Ashish fall/winter 18. Photography Mitchell Sams.

this season’s catwalks were the most inclusive ever, but there's still work to be done

“It’s a constant battle, a constant need to remind the industry, that there are fantastic models of color,” says the team behind anonymous Instagram account @moremodelsofcolor.

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Mar 27 2018, 2:10pm

Ashish fall/winter 18. Photography Mitchell Sams.

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

Fashion has a deep-rooted diversity problem but there are shoots of promise. On the day Virgil Abloh is announced as Louis Vuitton’s first African-American artistic director, analysis of the recent show season confirms that changes continue on the fashion capital’s catwalks. Over the course of the autumn/winter 18, more models of color walked the shows than ever before. As The Fashion Spot recently recorded, “out of 242 shows and 7,608 model appearances in New York, London, Milan and Paris, 32.5 percent of castings went to models of color, a 2.3 point increase from Spring 2018’s 30.2 percent.” These can be read as marginal gains but they’re part of a slow-and-steady march that has seen the statistics evolve from just 22.4% back in spring/summer 16. Spearheaded by a new generation of design talent from New York and London, the wider industry is finally waking up to need to accept diversity. If statistics leave you cold and confused, just throwback to some of this season’s highest of highlights and you’ll see a model of color leading the charge.

From Anok Yai, the Sudan-born model and viral star, opening Prada — remarkably the first black model since Naomi Campbell did in 1997 — to Comme des Garçons casting black models for the first time in over two decades and Balenciaga casting eight rising Jamaican stars from mother agency, Saint International, there were plenty of casting milestones surpassed in autumn/winter 18. Are we now finally seeing significant change or is this too little, too slow? To help answer this question, we turned to the anonymous team behind @moremodelsofcolor, the Instagram account that has shone a well-deserved spotlight on diverse models while using its growing platform to hold both casting agents and designers to account.

Season after season is lauded as the best ever in terms of diversity across race, body diversity and age, in addition to trans visibility. Do you see this as significant progress or should the industry be doing much more?
Diversity is an incredibly broad term and now, more than ever, we have diversity within the diversity that is visible in the industry. What it means to be “diverse” has changed so much within the last few years — it has become a movement that just keeps on becoming more and more inclusive of people. Every season there is a groundbreaking inclusion of a new diverse trait or factor. There are plus size models working in high fashion, an increase of trans models working and further variety in the different types of ethnicity within the models of color working in shows and campaigns. Arguably, one of the most surprising examples of this is the surge of Muslim models wearing hijabs, which was spearheaded by Halima Aden when she made her NYFW debut in 2017. Even five years ago, the prospect of a model wearing a hijab down major fashion week shows would have been unfathomable. It’s an indicator of change.

Was the fall/winter 18 season a breakthrough moment?
We can’t really say with any strong degree of certainty, whether the positive results that we saw during the autumn/winter 18 menswear and womenswear shows are fleeting or an indicator of true changes in attitudes towards diversity. Historically, diversity has been treated as any other trend in the fashion industry and the spikes in visibility of diverse groups have been cyclical. We will have to wait a few seasons to see if these diversity levels continue to be maintained.

To what extent is the industry beginning to reflect what’s happening in wider society?
On a social, interpersonal level, there is a pro-human diverse movement happening. This has hugely been facilitated and amplified through social media. The new generation, who are now at ages where they can credibly challenge and actively modify longstanding societal ideas about what is and is not normal/positive/acceptable, are doing so. And so with this redefinition of society, powered by the new generations in the context of a booming social media era, fashion has taken note and engaged with this wider movement of accepting people.

How would you describe this movement towards wider acceptance in fashion?
We understand that change takes time. It’s not a case of there being one good season of diversity and our work being done. It’s a constant battle, a constant need to remind the industry, that there are fantastic models of color, whom are talented and hardworking enough to deserve to be casted. Ultimately, it’s not a statement, it’s a conversation. What this means is that, although having these showstopping moments are still beneficial to establishing change, it’s far more crucial for these moments to become integral notions within fashion and be salient in the decisions being made at the very top level. The focus needs to be shifted towards sustainability and development on the progression already made.

For you, what were the highlights, who were the greatest success stories?
Anok Yai’s moment at Prada was certainly a breakout moment this season, which almost echoed Malaika Firth success of becoming the first black model to be in a Prada campaign in nearly 20 years since Naomi Campbell, back in 2013. Hopefully this was a doorway to more models of color having prestigious (opening and closing) roles within shows. Of course, i-D cover girl Adut Akech had an amazing season; she walked for many of the major shows. Most notably, she was selected to open Valentino, being the second black model to do so, again after Malaika in 2014. The Ashish fall/winter 18 show as a whole was just groundbreaking; the casting had diversity levels of 83%. Further to this, Ashish is one of the only fashion houses to use South Asian and Arab models, and not just as tokens.

Can we talk about Comme des Garçons as you’ve often pushed back against the label’s lack of diversity and we saw change this season?
We did bring the lack of diversity CDG had to their attention through our platform on Instagram. During our discussion, Adrian Joffe, the President of CDG and who is married to Rei Kawakubo (founder of CDG) defended that CDG was extremely diverse. When we questioned this by posting the CDG diversity statistics on our page @moremodelsofcolor, the situation turned somewhat acrimonious. So seeing that they have now altered their casting to be more diverse is a huge progress for Comme.

That must embolden you.
When we call out a brand, it is not to be vicious and we are not suggesting that they are racist. It is more so, so they can identify that they have a diversity issue within the business and that they need to change this, which is what Comme des Garçon has done. If a brand does not know it has no diversity, how can it possible change it?

Exactly. What else encourages you?
Every year a select few models of color are selected and booked for prominent jobs, and although it is not ideal for these models to be used as tokens, the fact that they are getting buzz and attention, allows for doors to be opened for other models that share their characteristics. But what really encourages us on a personal level is when models contact us and express that they were booked as a result of being featured on our page, or that since being posted on our page, they have had a surge in followers (which puts them at an advantage in castings). Really seeing our work have an actual beneficial impact on a model’s life and career prospect is the biggest factor motivating and encouraging us.

And what disappoints you?
The stories we personally get told of model’s experiences of racism and ignorance in the industry. It is always demoralizing to hear that a model has been told, straight to her face, that the company “doesn’t need another black girl” or that “Asian girls aren’t really the look” they are going for this season.

How can we continue to hold the industry to account?
A component that is important to this is education; diversity can be an ambiguous term. Having a large number of black models, for example, is not a hallmark for diversity. Although, it is presenting a different type of beauty to the Eurocentric one, which is so often used as the baseline industry standard, you have already neglected most of the other ethnicity types. Similarly, it is not enough to only use models of color who are light-skinned and do not have strongly ethnic features. There are so many levels to diversity, a lot of which most people do not even think about.

Finally, where would you like to take @moremodelsofcolor?
Our long-term goal would be to work with industry leaders — brands, magazines, creatives — in a more professional setting, as consultants in this field, so they can work towards becoming holistically diverse. It’s about normalizing diversity, as opposed to making it a groundbreaking moment. Models are the face of diversity within the industry, but everyone in the background make up the body, and so those sectors also need to be diverse.