Why Is New York Fashion Week Still So White? The Problem of Sameness on the Runway

Has NYFW become significantly more diverse over the last year?

By Nicole Adlman Sep 04, 2015 5:30 PMTags
Calvin Klein, NYFWRandy Brooke/WireImage

It's time to talk about New York Fashion Week.

Why? Well for one, there will be newness when this season kicks off on Sept. 10: Lincoln Center is no longer the stationary home front, which means designers will be able to present collections in pockets of the city that aesthetically, functionally and financially make sense for them. This year is also seeing a heightened star-factor: Celebs like Lauren Conrad and Carrie Underwood are making their NYFW debuts. Givenchy will be presenting in NYC for the first time ever this season, with designer Riccardo Tisci democratizing his presentation by allowing 1,200 non-industry fashion fans a chance to attend the show.

And then there's the anticipation for increased diversity. Each year, conscious fashion followers wonder if they might see a more inclusive runway than the season before, and each year the results are tepid. There's regression sometimes, too—the uptick of inclusivity seen in the spring-summer 2014 season came down a notch during the fall-winter 2014 showings, according to the diversity data crunchers at Jezebel.

Which means that until improvements are consistent and significant (more on that latter word later), it's worth investigating just how white the runway is—and if the catwalk is still largely, unavoidably white, then, well, why?

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The major casting directors in New York make a close-knit group. Among them, Julia Samersova (of the agency Cast Inc.) works as a connector—someone who knows everyone, and not just who they are, but who they work with and how they cast. She's bright, boisterous and extremely forthcoming—a woman whose voice over the phone allows me to sketch a face, fill in the lines.

"Every time I have a meeting with a designer, I give this whole speech," she told me. "I explain that I cast women based on whether this look is right for the season, how beautiful they are, how special they are, how right they are for us. If you're going to cast based only on race, or have some sort of weird quota on how many black girls versus white girls you can have, I'm not the casting director for you."

Unfortunately, not all casting directors have the career width that Samersova has—a width that comes with success, being known and being respected. And some that do have the width choose to use it to further narrow the scope of runway beauty.

Samersova believes that designers also have a major stake in runway demographics, despite the leveling of major casting duties to directors and stylists.

"I think Paris and Milan are still embarrassingly behind the times. A designer in Europe might go five, six seasons without putting one woman of color on the runway," she said. "And they're 100 percent aware. There's no way that in 2015 you don't put a black girl on the runway for five seasons and still lay claim to 'unaware.' You would have to be blind—literally."

Samersova, who described a client that once requested no black women for a show that would feature blond wigs (side note: hi Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj), doesn't think that change regarding diversity can be enforced by the CFDA—an institution that has previously put protective measures in place for underage models. But change might come, she suggests, through cohesion—collective action from top casting agencies in New York.

"So there's only like, what, 10 really big casting directors in New York City, right? If all 10 directors said, 'We will cast in a diverse, sensitive manner. And we will not take clients that [virtually] mandate whiteness,' maybe something would happen. You're leaving designers with nobody to cast for them."

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"I don't understand the uniform thing," Julius Poole, a New York-based casting director and producer, told me when I asked about the persistent whiteness of the modern runway. "Sometimes the stylist is more headstrong than the designer or the designer is more headstrong than the stylist. I can throw my two cents in—I can say, 'Isn't it great to have a balance instead of going in just one direction?' In today's market you have to think twice about the things that you do. And for me, when it comes to fashion shows, is it worth casting something I don't believe in?'

"What makes me laugh is that everyone thinks that casting is easy. But I also teach girls how to walk. I base my casting off this: If a girl can look expensive—black, Asian, whatever—if she looks expensive and is really presentable on the runway, then why would you limit yourself to white?"

Poole is casting for advertising and editorials this season ("Shows are now a dying breed," he says), working with major designers on projects for which diversity is an implicit requirement. He is quick to note that even positive strides for black models (like Vogue Italia's all-black model issue) come with certain setbacks (advertising in that issue was largely white). Cognitive dissonance comes with the job: Poole has experienced being in the uncomfortable position of casting an all-white show.

