The Heather Grey, Jersey Knit, Racism of Fashion

by Our New Fashion Correspondent Joseph Lamour

Racism in the fashion industry is still alive and well. Duh. I have to say it somewhere in an article like this, so I thought, why not get it out the way from the start? However, the opinions put forth in Charles Beckwith’s modaCYCLE rebuttal piece “Racism In Fashion” are not themselves racist. But they certainly are ironic.

Naive Boy's rendition of racism in fashion
Beckwith opens with a reference to Naiveboy’s well travelled work equating Anna Wintour with the Reich. He contends that the fashion industry isn’t racist, but in fact sensitive to the collective unconscious. And what the public wants to see is more gaunt blondes. We do? Of all the pervasive excuses diversity naysayers in the fashion community claim, profit and profit alone drives some of the racially myopic choices fashion people make. And yet, 2011’s trend is “Global Prints”. Irony alarm!

Burberry Resort Wear

Image from Burberry Prorsum’s 2012/13 Resort Collection

I think he might have forgotten to italicize part of his title. Racism: In Fashion. Can’t you just hear Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa in the background? Beckwith explains why Naomi Campbell has appeared on 8 covers of Vogue and Kate Moss has appeared on 24, is because consumers (read white consumers) want to see someone in the clothes that they want to be. Kate Moss dated Pete Doherty for a long stretch- I’m pretty sure no one’s clamoring to be in her shoes these days. But would they rather be in Naomi’s or Kate’s? An editor apparently lost their job over making the wrong choice, and Beckwith states:

“I have never met Naomi Campbell, nor can I confirm or dispel the claim of an Australian editor being fired for putting her on a cover. Though, if an editor had been fired for putting Ms. Campbell on a cover, no evidence was cited that would lead anyone to believe that the action was specifically related to racism more than likely profit motives.”

But, in what world are these mutually exclusive? In Ms. Campbell’s defense, if someone got canned partially in relation to your face, wouldn’t you be upset? I might not call a bunch of publicists, but is it so far fetched that it couldn’t be true? Maybe fashion recycles social mores as much as they recycle trends.

…subjectively, [sic] Kate Moss is a much stronger model with more ability to transform her face, and she is generally better liked in the business than the ill-tempered cell phone-throwing and community service sentence-serving Ms. Campbell.

Is Kate Moss is a stronger model? You can’t see it, but I’m side eyeing. Kate is indisputably an excellent model. She’s an inspiration for solid gold sculptures. She can slip through cracks in floors. I would imagine she is generally more likable.

Kate Moss Pier

Image from PopSugar

Perhaps not near ledges or piers, however. I know, she probably knew the kid she pushed off a pier into the ocean. Kidding aside, didn’t Kate get caught on camera doing something illegal? Why no mention of that? And why not mention Alex Wek or Lea T or Liu Wen? I would never disparage one group to defend another, but, notice he uses only positive adjectives for Kate and only negative-tinged, multi-faceted, overly-dashed adjectives for Naomi. We all know Naomi isn’t a bed of honeysuckle on a warm summer day, but frankly, I think he just doesn’t like her. I mean, for good reason, she’s intimidating. That doesn’t mean that Naomi doesn’t have a point.

Later in his piece, he becomes much less incendiary and much more amusing. Still, after reading the first half I felt an overwhelming sense that I’ve been here before, reading this article, because Beckwith is conjecturing that it isn’t fashion’s fault. Minorities in fashion put people off buying expensive things. Look at the market research. I conducted my own “lazy survey” and spoke with friend who is a white and fashionable, blond and blue eyed, and works at a gallery. I asked if she would be more or less likely to buy something if say, the model used to be a man. Her reply? “What does that matter?”

Cole

“I’ll just take the purse hanging over there, thanks.”

Image of Cole Mohr for Marc by Marc Jacobs

The reality is that there about a million things going on in someone’s head at once before they make a purchasing decision, and maybe if I see someone I don’t want to emulate in the clothes I won’t want to buy them. Maybe my friend was being nice because she was talking to her gay black friend. The idea that the race or gender identity of the person wearing the clothes affects the consumer buying it is an excuse to disinclude. Soft racism if you will. In the end, it doesn’t matter if a man is wearing a dress, if you really really like the dress, you’re going to buy it. You’re probably going to want to try it on first.

[On making it illegal to discriminate based on race in the fashion arena:]

“I’m certainly not advocating more “black face” makeup on Caucasians or a drag queen takeover of Ralph Lauren campaigns, but that is what is being talked about.”

