Race is and will likely continue to be a pretty touchy issue in the fashion industry, but there is a small spot of bright news to be thankful for: The number of non-white models on the runways at New York Fashion Week has increased, and trends indicate it will keep growing season after season.
A survey of shows at the tents and beyond by Loop21, a news site that focuses on issues facing Black Americans, found that of the over 200 runway shows and presentations scheduled during fashion week, only 20 didn’t include models of African descent. Asian models were present in all but 34 shows. If it sounds like those numbers aren’t all that great, consider that of the 144 spring 2011 runway shows (the ones presented in Sept. 2010), 25 featured no black models and 19 featured no Asians. The decrease in the presence of Asian models this season is regrettable, but the overall trend shows an increase in models who aren’t white, or who come from indeterminate racial backgrounds. And it showed on runways for everyone from Tracy Reese, Jenny Packham and Imitation to J.Crew and Gant by Michael Bastian.
Still, the study points out that there were a number of shows that were literally all white. Veteran designer Norma Kamali didn’t include anyone of color in their shows, and neither did Rebecca Minkoff, Robert Geller or Sass & Bide. And as far as we’re concerned, they all missed out.
Including models of color on the runway isn’t something a designer should feel obligated to do — and it’s clear that some don’t. Last February, Luca Luca designer Raul Melgoza told Styleite that he didn’t cast any Black or Asian models in his fall runway show because diversity is “not necessarily a criteria” for creating a good show. (It’s worth noting that the Loop21 survey counted two Black models and three Asian models in the Luca Luca show this season.) But what should be a criteria for creating a good show is reflecting the wide variety of people whose money you’re after. As writer Keli Goff, who is a contributing editor for Loop21, pointed out, Black women spend some 20 billion a year on fashion. If cold, hard cash isn’t a good reason to go and find a few more brown faces, we don’t know what is.
But beyond that, what we see on the runway has a huge impact on the way we see our society. The shows themselves are often comments on a theme — who could forget the military heavy band jacket aesthetic that dominated trend reports just a few short years ago in the throes of war on terror? If there’s a dearth of non-white models on the runway, that sort of indicates to us that there’s a dearth of non-white people in other areas of our life. But you need look no further than your office or your parking lot or your kid’s playground to know that that’s simply not the case.