What We Mean When We Talk Diversity In Fashion

by Maxine Builder

We can all agree that, by any measure, the fashion world lacks diversity. In 2014, only 119 of 611 covers of major fashion magazines featured models of color. According to Jezebel, an overwhelming majority (78.69 percent, to be precise) of models walking in New York Fashion Week this time last year were white. And of the 260 shows appearing at Lincoln Center this past week, only three featured African-American designers.

These already sobering statistics become more troubling when looking at the disparities between Latina, Asian and black models. That same Jezebel survey found that there were more black models walking the runway in Fall-Winter 2014 than Asian models (9.75 percent of all models, as compared to 7.67 percent, respectively), and even fewer Latina models than either of those two groups. The numbers aren't much more encouraging for designers. There are approximately 12 African-American designers who are members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA); there were at least 35 Asian-American CFDA members in 2010 — a number that has only continued to grow.

Now, this isn't a competition of "who has it worse," because that's not productive or helpful, but these statistics demonstrate how muddy the issue of diversity in fashion can be. When talking about the fashion world embracing diversity, against what ruler are we measuring? Is success to be based on the ratio between models of color versus white models, or total number of minority designers? Or is achieving diversity a more subjective measure? The definition of diversity, and the subsequent metrics we use to gauge success, become even more important to define when outlets like Mashable claim this NYFW's unofficial trend has been diversity, and commentators call this season one of the most diverse yet. That might be true, but how do we know for sure? At what point is the fashion world really considered "diverse?"


There have been many visible successes this week that should be noted, if not celebrated. FTL Moda featured models with physical disabilities. We saw Winnie Harlow, a model with the skin condition vitiligo, walking in Desigual; Jamie Brewer, an actress with Down Syndrome, walking for Carrie Hammer; and Laverne Cox walking in Go Red For Women.

But according to Bethann Hardison, founder of the Diversity Coalition and recipient of the CFDA Founder's Award in 2014 for her work on advocating for more models of color on runways and in ad campaigns globally, having celebrities like Harlow or Cox walk down the runways doesn't go far enough to make significant, sustainable changes. Featuring these women is "just appropriate. That’s celebrity... They are current and exposed and a good idea, but that’s not fashion.”

Hardison created the Diversity Coalition in 2013 to promote more racial diversity in the industry. She focuses on diversity among fashion models rather than designers, largely because that’s her background. (She started her career as a model, walking in Le Grand Divertissement à Versailles in 1973, and eventually opened her own agency Bethann Management in 1984.) The other reason Hardison gives for focusing on the fashion model is that the model is the public’s first impression of a designer. Ensuring racial diversity on the catwalk is a good metric for broader change because the runway is where a girl is first introduced. But the ratio of white models to models of color doesn’t have to be perfectly equal, according to Hardison. “Balance could be 70-30,” as long as it’s representative. “I’m trying to educate the minds of others that it’s a diverse environment we want to see.”

D Dipasupil/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

To achieve this goal, Hardison’s Diversity Coalition has worked with the CFDA and its president Diane von Furstenberg to create industry-wide guidelines for racial diversity. The suggestions seem relatively easy to implement, such as, "Make an effort to add diversity to your lineup. It affects how we see things globally and how we are seen as an industry." But that seemingly simple sense of responsibility is at the heart of Hardison's call for diversity. "All you want is to reflect a bit of society so we can show, as an industry, we’re a little more on top of our game. It’s embarrassing [to exclude models of color]."

Unintentional discrimination and lack of awareness are the reasons why, in a 2013 open letter to designers who had one or no models of color in their runway shows, Hardison wrote that excluding minorities "can no longer be accepted, nor confused by the use of the Asian model." When asked to explain the separation between Asian models and those from other racial or ethnic groups, Hardison explained that Asian models are often not considered to be minorities by designers and stylists, especially as the Chinese market for luxury goods has grown. She perceived the use of Asian models as a ploy to attract the overseas market rather than an attempt at inclusion of different races in fashion, and was simultaneously discomfited that no one in a decision-making position seemed to spend the time or effort to understand from which country these Asian models came. "They didn’t know if the girl was Malaysian, Japanese, Chinese... They always said the Chinese girl."

Hardison added, "As far as I’m concerned, the Asian model is not a Caucasian model [and] I got their back [too]. I had to clarify... When people think I’m only talking the back girl, I’m not. I’m talking about anyone that’s not Caucasian." All minorities need to be represented in the industry, and the public statement was intended to ensure that designers and casting directors and stylists understand that Asian models are also under-represented, rather than to negate these models' existence.

South Korean model Ji Hye Park at New York Fashion Week.Hardison's tactics, including the naming and shaming of offending designers in her annual letter, seem to have worked, as demonstrated by the increase in the number of models of color used by many of the fashion houses she cited for infractions. But this year, Hardison is slightly changing her strategy. As she put it, “There [are] plenty of different ways to skin a cat.”

Although she will be doing another count of models of color in this season's shows, she's also celebrating the diversity that has developed by profiling models of color from five of New York City's major model agencies. Her series Diversity Rules! started running on this past Sunday, and features both photos and video interviews of emerging models of color of all races and ethnicities to put a face to this often abstract problem.

Diversity Rules!, along with the diverse casts of the shows this past week, demonstrate the steps that have been taken toward fostering a sustainable commitment to diversity in the fashion world. Even Hardison has noticed a shift among fashion insiders that "you wouldn’t think would care" (in other words, white men) who have pulled her aside to say that shows that only feature white models make them uncomfortable and are considered odd.

There are plenty of beautiful, talented, competent models of color, and of different sizes and abilities, to feature on runways and on magazine covers. But the numbers of those who are being put in the spotlight are still too low, and there are still too few models and designers of color to really say that the fashion world is representative of our day-to-day lives. Diversity in fashion should be defined a conscious effort to be accepting of all, and for designers to understand that the images they produce are powerful. With that power, as Spiderman's Uncle Ben would say, comes a real responsibility to represent real women. It's also important to make sure that certain races and ethnicities are not excluded from this struggle.

At the end of the day, it may be impossible to come up with an exact metric to know when the fashion industry has fully embraced diversity. The fashion world has come a long way, and it's important to celebrate the advances that have been made by pioneers like Hardison and the Diversity Coalition. But until racial diversity becomes the industry norm, we shouldn't settle for one good season and must continue to advocate for accurate, inclusive representation.

Images: Getty; Giphy; Instagram/jihyeparkjhp