“Black is beautiful” has been around as a catchphrase since the 1960s, but a lot of aspiring models are still waiting for the arbiters of fashion to catch on to it. That’s why there’s so much buzz over Vogue magazine’s decision to devote its current Italian issue entirely to models who are women of color.
“Do black models sell?” was the rhetorical question Jerri DeVard, a black woman as well as a marketing expert, put to TODAY’s Hoda Kotb Monday. “It’s about myth-busting,” she said. “There’s this myth out there that they don’t. And that’s just not true.”
Veronica Webb, a black model and host of Bravo’s “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style,” agreed, and sees the pioneering Vogue issue as a vehicle that can begin to get people to change their thinking.
“We’re all conditioned to see beauty,” Webb said, and the magazine, filled with photos of glamorous black models, “helps to condition people’s eyes. When you look at page after page after page of beautiful, gorgeous dark girls, you go, ‘Wow! Wow! Wow! I want some of that. How can I do it?’ ”
Webb noted that advertising in the special issue is up 30 percent over a normal edition. But, to underline the problem the industry has with diversity, nearly every one of the ads features white models.
Still, Webb said, the editorial content is what will drive people to the ads, and if those ads end up selling products, other editors and fashion directors may realize that black is not only beautiful — it’s profitable, too.
Winds of change
“When people start to vote with their dollars, that will initiate more change than probably anything,” observed Neal Hamil, the North American director of the Elite modeling agency. Hamil claims that his agency is the most ethnically diverse in the business. He also says that he knows of other agencies — he did not name names — that have one token woman of color but remain adamantly white. “It’s one of the great disparities that exists in fashion,” he said. “It’s hard for me to comprehend.”
The time certainly seems right for change, said Webb, pointing to the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, and the box office success of Will Smith, whose superhero saga “Hancock” earned $66 million over its opening July 4 weekend.
“Things are changing,” Webb told Kotb. “Obama is running for president. To my kids, that’s normal. It’s normal that Will Smith is saving the world. I think what’s going to happen is that if this sells well, then people start to buy things from looking at this magazine. Once there’s a trend, the trend happens again, like the miniskirt. If it sells, it comes back again and again.”
“Veronica mentioned Barack Obama,” DeVard added. “I think it’s also about Michelle Obama in terms of being a style arbiter.” Last month, the candidate’s wife showed up on “The View” in a black-and-white print frock, triggering a buying frenzy.
Webb is used to fighting through barriers, and, she said, it’s not just in the fashion industry. “You can plug that into lawyer, doctor, Indian chief. In any office, any profession, there’s always going to be a lack of diversity,” she said.
Hamil claimed it’s not the agencies but those who hire the models who are to blame for the lack of diversity in the industry.
“Designers, photographers, casting people, these are the people that hire us. We are not the
real decision-makers. We are not the ones that ultimately make any decisions,” Hamil said.
Webb agreed, saying, “You need more people who are power brokers. You need more black photographers. There aren’t many. I can count them on my hand. You need more black editors. You need more black hairstylists, makeup people. The more people there are in the industry, behind the scenes, making decisions, the change will come.”
“You need clients who will sit back and say, ‘This does not represent the consumer,’ ” added DeVard.
Webb said that it ultimately comes down to the consumer relating to the person selling the product.
“You want to see the outfit, but you want somebody you can relate to,” she said. “You want to see somebody who looks like you or your mom or your cousin or your sister and who also conveys feelings that make you think, ‘Wow, she’s so beautiful. She’s so exciting. She’s so mysterious.’ ”
And you can’t do that by having one black cover girl like Beyonce as the one model of color to whom everyone turns to show how enlightened they are.
“What happens is, there’s one person you see in 50 places, as opposed to 50 beautiful women in 50 different campaigns,” Webb said. “I think the issue becomes, if you were to land here from Mars and opened up a magazine — a fashion magazine or a beauty magazine — there would not be representation of women of color.”
This month, at least in Italy, that’s not the case.