The slow march to diversity at NYFW

The way a designer’s show begins sets the tone for the rest of the collection.

At Tome’s New York Fashion Week show on Sept. 11, the first five women to walk down the runway were African American, all with natural hair. The women’s ready-to-wear brand, launched in 2013 by Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin, went on to finish its 48-look fashion show with one of the more diverse runways New York Fashion Week had seen so far: about half of its 37 models were models of color, one of whom was plus-size. One model was transgender, another was 64 years old.

“We’ve always held onto the idea of the every woman, so this year we wanted to take it to the next level and expand those parameters,” said Lobo. “We’re privy to so many views from other people’s lives, and the women who buy our clothes and respond to our clothes really care that we care.”

Diversity on the runway is the conversation that resurfaces each season, as, at each fashion week, not enough progress is made. There’s impetus to change how well models of different races, as well as body size, are represented, stemming from the organizers, the agencies, the press, social media and some designers themselves. But what hasn’t changed is that, first and foremost, high-fashion is equivalent to white and thin, with exceptions few and far between. And most models that don’t fit that description struggle for work and experience, with a few exceptions.

Tome’s designers are two of a small group of fashion week designers who have bucked the industry norm of casting mostly white models with the exception of the “one or two” women of color. That aesthetic has come to represent the extent of diversity at New York Fashion Week.

Other designers who have embraced diversity in their shows include Brandon Maxwell, Chromat, Gypsy Sport and Christian Siriano, whose show included women of several races, body sizes and ages and prompted much social media fanfare.

Consumer participation in fashion week has helped force the industry’s hand when it comes to racial inclusivity. In the same way that this consumer participation has turned fashion shows into entertainment and made runway collections instantly shoppable, the casts of models in the shows have become steadily more representative of the society that’s critiquing them.

Runway diversity at the major fashion weeks over the past four seasons. Source: The Fashion Spot.

“An outcry has come from social and online media,” said Jennifer Davidson, managing editor of The Fashion Spot, an online community and social forum for fashion designers and industry members that reports on the diversity of fashion weeks after each season. “Ultimately, it’s the consumers who hold the purse strings, and the consumers who care about diversity will support designers who care about diversity.”

“One particular aesthetic”
For luxury fashion brands, leaving out certain demographics from their collections runs the risk of leaving a lot of potential money on the table. The 2015 Multicultural Economy Report, an annual report done by the Terry College of Business, projected that the spending power of the Hispanic market in 2015 amounted to $1.3 trillion. African American spending power was worth $1.2 trillion in 2015, and the Asian market in America had the spending power of $825 billion.

Still, a lack of racial representation in high fashion persists.

“Designers and their teams choose who best represent their collection,” said Stefan Campbell, an artistic and creative director who currently produces fashion events and photoshoots for Michael Bastian, Paper magazine and BravoTV. “It’s not just the runways, it’s about diversity in general within the business of high fashion. When you look at commercial brands, they appeal to a wider margin. High fashion is still holding onto an ideal of the ‘elite,’ directed toward one particular aesthetic.”

Increasingly, on social media, spectators of fashion shows are challenging the single aesthetic that sends one type of model down the runway. This season, the hashtags #BlackModelsMatter and #RunwayForAll have been used to draw attention to the inclusion, or lack thereof, of diverse models during fashion week. #BlackModelsMatter generates 13,300 results on Instagram, while #RunwayForall generates 2,000. However, it’s difficult for those in the industry to link this conversation to actual progress.

“It’s hard to really say if these conversations are changing people’s minds about certain things,” said Nafisa Kaptownwala, founder of Lorde Inc., a management agency for models of color. “The norm is that models are white, tall, thin, blank canvases. When you put clothes on a model of color, that elicits a response that’s about something other than the clothes. That needs to go away.”

Shifting blame
Designers wanting to include more than one or two models of color have aired frustrations about how many are actually available each season. In February, designer Lamine Kouyaté ran into difficulties when trying to cast an all-black runway show.

“There still aren’t that many black models at the agencies, and the ones that there are tend to be inexperienced. They haven’t had an opportunity to walk in many shows,” Kouyaté’s publicist, Kelly Cutrone, told the New York Times in February.

This season, Kanye West set out to cast his Yeezy Season 4 show exclusively with “multiracial” models through an open call. That wording was met with criticism from protesters who read that to mean “light skin only,” but West’s stunt still demonstrated that to find models with a range of skintones, he had to seek them outside of the agencies.

“The modeling agencies have to try harder,” said Bethann Hardison, a former model and the head of the CFDA’s Diversity Coalition. “Sometimes, they have a few good black girls, and they’ll hold them back from doing a lot of shows like they’re commodities. It’s inappropriate behavior, like they’re holding their cards close to their chest.”

One agency president disagrees with the notion that they’re not representing enough models of color, saying that the final decision comes down to the designer, and that, a lot of times, the designers’ predetermined visions of who they see in their shows.

“There are certain brands that want a certain look, and they have a right to do that,” said Rene Gonzalez, the founder and president of boutique agency State Management, who previously worked for IMG and Wilhelmina. “Instead of pinpointing designers, people should look at the whole picture of beauty that’s out there. There are more ethnic girls every season. I can’t stand people saying there isn’t enough diversity.”

Whether a lack of diversity stems from the agencies or the designers, social media has given a platform to voices looking for more representation.

“Social media has opened up the world aesthetically to people, and it’s why we’re finding more people joining the conversation,” said Campbell. “But are we seeing more diversity because of that, necessarily? All I know is that the high fashion glass ceiling has a lot of cracks in it.”

Rising pressure
Pressure on designers to change also comes from the inside. For the past two years, the CFDA, which organizes New York Fashion Week, has sent out Diversity Guidelines, written by the Coalition’s Hardison. The guidelines tell CFDA members to include diverse models in their shows, to ask agencies to send models of color, rather than assume they’ll do so on their own, and to suggest that the agencies scout more models of color.

“I’m very hopeful that this season will be more diverse from last season,” said The Fashion Spot’s Davidson. “It’s shaping up to be that way.” Davidson pointed out that she and her team have noticed only a few shows strikingly lacking in diversity: Rodarte, Nicole Miller and Zimmermann.

As progress must be made each season, it’s not enough for spectators on social media to take the industry to task each time a designer sends models down the runway. It’s the responsibility of the fashion press, too.

“It’s an insider, community mentality,” said Lorde Inc’s Kaptownwala. “No one wants to have to be the one to call out brands for being problematic. But the fact is that everyone should be represented.”

More pressure from the press would give a broader reach to the individual voices asking for change on social media, which Kaptownwala said is most often the marginalized voices in the first place. If the critique of a designer’s collection is being overshadowed by the models in the show, they’ll feel more compelled to change.

“At the end of it all, it’s the responsibility of the designer,” said Hardison. “You can only make them conscious of their actions and make them feel un-modern with their approach and aesthetic. Every voice helps.”

Tome’s Lobo said that within the industry, there’s been a palpable mood shift.

“Diversity is in the air,” he said. “But until all runways are completely diverse, there’s a job to be done.”

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