"Back in the day [designers] wanted this possessed baby doll, uniform look—one that no longer translates for what consumers want now. You have to think 'Does this translate?'—since so many people now want to identify with the brand," he said, citing his teenage niece as an example.

Casting director Andrew Weir has dealt with the same dissonance as Poole.

"Diversity simply needs to be part of the story for every brand," he told me over email. "Honestly it's still a taboo topic in the industry. I had a client tell me recently a girl was 'too black.' I was speechless. At that moment I should have stopped everything and said, 'Did you hear what you just said?' But I was stunned that this person thought it was appropriate to think or say that.  So what do you do at that moment? Sit them down and have a conversation about diversity? I should have told them what they just said was racist and inappropriate. Sometimes I do push back and really try to make a case for diversity. Other times I feel like it will simply fall on deaf ears and I move on feeling defeated and part of the problem."

And while there seems to be no one comprehensive solution for making the runways more inclusive—Poole offers that a simple question can't hurt.

"Keep asking questions. Ask questions. 'Can we open up this casting and make it diverse?' I love asking people those questions," he said. "The world has changed."

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The push for greater body diversity within the women's wear industry has been more prevalent than ever—and major brands are making changes to meet the expectation for inclusivity from consumers. But how to better represent women from ethnic groups outside the sprawling umbrella of whiteness is still a problem in the industry that, while widely talked about, is less purposefully addressed.

But tides have been turning: Social media critics are helping to establish the notion that universal whiteness in the mainstream is not only unfair—it's unacceptable. Sudanese beauty Nykhor took to Instagram on July 6 to address the subtle inequalities that dark-skinned black models have to face backstage during fashion week, in a post that describes her experience of being told to bring her own products for makeup artists to use. The circumstance is made even more grating because the makeup artists in question come equipped to cater to white skin.

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For designer Tracy Reese, inclusivity on her runway isn't a question but a matter of what is. (And it shows—season after season, she puts forth some of the most diverse catwalks in fashion.)

"I think that being a minority perhaps gives me a different perspective on beauty and how different types of people can enhance my designs," she told me. "I don't have a list like 'I'm going to have X many black girls, X many Asian girls, X many Latinas…' We look at everyone and we want to come up with a rich mix."

"And sometimes, you know, certain characteristics are important to specific looks," she added. "Like I literally might say 'I need someone really dark-skinned for this outfit' or 'I need someone very fair to wear this color.' That does play in because a redhead can enhance a certain outfit, an ebony girl can enhance certain outfits—so that's where the fun begins, when we actually start placing outfits."

Reese works with Julia Samersova on casting ("She makes sure that we see everybody," she said), and remains hands-on—especially when it comes to requesting specific models for specific looks.

"We make a clear request that we want diversity, that we want to see all types of young ladies—I think that you do still have to make that request. But there's more variety now...Bethann Hardison has been [instrumental]. The agencies too, they have to scout and train them. Groom them. If someone comes in and she hasn't come in to be a model—and this can be a model of any color—she's not going to get the gig. It's important that agencies scout, train and groom."

During our conversation, Reese repeatedly emphasizes the importance of keeping diversity "top of mind" as the work for an upcoming fashion week begins. She also contends that it's important to see the industry in a more global perspective.

"The runway is white because the industry is still largely white. The runway is what people see—it's what is in everyone's face. But look at journalism—look at editorials, look at management at brands' corporate [offices], look at management in retail, look at buyers," she said. "Consumers have to speak up. People who enjoy fashion—if a brand is not representing you, you don't need to be representing them. And I think people need to use their voices and their credit cards, and support brands that represent them."

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Hardison, a former model and agency owner, CFDA Founder's Award honoree and vigorous crusader for equal representation on the catwalk, admits that some uncertainty surrounds the question on the runway's continued whiteness.

"Sometimes, as much as I think I know and as much as I stand in front with two flags behind me and a soapbox, I promise you there are moments like this…I don't have the answers anymore," she told me over the phone. "I used to have the quick quote things [to say], I can still say them. What it comes down to in our industry is just the irresponsibility of so many.

"I mean this to be the greatest, biggest, loudest sounding word: It's based more in ignorance than it is even in racism," she continued. "Because the results may be racist—the results are definitely that—but the intent is not."

