On racism in the fashion industry

It’s 2016. Last year we saw transgender models proudly fronting ad campaigns, Down syndrome models walking the runways and a growing acceptance in society of ‘difference’.

So why does the fashion industry still have a problem with ethnic diversity?

Last season’s London and New York Fashion Week’s showcased a range of new and exciting trends. Sadly, diversity wasn’t one of them, with 71.6% of models on the catwalk being white. While it may be an improvement on last year’s figures, it’s not enough for an industry that prides itself on being innovative and liberal.

Models like Naomi Campbell and Jourdan Dunn feature in campaigns and on catwalks for the some of the biggest names in the industry. However, for some reason black models still aren’t appearing in fashion shows. Campbell teamed up with former model agent Bethann Hardison to form Diversity Coalition, which aims to end runway racism. The South London supermodel puts it down to ignorance within the industry. In an interview with fashion photographer Nick Knight last year she said: “I don’t want it [ethnic diversity] to be a trend, I didn’t work 28 years for it to be a trend. It’s something I won’t stop talking about until I see a big improvement.”

But it’s not that agencies that aren’t taking on black models; it’s more a case that designers are disinclined to employ them, and fashion magazines seem reluctant to feature them on their pages.

In an interview with Elle magazine, Puerto Rican supermodel Joan Smalls discusses diversity. “People hide behind the word aesthetic,” she tells Elle. “They say, ‘Well, it’s just that designer’s aesthetic.’ But when you see 18 seasons in a row and not one single model outside a certain skin colour…? There are people in the industry who are advocates, who support diversity. And there are people who do not. I don’t get it. Beauty is universal. These doors have to open.”

Mark O’Connor is the ex-fashion editor of the Daily Express, and lectures in fashion journalism as well as running his online mens style magazine Marksman. “I have seen shoots and front covers being pulled or dropped because the editor didn’t like the model, but would often use excuses like: not smiley enough or too edgy when in actual fact it goes beyond this,” he says.   “I think race is not represented enough and I do think there should be more ethnic minority in the workplace and within the fashion industry, but until the public get behind this and actually buy the magazines with ethnic models on the covers, these ghastly decision makers will carry on misrepresenting society will their archaic mind-set.” Mark agrees the magazines are to blame for the lack of diversity in models. “The magazine front covers and fashion shoots of these titles are using just Caucasian blonde models with blue eyes which sell more magazines and newspapers than other models. I have seen this first hand and although they would never tell you this, due to blatant discrimination, they do it every day.”

Frankie Thomas is an intern at luxury fashion PR company Karla Otto. She says that the industry is making progress, albeit a slow reform. “The consumers of these brands are globally diverse therefore so should the models who are promoting the brand. It has become apparent that there are many more white models in the industry than black but I don’t doubt that this will eventually change.”

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Frankie at the Simone Rocha SS16 show. Photo: courtesy of Frankie Thomas

“I think that the fashion industry is becoming more diverse and showing that all people of different races, religion and disability are beautiful,” she says.

Alice Jefferson is a fashion merchandise management student. She also agrees that the industry is becoming more diverse – but there is room for improvement. “Black models are still getting turned away from castings simply because the designers ‘don’t want black girls in their shows’,” she says. “I feel that the designers shouldn’t cast a certain race in the first place if they are just going to turn them away at a later stage. The consumer cannot feel that a certain collection is only tailored to a specific ethnicity.”

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Alice studies fashion merchandising in London. Photo: courtesy of Alice Jefferson

Lewis Bloyce is a part time menswear fashion worker and studies fashion merchandising. He believes the mentality of the industry needs to change in order to address ethnic diversity. Bloyce says, “The industry on a whole needs to be more diverse… buying and merchandising offices are extremely diverse but on the flip side of the industry, modelling is on its way to being way more diverse considering how ignorant it actually was.”

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Lewis works for a menswear brand. Photo: courtesy of Lewis Bloyce


Daniella John is a midwifery student of Nigerian descent and has lived in London her whole life. On whether she feels alienated by the lack of black models, she said: “To be honest I’ve become desensitised to it. It’s something I’ve grown up with. A lot of the fashion industry is geared around European standards of beauty which is straight hair and fair skin. And being a black person with dark skin and afro, how can I achieve that standard?”

“From my standpoint, it is people of colour not really seeing themselves as beautiful enough to be represented in the fashion industry and many other industries,” she says.

Roland Bray has been working in fashion retail for six years. From his experience, there is still work to be done in embracing a more diverse range of models representing fashion houses. “I wouldn’t say it’s truly diverse at all. Yes, there are black and Asian models such as Naomi Campbell and Jourdan Dunn who are working within the industry and advocating diversity, however when you flick through the pages of fashion magazines it does feel very white.”

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Roland works in retail and models part-time. Photo: courtesy of Roland Bray


For Bray, race is not an issue in his career. “Every customer I interact with is a person first and foremost regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability etc. No matter who you are, you will be treated fairly and respectfully and no-one will be prioritised over another.”

“Models from all backgrounds, races, genders should be used in all aspects of the fashion industry, because no matter who you are or where you’re from, fashion is for everyone.”


One thought on “On racism in the fashion industry

  1. I might be reading this wrong but responding to what Daniella John said, most ethnic models do feel confident enough their just not being employed, and if they aren’t feeling confident enough it’s because ( like you said) diversity isn’t their.

    But I Love this post because the more people who speaks on it the less ignorant people their are in the world lol


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