• Bundulung model Samantha Harris walks the runway during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia 2015. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
COMMENT | The fashion world is rightfully criticised for its lack of diversity, with major designers refusing to cast models of colour. But through the work of advocates, a few select labels, and local and international models - change is afoot. Albeit slowly, writes Arrow 21.
Arrow 21

10 Feb 2016 - 11:48 AM  UPDATED 10 Feb 2016 - 2:47 PM

The fashion world is often criticised for its lack of diversity. While runway shows featuring all, or mostly-white models are justified as an artistic expression of the designer’s inspiration or the stylist’s creative vision. Should we be surprised that such a ‘visual’ and trend-based industry would encourage ‘in-direct’ racism through the decision to casting (or not cast) a person based on the colour of their skin?

Ex-editor-in-chief of Vogue Australia Kristie Clements says “We have always celebrated diversity in our pages. We choose girls for their beauty and their style, not specifically for their ethnic background … I also think that with the expanding markets in countries like China, Korea and India, the fashion industry is now using models who reflect their customers. It’s a wonderful evolution.” Although the same statement cannot be made for Vogue UK, who in 12 years (that’s  146 covers) have only featured one individual black model since Naomi Campbell in 2002.

Campbell is member of the Diversity Coalition, a group founded by Bethann Hardison, a former model and casting agent who advocates equality in the modelling industry.  Hardison recently wrote an open letter to the major fashion houses, naming and shaming labels such as Calvin Klein, Donna Karen and Armani for casting only one or zero models of colour.

“Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches design houses consistently use one or no models of colour. No matter the intention, the result is racism. Not accepting another based on the colour of their skin is clearly beyond ‘aesthetic’ when it is consistent with the designer’s brand,” Hardsion says.

A lack of colour on the runway is often excused on artistic ground, with creative visionaries expressing very specific artistic notions of how they want their creations to look. “They hide behind aesthetics. This season the aesthetic is this,” Campbell said on Good Morning America, championing the issue alongside Hardison and fellow former model Iman.

 “No one is calling these designers racist. The art itself is racist,” Iman said as she recalled modelling in the 70s. “There were more black models working back then.”

Spanish clothing label Mango caused outrage recently when Kendell Jenner was named the face of their latest campaign ‘Tribal Spirit’. Mango announced the campaign online saying “Are you ready to take on the next big trend? Introducing ‘Tribal Spirit’, our new campaign starring the one and only @KendallJenner.” The question of the cultural appropriation and sensitivity is unavoidable when  a white model is chosen to be the face of a collection inspired by the African savannah.

'They love our culture, but they don’t love us': The blogger who forced the 'Walkabout' dance party name change
Her Tumblr and Facebook posts over the racist nature of the 'walkabout' dance party caused a social media storm. She talks to NITV about why she did it.

There has been some positive change on the runway, however. Just last week at the second Men’s New York Fashion Week,  streetwear label Gypsy Sport took creative inspiration from diversity, creating a patchwork print out of close-up photos of the design collective’s skin and the skin of various friends. Designer Rios Uribe said “We wanted a little mix of every single type of skin tone that we could possibly get so we could blend the collection and tones seamlessly.” It was reflective in the beautiful use of colour and the racially diverse cast of male models that took to the runway only complemented that.

Here in Australia, Indigenous models such as Bundjalung woman Samantha Harris and Barada rugby player/model Casey Conway have championed diversity, showcasing home grown talent on an international stage and raising awareness while being positive role models for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

Harris’s baby doll features and statuesque frame make her a favourite for department store David Jones. A regular on the runway for Australian Fashion Week and gracing the cover of Vogue Australia, Harris takes being a positive role model seriously.  “When I was little, I would have never thought I would have been able to do all these amazing jobs and that one day young girls would look up to me and would aspire to be like me.”

Fellow model Conway recently stripped off to be the face of Australian swimwear label Sluggers. Founder Adam Butler said “I believe it's the responsibility of brands to promote diversity - even tiny ones like Sluggers!”

Conway hopes to use modelling to speak out against mainstream stereotypes of Indigenous peoples. “It's important to be able to stand up and say ‘yeah I am indigenous.’”

Another Australian model championing diversity is Melbourne girl and Victoria’s Secret model Shanina Shaik will be returning home to walk the runway for Myer’s Autumn runway show. Shaik is of Lithuanian, Pakistani and Saudi Arabian heritage and is just one model in a long lineage of diverse Victoria’s Secret models including Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks and Selita Ebanks.

Their 2015 runway show saw 31 white, 5 black, 5 multiracial, 2 asian, and 1 hispanic model from a total of 35 countries. Angola- born model Maria Borges made headlines after sporting her natural, short curls on the VS runway.

It may seem a bit tokenistic to celebrate a model rocking her natural curls, while still surrounded by the usual long wavy locks, but diversity has to start somewhere. And it couldn’t be sooner.

Arrow 21 is an Indigenous fashion commentator and Wirdajuri fella. Follow him at Arrow_21.