(Hearing Bethann talk about fashion is like hearing a great story told by an even better storyteller. Before our interview is over, I feel like I've been anointed—or schooled at least. "I'm the old wise sage," she tells me at one point. "I'm here to educate you.")

And she's here to educate designers as well.

"When I first started talking about this—people think I did this all my life, I didn't—it just seems that you got to a point where you were looking at something that had gone really awry. It had just gone real wrong. In the '80s we were always pumping along and having a real good time. Even in the '50s, '60s there were many large advertisements with people of color of it…The girls really putting it out there were the black girls. Right up until the '90s when things began to change. In the mid-'90s our girls just started to disappear. They found one girl—so that one girl that everybody liked—they used her over and over again. And it was Alek Wek. But I don't think the designers were thinking tokenism. They were thinking, 'This girl's great,'" she said.

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Modeling agents, as Bethann explained, contributed to the whitewash in fashion by not scouting women of color who could compete with what she calls the "white model counterpart," or, to be even more specific, the "Eastern European girl." For Hardison, the equation is as simple as it is problematic: Eastern Europe—land of the beautiful, straight-bodied, sample-sized, white model archetype—opened up for scouting, and women of color began to fade from the industry forefront. ("There's so many white girls. It's not that things haven't improved at all. There's just so many," the activist dryly noted.)

"At that point, these model agents weren't even refreshing the pool—they weren't searching for the women of color," she said. "They weren't being good enough agents to still look."

Others in the industry have underlined this point as well:

"I do think, or rather, I know, that agency rosters are probably 80 percent white, if not more," Jennifer Starr, a casting director in New York, explained over email. "I am not blaming the agencies, as I am quite sure if they felt the girls would work, they would represent them. I am just stating a fact. I have been told it is much harder to find amazing nonwhite models. Seems hard to believe but quite possibly there is a narrower definition of beauty when it comes to different ethnicities."

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I recently got out my glasses and counted models of color—black, Asian, Latina and ambiguous other (P.S., I feel OK saying "ambiguous other" because as a mixed race woman I'm very often the ambiguous other)—on the runway, as best I could, from 30 designers who showed in New York both in September of last year and February of this year. Obviously, the room for error is cavernous—this was a count based on visuals, not the model's self-identification. But it is somehow telling, from a "Hey, look what I can see with my own two eyes" vantage point.

As of the fall-winter 2014-15 season, New York Fashion Week is still pretty white. But there are improvements, ones that can't be described as statistically significant, but still important in the greater scheme of promoting inclusivity. Out of the designers in my sample (big names like Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren and Diane von Furstenberg included), seven featured 10 or more women of color in their spring-summer showings, while eight featured 10 or more women of color in the fall-winter round. There were no all-white shows from my 30 for either season, although a couple designers came close (Calvin Klein and Dion Lee in the spring-summer 2014-15 season, with two and one model of color for each show, respectively). Positive gains became smaller to me when juxtaposed with the total number of looks in a collection—seven women of color in a 41-look show doesn't scream progress as much as murmur it.

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Beyond New York, figures in fashion setting are the example for brands still lagging in the diversity realm. Hat connoisseur Philip Treacy and designer Ashish Gupta have challenged the white hegemony by putting forth all-black runway shows.

"I don't think anybody in the industry wants to be looked at as a racist. That's the one thing I'm sure of—they don't want that tag. So I keep naming them," Bethann said to me, referring to the designers she famously listed, via the Diversity Coalition she helms, in open letters to the ruling fashion councils in New York, London, Milan and Paris in 2013.

Her voice did not go unheard. Céline's Phoebe Philo added four women of color to her model lineup after being called out (prior to the Coalition's open letter in 2013, her shows had been almost exclusively all-white). Models of color appeared in Céline's advertising in the months that followed.

"I'm a good revolutionary," Bethann quipped. "I'm patient."

Toward the end of our conversation, I ask her if she thinks the runways this season will be more diverse than what we've seen from the last year.

"Uh-huh," Bethann says. Is that tentative, I push. "Uh-huh," she says, before, "You hope that it's getting better. This season there's going to be more talk about racism in our industry than, I think, ever. I can beat the drum and people can jump behind me. But now there seems to be people talking about this before I even start."