One definition of fashion design is “the art of the application of design and aesthetics or natural beauty to clothing and accessories” if this is the case should we not see more diversity in the “high” fashion industry? Shouldn’t we see designers who represent all ethnicities equally, as well as an array of models that women of all nationalities can identify with?
Friday 13th September marked the opening of one of the biggest Fashion events in the world. In its 25th year London Fashion Week (LFW) is as popular as ever. Organised by the British Fashion Council and run twice yearly (in February and September) it is one of four most prestigious catwalk events. Where every British designer throughout the events’ history has high hopes of showcasing their pieces. With its high profile media coverage, it’s likely the ‘next big thing’ could be discovered dazzling the runway. But in the week before the event a controversial subject that has remained a sour undertone in the industry has arisen yet again. No it’s not the issue of health and anorexia among models, rather the issue of racism which is often swept under the carpet.
In an interview with Channel 4 News, world renowned supermodel Naomi Campbell inadvertently accused the fashion world of being racist. Promoting the Diversity Coalition campaign which she co-founded with fellow supermodel Iman, Campbell spoke about the obvious imbalance of Black and Asian models walking New York fashion week earlier this year. She stated, “The act of not choosing models of colour is racist. We’re not calling them racist. We’re saying the act is racist.”
She raised this issue during London fashion week hoping that the organisers would support her campaign by adding more ethnic models to the bill.
Campbell has featured in several LFW shows during her years as a model and said, “I feel really optimistic about London. I think London is going to do the right thing and we are going to see a lot more models of colour on the runway.”
Shocked that in the many years since she became a model, things in the fashion industry have gotten progressively worse she went on to say, “When I started modelling, I did Yves Saint Laurent, I did Versace. There was a great balance of models and colour.” She also opened up and said that she has suffered discrimination as a model of colour but does not think that at the time this discrimination was mirrored on the catwalks.
Campbell who was discovered at the age of 15 is one of the most recognisable models of the past 26 years and maintains her status as a model of substance. Whether you appreciate her behaviour (as publicised by the media) or not, there is no denying her amazing talent and beauty. For Campbell to align herself with the Diversity Coalition campaign is a testament to how serious this issue is, and highlights the prejudices towards women of colour in the fashion industry.
In 1987 Campbell became one of the first black women to appear on the cover of British Vogue a position that has not been taken by many British Black Women ever since. Her story rings true with many models of colour not only in Britain and the US but around the world. Up and coming model Jourdan Dunn (seen as the next Naomi), has previously opened up about experiencing racism as a young model. Earlier this year on The Jonathan Ross Show she told of her experience with a white makeup artist who did not want to do her makeup because she was black. To many it was shocking to hear, but it’s a terrible truth black models have to deal with.
This issue does not just relate to fashion models, in the designing world there are not very many high profile fashion designers of African descent. When it comes to showcasing designs in any of the four major catwalk shows – London, Milan, New York and Paris a black presence is almost non-existent, making up less than 15% of the talent. When I think about it and even after countless hours of research the only names that pop-up among the fashion elite are Bruce Oldfield and Ozwald Boateng.
Ozwald Boateng is a fashion designer of Ghanaian descent who specialises in men’s tailoring. He is known for his trademark twist on classic British tailoring and bespoke style and has graced the stages of both Paris and London fashion weeks. Ozwald is the co-founder of the Made in Africa Foundation which supports and funds studies across Africa. Although he witnessed and experienced racism as a black man in London in the 1980’s, Ozwald believes that people should stop using the race card, in an interview with BBC Hardtalk in January this year, he stated, “I didn’t want the image of myself to get in front of me as a creator.” But being the most highly acclaimed successful black male fashion designer in the industry is Boateng ignoring the Elephant in the room? Or is it a way of distancing himself from such a sore subject? Although he admits that race played a role when he was making a name for himself, he sticks to his claim that hard work paved the way.
Ozwald is not wrong in making this statement because if you are not passionate about something and don’t put a lot of work into it you won’t get the desired results. However in my opinion, in an industry such as this, it is luck, who you know and being in the right place at the right time which plays a significant role in achieving the huge success he has. For an up and coming Black designer it is very difficult. For example, Romero Bryan and Wale Adeyemi are two black designers who have worked extremely hard but have been unable to gain the same success as Boateng.
Looking at the rundown of London Fashion week out of the 226 designers showcasing their work there were only 4 of AfriCarib descent which works out to be less than 5%. The problem is not a lack of British Black designers (because there are many) but the fact is black designers do not get the support or funding it takes to show their designs in such prestigious events. Those who do make a name for themselves are often shunned by the industry.
Although more and more people are taking a stand against the obvious racism in fashion it seems that this deep rooted issue is not going anywhere anytime soon and our black models and designers will suffer on a long road trying to become accepted in a predominantly white world. All we can do as a community is to support those models making waves such as Jourdan Dunn, Malika Firth and Alisha White and continue the fight against this endemic in the fashion industry.
But I will still ask this, will we ever be able to compete or should I say work alongside our white counterparts as equals? Will our natural deep rooted creative flare ever get time to blossom to its full potential? I guess only time will tell.