‘Black girls do not sell’. What a statement! I did not expect to hear that from Rob Soar, the brand manager of Arise magazine, which is aimed at affluent Africans living all over the world.
Although he was talking hypothetically, this was the first disappointment in my investigation into institutional racism in the fashion industry. When i first approached the issue of under-representation of black models in high-end magazines, I was ready to encounter some unpleasant truths.
Lets look at the symptoms of racial inequality in the fashion business from a historical perspective. Miss Josephine Baker is the first person to spring to mind. A fascinating performer who, with an audience of the rich and white, opened the door as a role model for black women. She was adored, praised, envied and lusted after by both men and women, though not without encountering opposition and prejudice.
It would seem that Paris, more than any other city, was open to different races in the 1930s and 1940s. but at what cost? Miss Baker was often subjected to racism as well as adoration, and struggled with being labelled a freak or savage. Much like what Sarah Baartman experienced when she was brought over from her native South Africa to Paris in 1810. She was paraded as a freak in a circus because of her big bottom.
Everything goes back to the meaning of beauty at the time. Beauty was, and is something tangible, understandable, conventional, and at its best (or maybe, its worst?) unlikely to offend. a black woman could be considered perfectly beautiful, having great bone structure and flawless skin. But wait…what if that skin was too dark? Well, this is unacceptable.
And who on earth could change the perceptions of the white gaze in the 1950s? Maybe Helen Williams, the model who had the aquiline nose, big oval eyes, perfect lips – not too big. She was described as a white girl ‘dipped in chocolate’ by other black women. Extremely offensive though that description was, Williams broke through to ‘white’ magazines, proving that there was a place for dark skinned women after all.
Williams paved the way; following her breakthrough to the mainstream white fashion press, British icon Donyale Luna became the first black model to feature on the cover of Vogue UK in 1966. Beverly Johnson did the same at US Vogue in 1974. Tyra Banks was on the cover of the best selling US publication Sports Illustrated in 1997.
To date, the Black Issue of Italian Vogue is still their biggest seller. ‘It may very well have been the worst selling issue but my campaign on Facebook helped it to sell out twice! I had a point to make.’ explains Sola, director of Mahogany International Models.
‘I know loads of black models who have experienced racism in the industry. Apparently mainstream won’t be able to relate to a black model,’ says Afua Adom, features editor at Pride magazine.
‘Hiro, a fashion photographer who worked for Harpers Bazaar, was once given an assignment in Kenya and requested a black model. On having his request turned down, he himself refused the job.
Nick Knight is another fashion photographer known for using black models. In his video ‘Untitled’ he states i am virtually never allowed to photograph black models, and no excuse is given’. Vivienne Westwood and Naomi Campbell have also complained about the lack of black models in the fashion industry.
But why? What is the real issue with black models? Says Sola ‘It is purely about money and opportunities. When Italian Vogue brought out their ‘Black’ issue, it was around the time of Obama being elected as President and tied nicely in with current affairs. It was never about purely promoting black models’.
All of this brings me back to the fact that black models don’t sell. At least not to the intended market; but how could a white woman relate to the black woman, her shape, her hair and the way the clothes appear on them? Is it commerce, or race that really matters here?
In 1976, Iman appeared on the catwalk wearing clothes by YSL, Issey Miyake, Versace, and she had a successful 14 year modelling career. At the same time, the late Helen Gurley-Brown stated that black models would offend readers. It seemed there was one rule for the catwalk, and another for magazines. Magazines typically stay with their traditional standard to spare them the risk of alienating their readership. When Harpers Bazaar used Elizabeth, Princess of Toro on the cover in 1969, they put a white model alongside her. What for? Just in case they alienated their regular readership, ultimately diluting the presence of Elizabeth on the cover.
In spite of the progress that has been made by black trailblazers, there is still a blonde, blue eyed ideal. It has never been about representing all colours of the world. Why not just accept that?
I can’t. The fashion world is so behind the real world. Everyone seems to believe that it has moved forward in terms of acceptance but in reality it feels like the button is firmly on pause. At best, it plays in slow motion and we get a breakthrough. After all, we have Naomi and Alek Wek, who have sustained long careers. Then we have new hope in Jordan Dunn, Ajuma Nasenyana, Chanel Iman, Ajak Deng and Rose Cordero, all taking our breath away with their beauty. Hopefully with the exposure of new black models they will be used more consistently.
And it is important to change the emphasis in the phrase ‘beautiful black models’ from the word ‘black’ to the word ‘beautiful’. On the Channel 4 series, The Model Agency, new face Leomie Anderson was told she was ‘one of the top breakthrough black models’, to which she replied ‘aww that’s nice’ and appeared grateful. But i thought ‘why can’t she just be breakthrough? Why black?’
I am trying, but it is hard when even Alexandra Shulman, Editor of UK Vogue, says that Alek Wek is ‘too thin, too extraordinary looking to be on the cover of Vogue or in the magazine’. And these Editors rule fashion.
Though there is always Oliviero Toscani with his ideas for Benetton, and the motto ‘All the colours of the world’.
I hope one day we will see all these colours as eternally beautiful.