Racism In Fashion

I was recently reading a fashion blog entry which attempted to go into detail about examples of racism in the fashion industry, titled “6 Reasons Why Fashion Is Inherently Racist.” To open the story the author had posted an image taken from naiveboy.com which substituted the “O” in “Vogue” with a swastika, but it was more than just the illustration I found more sensation than substance, and here is why.

Bridge Shot

written by Charles Beckwith

I was recently reading a fashion blog entry which attempted to go into detail about examples of racism in the fashion industry, titled “6 Reasons Why Fashion Is Inherently Racist.” To open the story the author, Emma Jones, had posted an image taken from naiveboy.com which substituted the “O” in “Vogue” with a swastika, but it was more than just the illustration I found more sensation than substance, and here is why.

The first heading in the piece was “Naomi Campbell,” and the exposition provided under that heading said,

“The supermodel claims that ‘black models are being sidelined by major modeling agencies’ and that she even considered opening her own modeling agency to propel black talent.

“For the record, while Kate Moss has appeared on 24 Vogue covers, Naomi Campbell has only appeared on eight. Furthermore, in an interview last October, Naomi claimed that the boss of a fashion magazine was sacked after putting her on its front cover.”

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. Knowing the business, I believe it would instead be fear of audience reaction that might push that sort of decision, not personal bias. It is also important to note that Naomi Campbell, at age 41, is no longer a traditional model, she is a celebrity. The recognizability of the brand that is her face is what gets her cast for covers at this point. You cannot compare her to the faces on models.com’s Top 50 Women list, she has been in a different business for about a decade and a half. I would also add, subjectively, that 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. It is also fairly difficult to go through a grocery store checkout line without seeing Beyonce or Eva Mendez on a fashion magazine cover right now. Correlation does not imply causation. Yes, dark-skinned celebrities have trouble getting on the covers of fashion magazines, but just because Naomi Campbell is dark-skinned does not mean she specifically is being excluded for that reason. In fact, as the quantitative evidence cited illustrates, she has been included more than most. How many other people have been on the cover of Vogue 8 times?

Honestly, if there were more models of color AND quality available, we at modaCYCLE would be using them in editorials, but one does not see the advertising agencies in New York supporting them with the commercial gigs that pay the bills. Editorial opportunities just don’t pay models enough to live, and working with magazines is primarily a way models elevate their status to pick up the far more lucrative advertising work.

The agencies keep around high-end models that make money for them, and models who don’t make money wait tables or go into debt and eventually go home. It’s less blanket racism and more cold hard business realities of the girls going to the castings and not getting the jobs. Women of color will continue to not get the jobs until you can show an accountant that black or Asian or Indian models move product. It’s not just big business, the smaller brands can often only afford one very tightly budgeted photo shoot per season, and to survive they take the safer road by casting models like the ones they see their large and small competitors using. Small businesses cannot afford to get it wrong. You can open all the new agencies you want, sign all the girls you want on the top boards, and run test balloon examples of racial diversity down the runway until the cows come home, but the business won’t support them yet.

Although I’m sure racism exists in the garment industry, it’s just so much more about predicting sales than keeping people down, and it seems very much more likely that campaigns featuring models of color and strong ethnic features have not done well in the marketplace in the past, so those campaigns are not being reproduced by the corporations that dominate the industry. There are not that many original ad campaigns, they clone what works and redecorate it a bit to make it look fresh, but most of them are as risk-averse as the advertising agencies can possibly produce. All business runs on predictability. At the top of the decision tree, companies are looking at numbers about skin color, not skin color, and for publicly held companies not to do so is a violation of the law.

Some would argue that any discrimination in castings is in itself a violation of the law. They say, flat out, it’s a job posting and you’re saying only people of a certain gender and race can apply, so it is illegal. In September 2009 techflash.com posted an article by a Mr. Todd Bishop about an argument over age discrimination in a reality television casting call which had been posted to a tech jobs mailing list, and it opened with this statement:

“It’s common and widely accepted for casting directors to seek people who match specific demographics — age, gender, etc. — when filling roles in television, advertisements and film. But when someone tries to fill a professional position using those kinds of criteria, it’s cause for a case of discrimination.”

A day later TechFlash got an email from Kent Mannis, the Managing Editor of LawRoom.com, in which he responded to the post saying they were quite wrong, and that there is no legal allowance for discrimination in show business.

“Dear Mr. Bishop, I read with interest your article ‘Casting call for tech-savvy young women creates ruckus on job list.’ Unfortunately, it erroneously suggests that an exception exists from the anti-discrimination laws for ‘casting calls’; there isn’t. It’s illegal.

