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hari nef and joan smalls on the problem with fashion’s diversity obsession

'Diversity Day is cool — Diversity Day essentially pays my bills. But it’s never a blue chip campaign, it’s never a contract.'

Hannah Ongley

@joansmalls

Fashion diversity: everyone's either talking about it or trying to skirt the issue entirely. But the discrimination that models experience behind-the-scenes is not given nearly as much thought. Yesterday Barbie Ferreira drew attention to this in the context of curve modeling, by relating a bullshit experience she had while fitting for a plus client. Recently models Joan Smalls and Hari Nef shared their own encounters with discrimination during a conversation moderated by industry legends Ivan Bart (IMG Models) and Tim Blanks (The Business of Fashion). 

With a loyal social media following and a role on Transparent, Gucci muse Hari Nef is one of the undoubted leaders of fashion's transgender revolution. But she says that diverse castings are often a way for designers to get a passing grade on the issue without pushing for long-term change. "It's not like you can just be a model, it's like you have to be a trans model, or a black model, or a Latina model," Nef reminded her audience. "They bring you in, and it's like diversity day, and then you go home. Diversity Day is cool — Diversity Day essentially pays my bills. But it's never a blue chip campaign, it's never a contract, or rarely a contract." Casting by the numbers "does not lend itself to building a new interface for fashion that is inclusive in a sustainable way," she continued. "It's very difficult to fit yourself into this mold that wasn't built for you — these samples that weren't built for you, these visual contexts that weren't built for you. I think there needs to be a greater awareness invested in who wears the clothes and why they are being included."

Smalls, who has been linked to cosmetics brand Estée Lauder since 2010, reveals that the beauty world can be particularly exclusionary of black and bi-racial models. "I've always had a struggle trying to get a hair campaign," she said. "It's mind-boggling. They dropped me at the last minute and their excuse was, 'we were afraid to try something new.' By 'new,' they mean, 'we've never shot a black girl.'" Equally disconcerting is that, when modeling for global campaigns with other models, Smalls gets assigned only to certain regions, and is frequently excluded from group shots because the client is worried she won't sell.

In one of the panel's more hopeful moments, Nef went in on Donald Trump (and his despicable sidekick Mike Pence) before deliberating on the role of fashion post-election. "Fashion is a powerful industry with a real clout in terms of informing the public what is respectable," she said. "With a sitting Vice President who has advocated electro-shock therapy for LGBT youth, with a President-elect who has committed to pay off legal bills for his followers who have threatened violence against people of color at rallies — with all of this taken into account, fashion can swoop in and actually send a different message." Watch the whole conversation below. 

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Text Hannah Ongley
Image via Instagram