When Gucci rolled out audition videos for its pre-fall 2017 campaign last week on Instagram, publications as diverse as Allure, BET and The Fader picked up the news. Unlike most digital fashion campaigns, this one created a significant splash in terms of coverage due to its casting of all black models. It’s an especially stark change for a brand that tends to be weak on diversity — many of its campaigns feature a lone black model alongside a larger all-white group. This meagre attempt remains noteworthy in an industry in which the spring/summer 2017 campaign rollout saw all-white spreads from Roberto Cavalli, Chloe and more, and runway shows that were only 30.3% non-white, according to a recent report by The Fashion Spot.
Cast by Midland Agency, known for its street-casting work for the likes of Hood by Air and Eckhaus Latta, the Gucci videos feature young women and men riffing (inexplicably, but with charm) on their “spirit animals,” with no attention being paid to the Gucci brand or its products. While it certainly succeeded in garnering attention and is a welcome improvement from its exclusionary campaigns of the past, it remains to be seen whether race-based campaigns affect brands in the long-term or are just good old marketing.
Menswear designer David Hart, who cast all black models in his Fall 2016 presentation, believes that such initiatives can be sincere. “Our presentations have always been about telling a story,” he explained. “The collection was inspired by the Blue Note Jazz record label and the radical musicians that changed the way we think about music. To not cast a show of all black men would have been a disservice to these jazzmen and their legacy; it wouldn’t have felt authentic.”
Jahn Hall, who cast Hart’s presentation, said that larger, more traditional brands have just been slow to take a page from more progressive young designers who have always championed diversity. Prada, for example, failed to feature one black model in its campaigns between 1994 and 2013, while Celine held off entirely under Phoebe Philo until featuring Karly Loyce for fall 2015. Thanks to social media, newer designers “are carving out their own customer and speaking to them in a way that big box brands were far too afraid of doing, until they saw the young ‘cool kids’ pulling it off successfully,” he said.
However, the backstory of Gucci’s campaign remains unclear, which echoes the opaque and controversial race-uniform editorials of seasons past from publications like Vogue Italia in May 2011 and W Magazine in August 2015.
Such initiatives, which focus on one race alone without context could potentially do more harm than good if they fail to alter a company’s future casting decisions overall. Young people today are especially savvy and inclined to question brands’ decisions, said MaryLeigh Bliss, the chief content officer at Ypulse, a marketing and research firm focused on millennials. “They know that brands’ motivations are rarely pure, and they can be skeptical [of them],” she said. “But that doesn’t mean they’ll reject the effort.”
Perhaps that’s because they don’t have much to celebrate in the first place. In an industry still struggling with adequate representation across magazine covers and on runways, diversity in any form is often welcome. “New Census Bureau data shows that only 51 percent of those under 15 years old are white, and 51 percent of children under five are minorities. To compare, 55 percent of millennials, 60 percent of Gen X-ers and 72 percent of Boomers are non-Hispanic white,” Bliss noted. “In other words, we are at a diversity tipping point among young consumers, and they want to see their reality reflected back at them.” Sincerity notwithstanding.