Fashion Week is coming. Besides the usual trends that will be dictated for the coming season, this also means a resurrection of old debates and issues that have long since plagued the industry, particularly; race and weight. Fashion is an industry that continually penalises women for looking the way we do because of its aversion to change and progression.
The problem is inherent in its practises; too many definitive labels leave no room for growth and diversity. Labels are bandied about to contain and constrain; a black model cannot just be a model, her race will often determine what jobs she books, whose runway she’ll walk, what photographer she gets to work with… It feels like there’s an unspoken cap on how many black girls are allowed to work in the industry because “there’s only room for one black model”. Therefore, its safe to assume that until Naomi Campbell retires there won’t be room for anyone else.
Size is another beast that confounds the fashion industry. Arguably, the average size for women is 10-14UK; Sophie Dahl and Crystal Renn, once both plus size models, worked with high fashion brands like Matthew Williamson, Gaultier, Chanel etc. and for a time it felt like fashion would give us some room to breathe and let go of its prejudices against plus size, but that day is yet to come. The pressures of the industry meant some models have had to conform to its generic. It can’t be easy existing in an industry where one is seen as an exception to a ridiculous rule, you’re never truly accepted; you’re like a hype or a new toy to fuss over for the time being. Eventually, it becomes debilitating. Cindy Crawford at a healthy size 6 was a part of the supers that dominated in the 80s and 90s but today, mainstream fashion has emaciated to a size 0.
Iman and Naomi Campbell were a core part of the Supermodel posse. Donyale Luna was the first black supermodel, though some forget she preceded Beverley Johnson who is largely referred to as the premier black super, but Luna preceded her time; she was on the cover of surprise, surprise, British Vogue in the 60s, albeit with half her face covered because blackness in fashion at the time, was something of an enigma, Luna also worked with the greats; Warhol, Avedon, Bailey… Naomi Sims got turned down by different agencies because of her dark skin tone so she sought out photographers to work with, one of them was Gosta Petersen who photographed Sims for the New York Times fashion supplement. Her cover for Ladies Home Journal put another black face on the scene.
So fashion wasn’t always so frigid, even if the plight of Black and Plus Size models has always been a hard fought battle, there have been successes albeit with a caveat.
Sometimes it feels like designers are rebelling against women for our changing bodies with their collections of boxy-androgyny more suited for prepubescent girls instead of a more shapely physique. There’s such a taboo towards plus size models sparked by a disconnected default notion, on the part of the designers, that their customer is the same model walking the runway but that chasm couldn’t be wider. Designers give all sorts of excuse for not making clothes in larger sizes; extra fabric makes it too expensive to produce, not their customer base…yet they wonder why retail has suffered and is still suffering the way it is.
A shift is taking place in fashion, a change in perspective in how brands are perceived, its no longer about the clothes and bags, while those will still remain an intricate part of a designer’s business, its increasingly becoming about the total lifestyle the brand offers to its customer. Hence designers are branching out into homeware, beauty, crockery etc. products that are pertinent to lifestyle. However, when consumers have no affinity with a brand chances are, they won’t invest their money in it. More important, the lifestyle industry does not discriminate on size or race, its all encompassing. Lulu Lemon, you might want to take note of that.
That the fashion industry has an institutionally unhealthy problem with weight and race is a foregone conclusion, it’s guilty on both counts but equally as disturbing is the lack of evolution for an industry that has such a regular cycle of change. The industry gets in its own way and is most unrepresentative of the global audience it panders to. As one of the most freeing forms of creativity fashion remains increasingly myopic in its outreach. The powers that be fail to grasp the concept of the ever growing universality of fashion that is no longer reserved for their eyes only.
When fashion fails, it fails spectacularly and right now, in these respects, it’s failing.
We can talk ourselves till the cows come home, have panel discussions, introduce guidelines, and whatever else, but these discussions are only tantamount to noise made when push comes to shove. Noise it made in 2006 after the deaths of models, Ana Carolina Reston and Luisel Ramos both of whom died of complication resulting from anorexia. Noise that has dwindled and eventually ceased.
We’re bored of the same old pedantic conversations that yield no action, same old arguments, debates and excuses, the same old racism clichés and weight issues. Change cannot happen overnight but it’s long overdue in the fashion industry and the delay is an excuse for things to remain the same when everything is changing. We shouldn’t have to tell designers, agencies, magazine editors to have a wider range of models for their catwalks, roaster or front covers, some things should be a given.
This isn’t to say there haven’t been improvements but change in fashion often comes as a reactive measure. Like Prada using its first black model in their ad campaign in nearly two decades may be something for some people to laud the house for, but let’s be real, that’s just damn right condescending because it reinforces the idea of tokenism.
The more global fashion becomes, the more irrelevant barriers will be and the louder the calls for a more inclusive industry, one not guarded by the ways of old but embraces a more diverse future. I hold that hope very dear.
September is around the corner here’s hoping we see signs of that future on the runway.