“As a lawyer involved in employment law compliance for 15 years (and anti-harassment training for 10 years), I’ve noted a rise in curiosity about how labor laws and the entertainment business overlap.

[omitted text]

“In 2006, I noted a report on casting discrimination, and included this quote: ‘Casting directors take into account race and sex in a way that would be blatantly illegal in any other industry,’ said UCLA law professor Russell Robinson. ‘Many actors accept this as normal, but depending on the facts of the case, lawsuits can be filed.’

“Although the law allows intentional discrimination (e.g., choosing a worker by sex or age) when a ‘bona fide occupational qualification’ (BFOQ), as when a particular lead actor must display these traits, there’s no BFOQ exception for ‘race.’ So, unless ‘only a woman’ or ‘only someone under 39’ can do a job, then it might be okay to discriminate under the BFOQ exception. However, if you remember The Crying Game or Boys Don’t Cry, maybe sex isn’t a BFOQ for lead actors. And it never is legal to choose an actor by race.”

The fashion industry is clinging to Mr. Bishop’s interpretation of the law, and so is Hollywood, but are they right to do so? Going back to the Emma Jones piece, one of her listed 6 examples, headlined “Face Paint,” is,

“Ironically, with so few models of color working or appearing in fashion spreads and shows, French Vogue took the step of painting a white girl black. Yes, you read correct, in a 2009 shoot, Dutch supermodel Lara Stone’s face and body were plastered in dark brown make-up.

“The shoot caused media uproar but in true fashion, French Vogue said it was unaware it had caused offense, declining to make any further comment.”

If we apply the interpretation Mr. Mannis says is the legal way of doing things, this might need to be an acceptable practice, because even if you want to use a dark skinned model to create a certain image you would be legally restrained from choosing one based on that attribute, and you would need to allow men to audition for the part of any female. 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. If forced equality by legal bindings is wanted, should it not go all ways?

Sometimes a designer or a top photographer takes a chance that gives a rare girl a way to pick up some major deals, but it is usually a chance on a really unique face, which tends to confuse the hell out of the agencies, who again tend to run on predictability and immediately start looking for clones of the girl who got the job so they can ride the coattails of her success, rather than them somehow becoming more open minded about using a wider range of models.

An editorial tells a story, argues a point, focuses on an issue. Like a written editorial, a photographic editorial expresses a position on an idea. It is an editorial comment, a note from the artist or editor or publisher. Someone is communicating an idea through the images. I’m an artist. I’ve shot fashion editorials, I paint, and I’ve directed films and plays. When I hold a casting call I already have an image in my head of what I want to create, and I’m looking at physical attributes of the models to make my vision come to life. It would be so impractical as to be intolerable for me to be forced to ignore my preconceived vision of an editorial when I’m conducting the casting session. I would not want to be an artist anymore if I were so restricted in the choices I could make about how to create an image. I believe that this justifies an exemption from the employment discrimination laws by way of The First Amendment, because when I create an editorial I am producing protected speech, whether it is written or not, and I think for individual fashion designers, what and who they send down the runway should have the same protection. They are literally using a series of faces and bodies to communicate with their audience, and I think any legal restriction that would limit their ability to do that would be unacceptable to most. Artists select their models to focus their communication, and depriving us of that control does not seem to be something that would be allowed of government under The Bill of Rights. If I want to find an elephant with three legs to demonstrate resilience in a work of art, I should be able to post an advertisement looking for a creature who fits the part. Whom I choose to photograph, paint, or play Hamlet is my business and not that of anyone else. Artists should be allowed to discriminate when it comes to the models and performers executing their work.

Where does the protected speech defense end though? It makes sense to me for editorial media to hold that shield, but what about commercial media? Should an advertising agency not be able to hold a casting specifically for women to play a mother when it is doing a campaign for a maternity products company? Is the model choice for the Victoria’s Secret “fashion show” television special an artistic expression, or does its’ being based on so many statistical projections and designed by committee decisions make it not deserve to be categorized as protected speech? It’s just a long-form commercial, but still, I don’t know. Race and gender-blind casting is certainly not how that business is operating now. Discrimination would appear to be rampant in casting for marketing media productions, but could that business function at all under the letter of anti-discrimination law?

Another heading in the “6 Reasons Why Fashion Is Inherently Racist” post was in reference to a short documentary film, The Color of Beauty, which you can see on the National Film Board of Canada website. While the model featured in the film is charismatic and beautiful, she doesn’t really have a unique face, and the portfolio photos shown in the piece which make her appear to be the most exotic and glamorous also appear to be heavily retouched to create those effects. Ms. Jones says,

“As a prime example of a typical black model’s struggle in the fashion industry, the documentary film The Color of Beauty followed the daily grind of aspiring top model Renee Thompson. In her quest to be the next Ms. Campbell, Renee was filmed going between casting sessions and photography shoots, experiencing some kind of derogatory comment at each place.”

