by Gemma O’Sullivan
Debates on diversity in the fashion industry are more prevalent than ever.
Changes in representation are scrutinised every season – with good reason – and increasing pressure is being put on brands to be more diverse so that models of all body types, ethnicities, ages, and gender identities are featured both on the runway and in print. Although there have been some steps in the right direction, there is still much more that needs to be done, and grass-roots structural change is needed before the industry can be considered truly and consistently inclusive.
Some brands are making positive changes thanks to media pressure and the buying power of ethnic minorities, older shoppers, and those above a size twelve, which is compelling designers to genuinely and consistently embrace diversity for commercial as well as ethical reasons. Nevertheless, retailers aren’t doing enough, and brands moving towards diversity remain cautious. Only 24.5% of models cast in Spring 2017 fashion print campaigns were non-white, a small increase from 23.3% the season before. This meagre push for inclusion has become typical of seasonal campaigns, and it seems unlikely that that there will be significant change soon since the models selected reflect the individual preferences and biases of a particular group. In a similar vein, in the Fall 2017 Fall New York Fashion Week, only 31.5% of models were non-white, a marginal improvement on 30.3% for Spring 2017. Although it was the first season where every runway had at least one non-white model, it would be a stretch to say that people of colour were adequately represented in the shows overall.
We are still witnessing tokenism and a lack of widespread acceptance of diversity.
Some designers do, however, make representation and diversity a priority every season. Both Marc Jacobs and Kanye West’s Yeezy brand continue to make headlines thanks to their commitment to diversity. As a black artist originally from a non-fashion background, Kanye West is perhaps more in tune with the diversity of wider society and how fashion should be representative, in contrast to those ‘pale, male and stale’ figures who traditionally have held power in the fashion industry. 66% of models on the Marc Jacobs Fall 2017 runway were non-white and it featured four transgender models: Stav Strashko, Dar and Avie Acosta, and Casil McArthur. Fall 2017 New York Fashion Week saw twelve transgender models, up from eight at Spring 2017, although cisgender unsurprisingly continues to dominate runways.
Models with disabilities are also among those being better represented in the fashion industry. Designer Carrie Hammer, for example, aims to feature more representative models, and made use of clients rather than traditional models of various body types, weights and ethnicities on the runway. One, Danielle Sheypuk, became the first model in a wheelchair to appear at New York Fashion Week. American Horror Story star Jamie Brewer also featured in one of Hammer’s shows, becoming the first model with Down Syndrome to ever walk at New York Fashion Week.
Increased discussion regarding diversity forces the industry to take notice of criticism and often change their practices, but at times the conservations can appear circular; every once in a while, disabled models will be included in a campaign or on a runway, which will generate discussion about greater inclusion, but no real systematic change results. This gives the unfortunate impression that the inclusion of models with disabilities is simply an act of tokenism. The industry’s defense for failing to use disabled models is often similar to their arguments for not employing plus-sized models; designers claim that models aren’t supposed to reflect society, but display their garments in a flattering and idealised way. Agencies claim that they don’t recruit disabled models because brands won’t hire them, while brands blame modelling agencies and say there are none for them to hire.
The incorporation of mature models seems to be making more progress; older models are slowly beginning to be featured more both in print and on the runways. In Spring 2017, eight models over the age of fifty walked the runways, featuring in Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, and Tom Ford. Most mature models featured at J.Crew; the brand recruited people who were not professional models to showcase its garments, and consequently put on one of the week’s most inclusive and diverse runways (including 21% racial diversity, three mature models and one plus-size model).
So it seems that there is some positive change being made towards a more diverse fashion industry, and Fall 2017 appeared to be the most inclusive season for body positivity so far. But there is more to be done. We are still witnessing tokenism and a lack of widespread acceptance of diversity. Runways are making steps forward and demonstrating an understanding of the importance of representation, but fashion magazines, which arguably play a greater role in establishing beauty standards, need to accurately portray diverse models that people can identify with. Fashion can be a platform for social and political movements, a space to create new and more inclusive standards of beauty; it needs to represent and reflect society and, more importantly, illustrate that all bodies are beautiful.