Why you should care

Because unless you’re selling clothes only in Iceland — and even then — there’s really no reason not to expand your palette.

The February 2014 cover of Allure splashes the headline “American Beauty” beneath film actress Jennifer Connelly’s peachy complexion, her dark hair and crisp white shirt evocative of a young Jackie O.

“American Beauty”? Have we not moved beyond the classic white-girl-next-door definition of beautiful? Highly doubtful that coverline has ever accompanied a woman of color — other than, of course, Michelle Obama.

In many ways, the first lady, perhaps the most American of beautiful women today, has helped usher in a new era, and a new definition of magazine-worthy beauty. Her beaming smile, kind eyes and famously toned arms have graced countless glossy covers. Her sense of style is closely followed — and imitated — by legions of fashionistas and average American women, of all colors.

And now, following on the (sensible) heels of Michelle, is a spate of racially and ethnically diverse singers and supermodels who have been signed — big time — by some of the most exclusive fashion houses in the world.

The spring/summer 2014 campaigns underway herald the shift. Givenchy under Riccardo Tisci turned industry heads by tapping African-American neo-soul singer Erykah Badu for its spring look. Barbadian mega pop star Rihanna is now the face of the esteemed French fashion brand Balmain. And a new ruling class of supermodels has landed some of spring’s most coveted contracts: black and Puerto Rican Joan Smalls for Fendi; Chinese Liu Wen for Calvin Klein; and Ethiopian Liya Kebeda for hot-shot designer Prabal Gurung’s first ad campaign.

When one group is left out of the picture, we are not building that inclusive society that we agree is the ideal.

Even more encouraging may be Rihanna’s third and current March 2014 Vogue cover — and the lack of surprise to see her there (again), since Beverly Johnson made history as the first black woman to be featured on the cover of the iconic fashion bible nearly 40 years ago.

“It’s significant that black women are the faces of these brands because what is more common is that we see white women predominantly representing fashion in the magazines and the runways,” says Constance C.R. White, former editor in chief of Essence magazine and OZY contributor. “When one group is left out of the picture, we are not building that inclusive society that we agree is the ideal.”

Which explains why attention has been paid in recent years to the diversity — or lack thereof — of the Fashion Week runways. The blog Jezebel started tracking race and ethnicity data of models walking the New York Fashion Week (NYFW) shows starting with the fall/winter 2008 collections. That year, 87 percent of the models were white, 4.8 percent were black, 5.4 percent were Asian and 2.7 percent were Latina.

Six years later, the data shows a trend toward increased diversity. Of the 148 shows and 4,621 looks shown at last month’s 2014 fall/winter NYFW, 78.69 percent were shown by white models, with 7.67 percent, 9.75 percent and 2.12 percent shown by black, Asian and Latina models, respectively. (The uptick in Asian models has been credited to designers’ interest in capturing the growing Asian markets).

Still, while the raw percentage improvements allude to important shifts, recent movement remains somewhat stalled: The overall percentage of white models has hovered within a few percentage points of 80 percent since 2009.

Even so, within that depressing stat sit leading designers like Diane von Furstenberg, Zac Posen, Tracy Reese and Ralph Lauren, applauded for casting notably diverse looks for their shows.

And the number of shows with all-white casts has plummeted. Perhaps, in part, because an absence of models of color will lead to a public shaming in the press and design community, especially by groups like the Diversity Coalition, spearheaded by former model agency owner and African-American model Bethann Hardison.

But change is also being fueled by sector leaders determined to drive transformation from within. Agency powerhouse IMG Models, which represents Gisele Bundchen, Kate Upton and Joan Smalls, no longer segments their signees into separate categories, like age or size. And they have promoted diverse “packages” of models (of all colors and shapes and ages) to designers to cast for Fashion Week.

The Internet and social media have empowered broader consumer segments to demand change in how they see products marketed.

“Our goal is scouting diversely,” says Ivan Bart, senior vice president and managing director of IMG Models. “And a mandate for us in 2014 is #diversity, #inclusion and #evolution. Unless we start talking about it, no one is going to buy it. So let’s talk about it. Let’s sell it.”

Beyond fashion, there’s been significant progress in an aligned industry: beauty. Major cosmetic companies, including the more exclusive department store brands, have broadened their product lines to include widely varied skin colors and are showcasing diverse faces to represent them.

Another engine for positive change: the power of the Internet and social media, which has empowered broader consumer segments to demand change in how they see products marketed.

“I think customers have a greater stake in shaping those messages than they have in the past,” says Ashley Mears, assistant professor of sociology at Boston University and author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model. “Consumers can vote not just with their dollars but by voicing their opinions.”

Bart further underscores the potential for impact. “We have to live in the truth — that’s a good thing that’s come out of the Internet age. By living in the truth, society has to see itself, we have to see it is multisized, it’s multicultural. We have to see ourselves.”

Despite such trends, breaking out of the long-term status quo even among liberal-minded fashion industry insiders is no small feat. “For the most part, things don’t change in the high end of fashion,” says Mears.

In her research, Mears found that casting directors, modeling agents, photographers and designers who were personally inspired by diversity “saw themselves as stuck to produce looks of beauty that will read ‘high-end’ and ‘high fashion,’ which is inherently exclusionary and defines itself as not being relatable or attainable.”

If they want the consumers to buy their things, they have to reflect what the consumer looks like.

In the end, though, even at the highest echelons of the fashion industry, it’s a business. And building bridges to burgeoning markets and more diverse consumer populations — particularly as e-commerce continues to skyrocket — may help to speed change.

“We have a tremendous amount of wealth in all ethnicities,” says Bart. “The fashion industry has to understand this: If they want the consumers to buy their things, they have to reflect what the consumer looks like.”

Yet the pervasive imagery in magazines and other media continues to influence how girls and adult women see themselves.

Joan Smalls on the cover of Elle's January 2014 issue.


Joan Smalls, Elle, Jan. 2014

“It is a serious problem,” says Judy Vrendenbergh, CEO of nonprofit Girls Inc., which serves 136,000 girls ages six to 18, 41 percent of whom are African-American and 20 percent who are Latina. The group created media literacy programs to help girls understand the influence of ads and magazines and become advocates for more diverse and realistic messages.

“We take a holistic approach to girls’ development,” she continues. “We are all about building confidence and skills to deal with stresses and the external environment. And part of that is learning to deal critically with the media. It’s sending messages that say that they may not look beautiful as the external world is defining it.”

But it’s an issue that extends beyond adolescence. Black women don’t see enough positive images of themselves in media, which is why including more than a splash of color in the fashion world is important. Why including black women on runways and in ads and in magazines matter.

Joan Smalls kicked off 2014 by appearing on the January cover of Elle, which called her the “planet’s most perfect face.” Kind of trumps ”American Beauty,” doesn’t it?

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