Now saying something like that just makes me want to get RuPaul and Ralph in a room together. Wouldn’t that get your attention? Who among us has looked at a Ralph Lauren, Emporio Armani or Davidoff ad for more than three seconds while flipping through a magazine? Do they even make Cool Water anymore? Fashion for the most part has become so set in it’s ways that when a new concept comes along, they either celebrate it (like the tattooed model or the albino model) or admonish it. This all boils down to reluctance to take risks. I personally think a lot of the fashion elite are afraid of change. Beckwith asserts throughout his article that it is an indisputable fact that black models are less profitable than their white counterparts:

Until there is an affluent consumer base behaving less alienated to dark faces, and that demand starts to exist from them for the thousands of new $10,000 evening dresses every 6 months, there is no reason for commercial enterprise to be pushing them to an audience that cannot afford them.

Does the phrase “dark faces” make anyone else need a glass of water? The fact of the matter is no one is buying $10,000 evening dresses in this economy. That’s why you can find Chanel Creative Director Karl Lagerfeld shilling his (admittedly, gorgeous) wares at Macys now. And, of course, all the models are all still white.


(Thanks to reader C for the tip!)

  • http://dont-read.blogspot.com Angel H.

    Telling someone to just make their own clothes is a lot easier said than done when you figure in time to learn how to sew, time to make the clothes, and money for materials. Adn besides, what’s wronog with wanting some representation in the media?

    • Anonymous

      Seriously. I do sew some of my own clothing, but I recognize I’m lucky to have the time, energy and skills to do so. 

      Besides, sewing pattern companies still use models too, although I’m glad to say that they seem to have decent level of diversity on the envelop covers. It could be better, but I feel they’re still loads ahead of high fashion.

  • Ash

    Fashion is segregated…Yes. However, I do not care for who the model is cause there is no way in hell or heaven I am going to pay more than $25 for any article of clothing even if I was Oprah, They can keep there fashion while I am making my own.

  • Suzanne Fboswell

    I find it particularly funny that we’re supposed to want to buy clothes from people we look like.
     Uh… who looks like a model?
    Your average woman in america is a size 10-12. Your average model? 0-2. 2 is a bit heavy, actually.
    But that’s okay, because fashion is really about FANTASY.
    In other words, it’s okay for fashion to be a fantasy when it suits the fashion industry (ie: hiring only very thin models), but fashion is about people identifying with the model when anyone points out racism…
    It all makes perfect sense. Which is probably why my head is exploding right now.

  • Digital Coyote

    Kate Moss is a much stronger model with more ability to transform her
    face, and she is generally better liked in the business than the
    ill-tempered cell phone-throwing and community service sentence-serving
    Ms. Campbell….Until there is an affluent consumer base behaving less alienated to dark
    faces, and that demand starts to exist from them for the thousands of
    new $10,000 evening dresses every 6 months, there is no reason for
    commercial enterprise to be pushing them to an audience that cannot
    afford them.

    Translation: we’d rather hire a crackhead we can use as a blank canvas and paint up any way we like because we don’t want to take the time or effort to work on consistently achieving the same effects on browner people, particularly one who acts like an unreasonable diva (just like a fair lot of them in this business) but it’s different because she’s Black and angry.  Besides, people who look like Naomi are broke and can’t be used to sell the fantasy that is advertising because instead of buying the product, they might just steal it from you.

  • Carly

    I was absolutely shaking my head yes at the end of the article. I feel as if this all comes back to the idea that models are living clothes hangers and that the ‘standard’ hanger is a painfully thin, pale, white model. This embedded denial that choosing a fair, white model isn’t making an active choice, it’s going with the base-line expectation of what a model is. That choosing anyone who isn’t white and fair is choosing something unusual or extra, something ‘not average.’ That this choice doesn’t significantly drive consumer choice. The fashion world seems so attached to this you wonder that even if someday no one on earth looked like that would they still go to their graves with this choice?

  • AMF

    Curious to get your thoughts on today’s NYTimes article, re: “black style”: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/18/fashion/pushing-the-boundaries-of-black-style.html?ref=fashion

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Javan-Nelums/696759111 Javan Nelums

    Well the fashion industry is very segregated, Like if it wasn’t as some people say, why do magazines like Latina, essence, jet  and others have to set thei magazine apart from the mainstream ones

    • Morenaclara

      It’s funny that you mention this . I was talking to my dad
      yesterday about how I have almost no sympathy for people who complain they are
      “too pale”. Really? Go to a fashion magazine and try to  find models who do NOT are pale.  You mentioned magazines that are marketed to
      Women of color  and I thought of Vanidades(
      Spanish for Vanity) and  while it shows
        a little more diversity  than vogue it’s not by much.