Sun, Dec 28, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Multiracial advertising throws fashion into the melting pot


Each week, Leo Jimenez, a 25-year-old New Yorker, sifts through a mound of invitations, pulling out the handful that seem most promising. On back-to-back nights earlier this month, he dropped in to Lotus on West 14th Street for the unveiling of a new fashion line, and turned up at the opening of Crobar, a dance club in Chelsea, mingling with stars like Rosie Perez, long-stemmed models and middle-aged roues trussed in dinner jackets. Wherever he goes, Jimenez himself is an object of fascination.

"You get the buttonhole," he said. "You get the table, you get the attention."

Jimenez, a model, has appeared in ads for Levi's, DKNY and Aldo, but he is anything but a conventional pretty face. His steeply raked cheekbones, dreadlocks and jet-colored eyes, suggest a background that might be Mongolian, American Indian or Chinese. In fact he is Colombian by birth, a product of that country's mixed racial heritage, and he fits right in with the melting-pot aesthetic of the downtown scene. It is also a look that is reflected in the latest youth marketing trend: using faces that are ethnically ambiguous.

Ad campaigns for Louis Vuitton, YSL Beauty and H&M stores have all purposely highlighted models with racially indeterminate features. Or consider the careers of movie stars like Vin Diesel, Lisa Bonet and Jessica Alba, whose popularity with young audiences seems due in part to the tease over whether they are black, white, Hispanic, American Indian or some combination.

"Today what's ethnically neutral, diverse or ambiguous has tremendous appeal," said Ron Berger, the chief executive of Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners in New York, an advertising agency and trend research company whose clients include Polaroid and Yahoo. "Both in the mainstream and at the high end of the marketplace, what is perceived as good, desirable, successful is often a face whose heritage is hard to pin down."

Ambiguity is chic, especially among the under-25 members of Generation Y, the most racially diverse population in the nation's history. Teen People's current issue, devoted to beauty, features makeovers of girls whose backgrounds are identified on full-page head shots as "Puerto Rican and Italian-American" and "Finnish-German-Irish-and-Scotch American."

"We're seeing more of a desire for the exotic, left-of-center beauty that transcends race or class," Amy Barnett, the magazine's managing editor, said. It "represents the new reality of America, which includes considerable mixing," she added. "It is changing the face of American beauty."

Nearly 7 million Americans identified themselves as members of more than one race in the 2000 census, the first time respondents were able to check more than one category. In addition, more than 14 million Latinos -- about 42 percent of Latino respondents -- ignored the census boxes for black or white and checked "some other race," an indication, experts said, of the mixed-race heritage of many Hispanics -- with black, white and indigenous Indian strains in the mix.

The increasingly multiracial American population, demographers say, is due to intermarriage and waves of immigration. Mixed-race Americans tend to be young -- those younger than 18 were twice as likely as adults to check multiracial on the census.

"The younger the age group, the more diverse the population," said Gregory Spencer, who heads the Census Bureau's population projections branch.

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