By Margretta Sowah
I love to represent. I represent when my fingers touch the keypad, when I style my look for the streets. I represent when I speak about my childhood, my past – my nationality. Everyone can represent. Everyone should represent. This wonderful and evolving bubble called the Fashion Industry is built on representing; whether persons, muse or ideal. Brands carefully construct, based on research and a little bit of magic, what people will want.
Models are a vital part of this equation. A model is a representation of society (or at least an upgraded version of us) in Fashion. They are the organic link to humanity in a product-based industry. We can relate to them on a superficial and basic level: “You are human…. Cool… So am I.” (The original pickup line, I’m sure.) What then, is a girl to do when she dreams of DIOR and Yves SAINT LAURENT – PRADA, yet fingers stroke pages of VOGUE with no realistic reflection of similarity. Wouldn’t she feel unrepresented? Well I did.
Representation matters – it’s important.
Most of us harbour deep-seated fears and judgements about the unknown or unfamiliar. We make jokes stereotyping certain nationalities and customs that can sometimes lead to heinous crimes like what we witnessed in Ferguson. #blacklivesmatter
Racism is alive and breeding. American news and culture shows problems are not offshore but very close to home. The Fashion industry, sadly, is not too far off these realities. Fashion is a stylised mirror up to society. It’s no secret that there are certain established houses that prefer not to hire Black models, keeping their head count to one or two in their collection; you know, for “commercial” reasons. A list compiled by Supermodel heavyweights Naomi Campbell and Iman stated designers such as Donna Karen, Armani and Chanel; (amongst other market favourites – including a certain former Spice Girl…) were not hiring ethnic models in their shows, putting it down to ‘not suiting their aesthetic.’
Up and coming models like Anais Mali, hailing from the South of France, has been quoted in articles saying prominent modelling agencies have told her; “We already have Jourdan Dunn; one black girl is enough…” It’s not just new faces that endure these hurdles. Joan Smalls, the face of Estee Lauder, was disregarded for jobs because of this stigma of novelty.
This is not the only racist occurrences Fashion has faced. John Galliano was arrested and fined in 2011 for racist outbursts about an Asian man and Jewish woman. While he was not “on the clock” (or of sober mind) when he said these things it still doesn’t change the nature of his mentality. When you represent (there’s that word again) a dominant vocation of society; aiding and elevating women and men through a basic need – to be clothed; where should this line be drawn? Chances are if you have such opinions outside of the office, you’ll have it inside as well.
The Asian market has boomed over the last decade. Designers and brands like Philip Lim, Alexander Wang and Comme Des Garcons have been paving the way in western market for the influx of luxury brands that are gushing to Asian shores. Yet how many designers have Asian models in their shows? The stats are as follows; New York Fashion Week six years ago showed less than 6% of models were Asian. Now these figures are at a little less than 10%. Black models also increased slightly by 2% but numbers are still less than 8%. Hispanics models – less than 3%. The number of Caucasian models? Almost 80%. These statistics are shameful. Representation matters – it needs an outlet.
Social Media is a great way of representing your ‘tribe’ to the world; sharing ideas, images, successes and opinions. We all belong to a tribe; whether national, cultural, spiritual, musical, or even having #love for a model that represents your heritage. Misty Copeland’s prolific story of perseverance and dedication has blown up the internet. Being a Black woman myself I felt represented by her. Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls, Chanel Iman, Tyson Beckford, Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell remind me I’m represented in an industry I love and want to be a part of – Fashion.
Brands take note: visibly seeing your race(s) represented makes the path to purchase easier. I might even consider dropping 5k on a bag if I saw Chanel Iman wearing it… but that’s a different story.
With the President of the United States of America being black and talented creative’s fighting for their right to be represented, this should reflect the respect their races deserve. It boils down to ethics and inclusion at the end of the day, not the monetary value – but hey, that doesn’t hurt. When the Fashion Industry decides its to break these restrictions on inclusion and representation we can focus on issues that effect us as a whole… like global warming or some other inconvenient truth.
Representation matters. Fashion is a tribe in itself; pushing a message, a way of life. Racism is, without a doubt, holding back the Fashion Industry from doing its job – to sell (inspire) a dream.
This tribe has spoken.