Wed, Feb 13, 2008 - Page 13 News List

"There are no blacks on the cats"

As New York Fashion Week comes to a close, many are wondering if the industry has been worrying too much about how thin models are and not enough about racial equality

By Megan K. Scott  /  AP , NEW YORK

Tyson Beckford is one of the few black models that regularly feature in catwalk show.

PHOTO: AGENCIES

"What happened to all the black people on the runway?" asked model Tyson Beckford, who attended several shows at New York Fashion Week. "There are no blacks on the cats."

Naomi Campbell put it another way: "Women of color are not a trend. That's the bottom line." And while Campbell wasn't invited to the shows this week and didn't attend, the supermodel may have been on to something. It seems that while the fashion industry was worrying about how skinny models were, it was neglecting another problem: how white they were.

There were drops of color here and there, but with the exception of a couple of shows, the runways were lined with pallid, bony bodies.

"There used to be myself, Naomi Campbell, Veronica Webb, Tyra Banks," Beckford said. "There used to be a lot of us out there, but today a lot of the designers just aren't catering to black people." In truth, this Fashion Week looked like about as diverse - or homogenous - as many before it. But if ever there should have been more people of color on the runway, the time was now.

The issue has been the topic of three panel discussions since September held by former model and agent Bethann Hardison. Diane von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, sent a memo to its members encouraging them to create fashion shows "that are truly multicultural." The media has focused on the issue.

"I do believe it did have an effect on the shows," says Kyle Hagler, manager at IMG Models, adding that there were a couple of new, diverse faces. "Obviously there is still more that needs to be done." Casting director Jennifer Venditti, owner of JV8Inc, says more ethnic models were used, but they were the same ethnic models as always. She says she only recognized a couple of new models.

"With the white girls, there's like a huge influx of people that you never saw before," says Venditti, who did castings for several shows, including Doo.Ri, Peter Som, BCBG and Rodarte. "I feel like it's always the same ethnic people."

Sean "Diddy" Combs made a statement by using only black models in his fall Sean John show on Friday. And other black designers, such as Tracy Reese, show diverse runways.

That's why Venditti says it's going to take a non-black designer to really make a change and embrace different colors and shapes. "A lot of times these girls are being judged on body type by someone of a different ethnicity," she says.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were seemingly a better time for black models, including Campbell, Banks, Webb, Beverly Peele and Karen Alexander. Before then there was Pat Cleveland, Naomi Sims, Iman and Beverly Johnson, the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue magazine in 1974.

While there isn't another Tyra or Naomi today there are also no big-name Christys or Giseles, either.

Gisele Bundchen, probably the last model who became a household name, helped usher in an era when Brazilian bombshells dominated the catwalk. That era has passed, even in Brazil, where critics complained earlier this year that Sao Paulo Fashion Week was full of models who were European in appearance.

On Forbes' 2007 list of the top 15 earning models in the industry, only one - Liya Kebede - was black. The "in look" right now is white, says Holly Alford, a fashion historian from Virginia Commonwealth University.

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