Is the modelling industry finally embracing racial diversity?

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Midlands Voice explores what it’s really like to be a black model in 2020, and what the future of fashion looks like.

Is it too late for the notoriously white fashion industry to improve its reputation? 

After many years of seeing primarily white models on the runway and in magazines, the fashion industry is facing a lot of pressure to feature different body sizes, ages and, in particular, greater racial diversity.

One of the most prevalent advocates of this has been British black supermodel Naomi Campbell.

Naomi Campbell rose to fame in the 80s, despite sometimes being the only black model on the runway. Credit Instagram – @Naomi

She shook the modelling industry when she rose to fame in the late eighties, and became the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue Paris, in August 1988.

Despite becoming one of ‘The Big Five’ original supermodels – alongside Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington and Tatjana Patitz – she was often the only non-white model on the runway.

Campbell has been known to criticise the modelling industry for its lack of diversity since beginning her modelling career.

Over the past decade, this pressure to embrace diversity has intensified – and it seems to be working. Recent figures collected by The Fashion Spot have shown that in Autumn 2019, racial diversity has increased across Milan, London, New York and Paris fashion weeks – averaging 38.8% models of colour.

This figure has more than doubled over the past four years; Spring 2015 saw an average of just 17% models of colour.

Campbell has recognised this improvement, saying at a Wall Street Journal Conference in October 2019: “I can’t complain […] that things haven’t gone well. You’ve seen all shapes, sizes, colours, different hair types, on the runway.”

However, for Campbell, it’s about more than just featuring black models – we need to see more diversity within the fashion industry itself.

“We’ve done good on the fashion show, which is a big influence on the world and it makes a big impact,” she said.

“Now, we need to go into the companies and put diversity into the seats, in the offices, behind the desk.”

Naomi Campbell

Major companies are also beginning to take a stance against a lack of representation. For example, British Fashion Council (BFC), introduced the ‘Positive Fashion’ initiative in 2019.

This industry initiative will ‘create positive change’, centring on three main concepts – the people involved, the environment, and craftsmanship and communities.

The ambassador for this scheme is British-Ghanian model and activist, Adwoa Aboah, who launched a mentoring programme in September 2019 as part of this initiative, aiming to empower young people from all backgrounds to enter the fashion industry.

So, it seems the fashion industry is making progress, although there is still a long way to go. But what’s it really like to be a black model in 2020?

Twenty-year-old student and part-time shop assistant Jesse Richardson, from Nottingham, has modelled since 2018. She is now signed with Unite Model Management and M Model Management.

Jesse’s heritage is mixed – her mother is from Ethiopia, The Gambia and India, and her father is from Britain, and Saint Kitts in the West Indies.

Jesse explained that the biggest challenged she has faced since entering the modelling industry – which she believes to be an example of racism – is makeup.

She described a shoot when the makeup artist didn’t own a foundation dark enough for her complexion: “The foundation was so light that I looked completely washed out,” she said.

“It looked so bad that I had to run into the toilet and put bronzer all over my face – I don’t know why you would book a black model and then not have any makeup to match,” she added.

“It’s shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m black – you knew I was black when you hired me!”

Jesse Richardson

While Jesse recognised a lack of models of colour, she argued this reflects racist Western standards of beauty.

“The modelling industry has to reflect the market it’s aimed towards. So, more often than not, they portray what society deems beautiful – tall, skinny, white girls,” she commented.

Jesse says modelling has improved her self-confidence. Credit Joseph Espana

She explained how these whitewashed conceptions of beauty can impact the self-esteem of people of colour – and it’s more common than people realise.

“I think every young black girl goes through a crisis of thinking black is not beautiful,” she reflected.

“But now, I am completely obsessed with the beauty of blackness. It’s one thing to be black, and another thing to be black and proud – I don’t care if my modelling makes other people feel uncomfortable.”

Jesse Richardson

While the modelling industry is far from perfect, Jesse explained that to achieve diversity, we need to see social change.

“There are still examples of racism, but the industry itself has the potential to be very diverse,” she commented. “It will begin to reflect the changing attitudes that we are already beginning to see.”

With slow progress being made in the industry, what will happen going forward?

In London, Marcus Flemmings is the founder and head booker of BAME Models, a model management agency focusing on inclusivity.

For Marcus, diversity is essential – it’s what his agency is built on. “The agency is here to bridge the gap between all races,” he explained.

BAME Models’ shoot with client, Nubian Skin. Credit – Nubian Skin

Having worked in modelling for around 11 years, he commented: “The industry is a lot better now in terms of racial diversity, than when I first started.”

Marcus added: “There has been a shift in attitudes – it’s not perfect yet, but it’s much better.”

He insisted that over time, we will see fair representation of minority groups.

“Things are already changing, quite significantly – there is a huge swell of pressure on fashion professionals to be more diverse and inclusive,” he comments. “Anything less than that is frowned upon nowadays.”

“Diversity is no longer just a trend – it’s a movement.”

Marcus Flemmings

“In 5 years or so, things will be completely different,” he concluded.

Could we finally be seeing real progress being made towards racial diversity in the fashion industry? Perhaps so – and it’s been a long time coming.

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