As we have noted many times, the fashion industry is notably slow to change its ways. Despite priding itself on constantly progressing the future of our wardrobes forward, it never fails to astound us in its lack of speed with regards to things that, say, racism or body ideals or sexism. From stereotypical, historically racist earrings by major designers to its continuously excused use of blackface on white models, fashion to barely using black models in runway shows has somehow not gotten the memo that racial diversity exists and the racism is — to put it lightly — “so out.” Even Victoria’s Secret model Chanel Iman openly admits to dealing with racism in fashion.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Iman talked about the trials of being a black woman in an industry that largely favors white girls. Having already been vocal regarding the lack of African-American models in fashion, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear some of the things she has to say about the business. Nevertheless, her experiences are both depressing and upsetting.
When asked about whether racism is still an issue in fashion, she declines the question “diplomatically” at first. When pushed, however, she responds differently:
“Yeah, most definitely,” she says forcefully. “A few times I got excused by designers who told me, ‘We already found one black girl. We don’t need you any more.’ I felt very discouraged. When someone tells you, ‘We don’t want you because we already have one of your kind,’ it’s really sad.”
The idea of a designer saying something like that is not remotely farfetched, but it is still incredibly disappointing. It’s as though they imagine having a little card and they get a stamp for each minority they use, thus allowing them to get a free get-out-of-jail card if anybody accuses them of being racist later on. “Nope! We used a black girl in that show, so it’s fine!” Except…it’s still not. It’s absolutely not fine.
Photographer Steven Meisel is quoted in the article as saying, “I’ve asked my advertising clients so many times, ‘Can we use a black girl?’ They say no. Advertisers say black models don’t sell.” I’ve heard this argument numerous times — that when people who are not white are used to advertise products, consumers believe that those products are specifically for the races used. However, this doesn’t give humanity enough credit to know that when somebody is advertising steak, unless it’s called “STEAKS FOR BLACKS AND MAYBE ASIANS,” it’s probably not going to have a racially indicated consumer base. Additionally, it’s ridiculous to go along with such a status quo; if there were simply more nonwhite models and actors used in advertising, it would become increasingly more “normal” and the whole fear of white consumers fleeing (because, you know, that’s apparently something people should feed into) would be null.
Nevertheless, Chanel Iman is optimistic.
“Things are improving. We have gone from no ethnic minority models in shows to ‘one’. We need to get past ‘one’ to more. There’s a greater consciousness of Asia and China, so we see more of those faces now. There needs to be a permanency [about] using black models. You still see all-white shows in Europe and New York… And don’t give us an all-black catwalk show. It doesn’t help us; it just puts us into a category.”
While there have been numerous wonderful firsts for black models in the past fifty years, fashion has to move forward. In so many ways, it’s an industry of innovation full of fast-paced change and futuristic ideas. All it needs to do is progress into the social present and it will truly become modern.