“Only one of them could be black.” The Question of Race in Men’s Fashion
A much-anticipated television interview between Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, two powerful female fashion figures, which many expected to be a clash of the titans from the zenith of the supermodel era, turned out to be a poignant and exposing conversation about race in the fashion world. The above quotation is Banks’ own words from her experience from high fashion modelling. “Back then there were 10 top models…but there was an unwritten rule that only one of them could be black,” Banks explained. “And Naomi was that one black girl.” This may be the underlying reason for the legendary rivalry between the two women, but the tension that was formed is relevant, the question is why did there, and does there, need to be only one black model?
More recently Naomi Campbell has joined forces with Bethann Hardison, Iman and The Diversity Coalition sent a letter to the leading fashion councils about the lack of diversity in leading design houses’ catwalks and shoots. This is an issue that has not gone unnoticed before and is startling that ethnic minorities are so underrepresented in the fashion world. Whether this is intentional or not will probably never be revealed, but the dominant use of white models boils down to two things: commerciality and tradition.
The tradition of beauty is forever fluctuating and developing from era to era. However, what has remained as a constant is the Caucasian woman being used as the pinup for the ultimate aspiration and standard for the masses. While ethnic minorities are always presented as being exotic and beautiful in its own right, it has never been marketed or commercialised in the same way. This is the foundation for the lack of representation of ethnic models and irrevocably linked to the commercial functioning of fashion.
Fashion is a Business
The fashion industry is a huge marketing and media machine; it does extensive research and knows its demographics and audiences inside out. Predominantly they market themselves to a white female of a certain socioeconomic standing, thus use likeness as a way to attract and appeal to this group. White models are often associated with a higher socioeconomic status than ethnic minorities, reinforcing the high fashion and luxurious image and this subconscious interpretation of image is associated with power, status and money that design houses are branding and marketing. Thus with this powerful psychology, the use of white models is a commercial asset. Fashion is a business and if their strategies are working and the clothes are selling, why would they fix what isn’t broken?
While the letter from The Coalition included designers and catwalks in men’s fashion, the support from male models has been next to nothing. Top male models from ethnic minorities are not in short supply from Tyson Beckford, Rob Evans and Godfrey Gao who was the face of Louis Vuitton, there seems to be no rivalry or idea that “only one of them could be black”. Is this the reason for the issue of race not being raised by the male fashion sector? Not quite.
Vast disparity in the use of black and Asian male models
At New York Fashion Week Spring 2014, several men’s fashion presentations only had one black male model. At Siki I’m, Fernando Cabral was the only black man walking out of 26 models. Later that day, designer Tim Coppens only had one look worn by a black model at his show, which featured 30 models, male and female. Yet with this underrepresentation, some 80% of models being white, why is there no voice to join the women from men’s fashion?
It is no secret that male models are viewed as ‘accessories’ to women in fashion; women’s fashion makes more money, has more media attention, representation and dominates sales and contracts. Unfortunately, men’s fashion had no equivalent of the ‘supermodel era’ which brought great attention and interest to the industry, thus perhaps leaving men feeling like they have no voice: the perpetual bridesmaids to the female superstars. However, this is no justification for not uniting with their female counterparts and expressing the need for greater equality in fashion. Both Beckford and Evans have recently been judges on America’s and Britain’s Next Top Model and are in a prime position to have the media attention to bring this question to the media’s attention, that is not only in women’s fashion but in men’s fashion as well there is a vast disparity in the use of black and Asian male models.
Regardless of the status of men in fashion in comparison to women’s, the need for them to speak up and speak out alongside the women who are trying to create equality, which shouldn’t be an issue in today’s society, is critical. A unified front and a greater representation from male models who many look to as idols, need to be not only a model but a role model to show that there is an issue of race in men’s fashion and that it is no longer acceptable.
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