Where the post mentions the derogatory remarks in castings, it fails to mention, or even understand, that any model not being chosen for the campaign or project is probably hearing their own set of critical remarks, like “too Russian,” “bottom heavy,” or “too freaky looking,” as the people typically making those highly subjective decisions try to verbalize their instincts and concerns in front of the person being judged, often very vulnerable young women with self-esteem issues, and that seems to be the real crime to me. This is a crude exploitative behavior that the industry tends to tolerate all too often. Some people use more discretion, and I certainly expect it of the modaCYCLE team, but it is not common to wait until the model has left hearing range to start talking about her. The models get treated this badly and worse all the time, whatever their skin color or ethnic background may be. These young people are considered as disposable and replaceable as a lamp shade. Everyone gets disrespected, and it is not right, but as one of the modaCYCLE photographers, Adrianna Favero, pointed out in conversation, “if there was ever an industry where you have to be looking out for ‘number one’ first, this is it.”

To have 200 models at a casting, all from the top 10 agencies, is not unusual. The blondes and brunettes typically have a lot more competition to deal with if their general look is the one that is being sought. It is not rare for the average fashion model to be going to 15 castings in a week and get no work from any of them, even if their portfolio is spectacular. In fact, a lot of the top photographers like to work with the more exotic faces, often requesting them for tests and editorials when a client is not involved in the casting process, and asking clients to cast them whenever possible. The artists are pushing the unusual faces whenever they can get away with it.

“Photographer Dallas Logan  even commented that ‘black doesn’t sell. Point blank. Money’s green, and white people have the money.'”

The photographer quoted in the piece to illustrate a wrong attitude is in fact correct in his basic premise. Corporations see three colors: red, black, and greenbacks, and when I say “black,” I mean it in the balance sheet sense, meaning not being in debt. The business is to sell garments, and if non-white models as a group are both perceived and documented in ledgers to not move luxury goods as well as others, then they don’t get hired. The regular people making everyday casting decisions are trying to keep their jobs by being effective filters for their employers’ needs. The poster remarks “tell that to Oprah Winfrey,” but she is only one consumer, and is as an icon remarkably unique. Is the money there in the community to support the ads that Ms. Jones seems to want to see?

In Asian countries they bring in Caucasian models from the USA, Europe, Brazil, and Russia, and hire the lightest-skinned Asians to be models, because Western faces move product. Fashion is aspirational, and if the consumers do not want to be the person in the advertisement, it doesn’t work. Seeing a tall skinny model will never inherently link in the minds of the existing consumer base with their wanting to be like Oprah. The Jones post even concludes that “clearly, while black never goes out of fashion, when it comes to the models, it has never been in fashion,” and that is exactly the problem.

Why aren’t there more Hispanic high fashion models working in New York? Because they’re in greater demand in South America. You must have black or Asian or Indian or Hispanic icons that the people buying the clothes in the local markets want to emulate, and the market has to be able to afford high end fashion. In magazines, in places where there are a lot of aspiring middle-class and established affluent people of African and Hispanic descent, you see significantly more dark-skinned models being employed. You also see a lot of national campaigns that feature more than one model are using a racial mix of models standing together. There is no doubt that a beautiful black face can sell magazines and luxury goods in some places, but the problem is that they don’t sell them as well everywhere. Mixed casts allow brands to reach multiple demographics with a single campaign. The problem when it comes to covers is that one big face works to sell better than a group of people shown smaller, so the mixed cast concept cannot be applied. The editors choose the one face most likely to move more product, and for a while now that has primarily been blonde actresses. Models aren’t even getting the covers, because celebrities sell more issues.

This reminds me of one of the reasons this publication came into existence. We at modaCYCLE love fashion as art, and we produce this web magazine to celebrate the beauty of exceptional design work. But the process of producing it has really opened our eyes to the fact that most of what you see in the big corporate fashion print magazines needs to beg a certain question, “do I really need that?” The real awesomeness of innovation in garment design rarely graces those pages before its time has passed or it has become ubiquitous enough to be called “a trend” (that’s consumer magazine fashion double-speak for “overexposed,” in case you didn’t know).

They use fashion as spectacle to sell handbags and cars. No large consumer fashion magazines make creative decisions their key advertisers would not like, and their job is to report on what the advertisers are producing. Advertisers pay for their production and distribution and, directly of indirectly, control the content. In 1960 when it was radio stations being paid off by record companies they called it “payola.” When was the last time you saw an editorial in a major fashion magazine that did not feature the products sold by the companies advertising on the rest of the pages in that same magazine? We have been approached repeatedly by publicists, from clients large and small, offering payment for the quiet publication of their marketing materials as our content. That is supposed to be illegal, is it not?

