• You can be Fernanda Ly, the Chinese-Australian model who was discovered in south-western Sydney. (Getty Images AsiaPac)Source: Getty Images AsiaPac
Although fashion’s current focus on diverse beauty feels like a revolution, it also risks becoming a smokescreen that keeps whiteness intact, writes Neha Kale.
By
Neha Kale

11 Oct 2016 - 2:27 PM  UPDATED 11 Oct 2016 - 2:44 PM

My cousins and I used to play a game when we were young called ‘supermodels’.

With a little ingenuity and a lot of trick lighting, we would turn our suburban loungerooms into the catwalks of Milan, New York and Paris and imagine that we were Claudia Schiffer, Linda Evangelista or Cindy Crawford, stalking down the runway with the world at their feet.

I had always wanted to be Cindy Crawford, that brainy, all-American beauty who made blue jeans and a white T-shirt seem like the one-way ticket to an endless reserve of glamour. So what if I lacked cream-coloured skin or a strategically placed mole? Pretending to be Cindy was my entrée into womanhood. Clearly I was an imaginative kid.

Today, if you’re a young girl looking for your reflection in a model of colour, it’s easy to assume that you’re spoilt for choice. You can be Fernanda Ly, the Chinese-Australian model who was discovered in south-western Sydney and whose flamingo hair and megawatt grin are a regular fixture in Louis Vuitton ad campaigns. You can be Pooja Mor, the lithe engineering student from India’s Uttar Pradesh whose improbably sharp cheekbones have graced the covers of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue Italia. Or you can be Lineisy Montero, the 20-year-old rising star from the Dominican Republic who was one of the top 10 models of the recent Spring 2017 edition of New York Fashion Week, walking for designers such as Tom Ford and Oscar de la Renta.

You can be Fernanda Ly, the Chinese-Australian model who was discovered in south-western Sydney and whose flamingo hair and megawatt grin are a regular fixture in Louis Vuitton ad campaigns. 

In the lead-up to New York Fashion Week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America provided every designer with written pointers that urged them “to be inclusive of racial diversity when preparing casting of models for their company needs”.

According to statistics by US website Fashion Spot, 30.1 percent of the models that participated in fashion week came from nonwhite backgrounds and designers such as Zac Posen and Christian Siriano have been roundly lauded for featuring women across a spectrum of skin tones and body sizes.

This Indian designer is kicking all kinds of diversity goals at Paris Fashion Week
Models from many different backgrounds and of different sizes, ages and gender identities were represented on Manish Arora's runway.

This shift isn’t limited to the runway, either— earlier this year, Christian Louboutin, announced plans to make “nude” shoes in shades other than that ubiquitous shade of peach that’s comically out of sync with darker complexions and in July, Maminydjama Magnolia Maymuru, a teenager from Arnhem Land became the face of Melbourne shopping centre, Chadstone.  In a country that’s long seen Miranda Kerr and Jennifer Hawkins as ground zero for Australian beauty, describing this as a tiny miracle isn’t overblown at all.

But as Ellen Berrey writes in an October 2015 article for Salon, diversity has fast become the feel-good crutch we reach for when we’re too scared to tackle the ugly truth about race.

The subtext, however, is that there is a kind of beauty whose value is so entrenched in the culture, it doesn’t require diversity counts or quotas or any kind of celebration.

When it comes to non-white models (or, for that matter, trans models or models with disabilities or models with different body types), we love to hold up the success of these genetically blessed antidotes to Elle Macpherson or Christie Brinkley as proof that the fashion world is actually welcoming and inclusive, interested in celebrating all stripes of beauty.

The subtext, however, is that there is a kind of beauty whose value is so entrenched in the culture, it doesn’t require diversity counts or quotas or any kind of celebration. If you’re curious, Forbes 2016 list of the world’s ten highest-paid models — a glaringly white line-up that includes Giselle Bundchen, Karlie Kloss and Kendall Jenner — should give you a clue.

Then there’s that argument that diversity doesn’t just make us feel good; it also makes business sense. A September 2014 McKinsey report revealed that luxury fashion spending by Asia Pacific residences outside their home countries would triple to $600 billion by 2020. Given that a February 2015 New York Times article reported that the US fashion industry was going backwards when it comes to non-white designers, forgive me if I find the fact that diversity wins still translate to dollars for white people rather than access or power for people of colour a little off-putting.

After all, it’s easy to aspire to become the United Colours of Benetton — especially with a lot of trick lighting. Aspiring towards real equality will always be a more difficult thing to sell.

 

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