashion since the sixties, of course. But progress in diversifying runways has been slow and at times has even run backward. Now a change seems to be at hand.

Mahary is a 24-year-old Canadian who takes her breezy, down-to-earth attitude from home. “My parents are freedom-fighters from Eritrea who fled the country. Because of that, I’m really proud to be representing.”

Bruna, aged nineteen, is French. A confident child of an Italian dad and a Congolese mom, she says that the notoriously tough career path walked by nonwhite models holds no fear for her. “I have my place,” she says, “and I think black models are the future.”

Hammam, meanwhile, is of Moroccan-Egyptian heritage, a seventeen-year-old studying fashion business at home in Holland. Riccardo Tisci chose her to open his Givenchy spring show, her head held high in a draped tobacco-color dress and flat sandals. And when she says with a shrug, “I don’t know the difference between black and everything else!,” it’s an encouraging sign of the nonracial makeup of today’s teen consciousness. Why should people even bother to count whose genes come from where?

The difference for this new generation, compared with their slightly older sisters, is the blessing of timing. These girls are walking into a moment when new global markets have opened and multiethnic, multi­mixed beauty is, more and more, what the world is interested in seeing. For today’s younger arrivals, the opportunities are a whole lot wider.

Simon Chambers of the Storm agency, which discovered Dunn in London, says the interest in diversity is now fanning out to include every permutation of race, nationality, and ethnicity: “There’s been a step change.” He now has scouts actively scouring the streets of London for girls of every imaginable background.

For a time, of course, fashion was notorious for doing exactly the opposite. To anyone who’d tracked the dwindling number of black and Latina models from the great days of the seventies onward, the narrowing of opportunity was all too apparent—especially in the years after the millennium. Vogue reported on the troubling phenomenon in 2008, tracking the careers of Dunn, Chanel Iman, and Arlenis Sosa as they succeeded amid the influx of Eastern European models that had turned shows into joyless rituals involving almost identically matched, expressionless white faces. Curiously, none of those involved seemed to realize that the uniformity was boring audiences rigid—and making it all too easy for the public to feel alienated from the industry as a whole. There was a trendy phrase parroted by designers challenged about their lack of diversity: “It’s not my aesthetic,” they said. “That word!” exclaims a creative director who witnessed many such proclamations. “It was code for ‘discrimination.’ ”

Carole White, the Premier Model Management agent who represented Campbell through her rise, offers a shocking perspective on how difficult even the early-nineties heyday of supermodeling could be. “People often thought they could get Naomi for less because she was black—even when she was up there with Linda, Christy, Cindy, and the rest—so the girls would band together and refuse to work for anyone who did that.” During the even more acutely difficult years, Kebede, Smalls, Chanel Iman, and Dunn triumphantly managed to hold the high ground as transcendent fashion personalities, but as was finally evident around the time of last season’s collections, the landscape has been changing, White says. “Now we’re in fights with other agencies for mixed-race and black girls.”

It’s a situation helped along by a handful of designers who have refused to rely on the blinkered tastes of Caucasian-centric casting directors. Tisci casts in the streets of New York and trawls through hundreds of Polaroids each season, and his Givenchy shows have become a superhighway for models of color. “I need to meet a girl and feel her intelligence,” he says. Tom Ford is another major champion. “I’ve always used black models,” he says, “but we’re all becoming more blended, and our beauty standard has expanded. Who can categorize anymore?”

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