Iman, fashion activists demand diversity on the designer runway

Supermodel Iman said there's "something terribly wrong" with the lack of diversity of the Fashion Week runways. Getty Images file
Supermodel Iman said there's "something terribly wrong" with the lack of diversity on the Fashion Week runways.

Models from all over the world will descend upon New York Fashion Week on Sept. 5 and this time, a few prominent members of the fashion community are calling attention to an issue — the recent lack of diversity on the runway.

Supermodel and cosmetics entrepreneur Iman, 58, has recently released several statements about the dearth of African-American models on the catwalk, telling the New York Times, "There is something terribly wrong. We have a president and a first lady who are black. You would think things have changed, and then you realize that they have not. In fact, things have gone backwards."

Iman had further impassioned remarks, going so far as to suggest a boycott against designers who don’t cast models of color.

“It feels to me like the times need a real hard line drawn like in the 1960s, by saying if you don’t use black models, then we boycott,” Iman said. “If you engage the social media, trust me, it will hurt them in their pockets. If you take it out there, they will feel the uproar.”

“That was an anxious statement,” fashion activist, former model and modeling agent Bethann Hardison told TODAY.com. “Iman was speaking out of emotion, it’s not necessarily a plan or anything like that.”

However, Hardison herself has plans for action, including launching a social media campaign to draw attention and call for more diversity in the fashion industry.

Hardison has been vocal on the subject for decades. She formed the Bethann Management Agency in 1984 with a strong focus on representing minorities on the runway and in magazines, and in 1988 — along with Iman — co-founded the Black Girls Coalition in support of African-American models.

Hardison recalls the late '80s through the early '90s as the last time she saw an organic shift in how models were cast. “There were so many girls of color working [then],” she recalled. “It was the time when Elle magazine came along in the U.S. and they were booking beautiful and diverse girls. Conde Nast and Hearst had to compete and started booking them too.”

She adds that around the mid-'90s that surge in diversity came to a halt. “It started to shut down a bit,” said Hardison. “Then there started to be that one girl that was in every show. It was Alek Wek or Kiara [Kabakuru].”

Hardison says that there hasn’t been much of an uptick in diversity since and after taking several years off from fashion, she has decided to become an active voice on the matter again. It might be the right time for strong industry influencers such as Hardison and Iman to declare a call to action — according to the New York Times, this year black models accounted for only 6 percent of those booked at Fashion Week in Feb., down from 8.2 percent the year before.

“I am so aware of the whiteness of the runways,” Cameron Silver, author, fashion consultant and founder of Decades vintage boutique tells TODAY.com. Silver narrated the documentary film “Versaille '73”, which featured several African-American models, including Pat Cleveland, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Nash and Hardison. “That film made me very educated about all of the black models working in 1973 and I feel like we’ve gone backwards since then. Today our runways are so not reflective of what our world looks like.”

A diverse group of models present creations for Christian Dior during the Haute Couture Fall-Winter 2013/2014 collection shows, on July 1, 2013 in Paris.  FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP/Getty Images
A diverse group of models present creations for Christian Dior during the Haute Couture Fall-Winter 2013/2014 collection shows, on July 1, 2013 in Paris.

Christian Dior had been one of the brands criticized for their homogenous runways, but seems to be making a conscious effort to change up their model selection. At the recent Dior Fall-Winter 2013/2014 Haute Couture show in June, the luxury design house featured six black models, including Joan Smalls, Alek Wek, Maria Borges, Grace Mahary, Yasmin Warsame and Kelly Moreira.

Still, Silver thinks that by and large, there is a major problem within the industry and that the lack of varied ethnicities has gone on longer than he expected. He feels that the fashion community needs to take a stronger stand.

“Iman is a genius, she’s absolutely brilliant,” Silver says about Iman’s recent comments. “It’s just ironic when you think of the progress we’ve made politically but in fashion we’re stepping further back.”

Most online reactions to Iman’s statements seem to fall in line with Silver’s sentiments.

“The 10 top models working in the '90s — Christy Turlington, Helena Christensen, Yasmeen Ghauri and Naomi Campbell — were all of mixed heritage. It’s hard to explain to the fashion world how far we’ve gone back when a large chunk in the industry barely know their fashion history,” says one reader of the New York Times article.

“Well said, Iman," wrote another commenter on Vogue.com. "The paucity of black models on the catwalk always jars. What matters is does the girl wear the clothes well?” 

(TODAY.com attempted to reach Iman for comment, but her agent said she was unavailable as of press time.)

A model presents a creation for Christian Dior during the Haute Couture Fall-Winter 2013/2014 collection shows, on July 1, 2013 in Paris.  AFP PHOTO/F... FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP/Getty Images
Canadian model Yasmin Warsame struts the runway for Christian Dior during the Haute Couture Fall-Winter 2013/2014 collection show.

Other readers take the discussion one step further, bringing up not just ethnicity, but models' childlike weight and age, both issues that come up regularly regarding Fashion Week.

“Is it possible that fashion's diversity is limited not only by its tiny range of ideal facial beauty, but also by its teensy spectrum of desirable body types?” wrote a commenter on the New York Times article. “Not all gene pools major in willowy, hollow-cheeked beanstalk women. What about short Italians and curvy Latinas? Where are petite Asian women in this mix? It's hard to imagine how [the fashion industry] will ever represent anything but the thinnest, wealthiest, and, mostly, the whitest populations in the world.”

It’s an ongoing discussion that Hardison and apparently Iman are ready to do something about.

“All these years later, we’re still talking the same stuff,” says Hardison about her work in changing the model landscape in fashion.

Does this buzzy beauty trend leave out women of color?

For such a complex subject, perhaps there is a simple philosophy to which designers, agents and casting directors can subscribe to while working on diversifying the fashion week runways:

“For us, race doesn't come into the equation, it's about their overall beauty, potential and attitude," Faith Kates, owner of Next Model Management, told TODAY.com.

“Color should not be a factor,” adds Silver. “A beautiful girl is a beautiful girl.”

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