A big reason so many print magazines have folded in the last few years is that they were not organically supported. The price of almost any fashion publication you can think of is overwhelmingly subsidized by the advertisers. If it costs $5 on the stand, it probably cost significantly more than that to put in your hands. Magazines cannot survive the loss of advertising revenue. A copy of the July 2011 issue of US Vogue is $3.99. A copy of the same issue of Vogue Italia on the street in Italy is over $7. If you order a subscription, US Vogue is about $1.25 an issue. Vogue Italia is almost $250 a year to get an imported subscription, $20.51 per issue. The street and domestic subscriptions are subsidized, the international subscription is not, probably because US consumers are outside the Italian advertisers’ demographic targeting. Who controls what is in those two magazines, the editors or the advertisers? This is why most people consider Vogue Italia’s “Black Issue” from 2008 to be a novelty. As much as I can remember, no covers since that issue have featured dark-skinned models. American magazines are categorically under-priced because advertisers have been subsidizing them for so long, and any that try to raise their prices lose tremendous numbers of readers because consumers are accustomed to the subsidized rates. The advertisers want to reach as many of the people who are predicted to be open to spending money on their products as possible, so our national magazines are homogenized and processed like fast food cheeseburgers reliant on the USDA beef and grain subsidies. The whole system is really bad for the consumers, because with this level of contamination no information you read in a big consumer-targeted fashion magazine can be trusted at all.

Our Ms. Favero also raised the point that if the fashion industry were inherently discriminatory, the bookers at the modeling agencies would have a problem with it. There are very few straight Anglo-Saxon protestants working the phones at the model management companies. The majority of the people we encounter when negotiating to get models for shoots are Jewish, of mixed ancestry, Asian, African or African-American, and homosexuals. Minority representatives control what types of models get sent to the castings, and they don’t seem to have a tremendous problem with the task of filling the stereotypical jobs with product, err, models.

Also tossed into the mix is this section complaining about Vogue’s international editions.

“Vogue is one of the largest print fashion magazines in the world and is published in more than 18 countries worldwide; surprisingly however, none of these 18 nations include an African country. In fact, the entire continent has been omitted from Condé Nast Publications’ circulation.

“A mere oversight? Perhaps not, as, for the past decade, many fashionistas have been campaigning for an African Vogue. Condé Nast has rebutted any notion of an African Vogue, though, claiming that Africa ‘did not need Vogue to feel validated’ – what does that even mean?”

On the subject of Vogue Africa, the Vogue Magazine that gets published in New York is not the same magazine that gets reprinted in Brazil or Tokyo. They’re not just translations, they’re separate editorial and business entities that serve local demographics. It seems certain that if an African investment group put up the cash and the required infrastructure for a franchise, Vogue Africa or Vogue Kenya or Cape Town Vogue would happen very quickly, but whether there would be enough affluent consumers to justify the publication in those markets is the question that really points to why those don’t exist yet. Most of Africa lacks a middle-class, which is what you need to support a broad consumer publication like an international edition of Vogue.

The writer seems to be calling for affirmative action in the global luxury goods industry, which underlines the highly unrealistic and essentially naive understanding of corporate decisions. Not showing a lot of non-white faces in major fashion publications is not a statement about those people not being beautiful, it is a reaction to their inability to move product. What makes money gets attention, and until it is proven in a variety of statistical analyses that using women of color to promote luxury goods is as profitable as using other models, it’s just not going to happen on a large scale. Nothing about the business of fashion exists to make the people working in this industry feel better about themselves. It is a cut-throat community. Fashion is really only fun and flirty and cool in the ads. In the back room where financial decisions are made, like who to hire to move 25,000 neon halter tops, it is all business. To the question “why can’t I be there,” fashion answers, “if you were there we don’t think we would make as much money as if we had this other person there,” and it is overwhelmingly those financial motivations that promote one stereotype while sidelining another. The consumers are the racists, not the garment business, and whether that is true for more or less subconscious reasons is unknown. 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.

What is the solution? Maybe the big fashion magazines will clean up their act before there is a federal investigation into all that pay for play that’s going on. Maybe someone will win a discrimination suit against a major advertising agency and the casting process for commercial jobs will change to reflect the law. My best guess is that maybe all those young women should be aspiring toward MBAs, MDs, JDs, and PhDs instead of W, Elle, V, and ANTM. If nothing else changes, the money just isn’t there to support more than a handful of them as models yet, and more than one somebody needs to get out there and make it if the faces representing global garment and cosmetics commerce are to be changed.

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