The fashion industry got a wake up call on race five years ago amid complaints that many shows and magazines only featured white models. In response, Vogue published a long article on race in fashion, Italian Vogue published an issue with only black models, and a series of panel discussions were held on the topic. There was a “notable increase” in the hiring of black models, the New York Times reports. But today they still face low odds of being hired in the fashion industry — and things have gotten even worse.
Every year, Jezebel tallies up the race of the models who are featured in New York’s Fashion Week. This year, 82.7 percent of the models were white. Black models were hired for just 6 percent of the “looks” presented to the audience. Latina models made up just 2 percent.
Worse, many companies hired no women of color at all. Thirteen hired only white models, or around 9 percent of the casts for Fashion Week. That percentage increased from the season before, when 6 percent of the shows featured only white models.
Jenna Sauers of Jezebel notes the negative effects of these numbers: This discrimination forces models of color to compete against each other for the few spots available, creates downward pressure on their wages since they have little ability to bargain for more, and makes agencies less willing to take models of color on since there are fewer opportunities and less earnings potential.
Individual models have spoken up about their struggles to get hired. Models Jourdan Dunn and Joan Smalls have publicly said they are not getting jobs because of their race. On the website of the Models Alliance, a group that organizes models to change industry practices, model Marcia Mitchell described being told by the owner of an agency, “We’re not doing black girls right now.”
Sara Ziff, president of the Models Alliance, sees this racial discrimination as a labor issue. “The question is how to tackle it in the modeling industry, an industry that is highly exclusive and based on physical appearance,” she told ThinkProgress. While the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, or ethnic origin, in this sector people are hired based almost entirely on their looks. Complicating matters is that models are considered independent contractors and are therefore not even covered by most labor and anti-discrimination laws. “But in my opinion, even if it’s not illegal to discriminate against models who are minorities,” she said, “it’s socially unacceptable.”
Some models are coming up with strategies to hold the industry accountable. The Times reports that former model and agent Bethann Hardison will organize a social media campaign for Fashion Week in September to point out the designers who don’t hire any black models. Model Iman goes even further. “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,” she told the paper.
Ziff agrees that there needs to be a penalty for a lack of diversity in order to see change. Individual models may have a difficult time speaking out, however, because many face immediate retribution. “I experienced that firsthand when I wrote a private letter to a designer encouraging them to consider a more diverse cast,” she said. “Nothing changed, but I was reprimanded by the casting director for having sent the letter and was never hired by them again.” That also makes model strikes “unrealistic,” she said, but boycotts could force designers to realize that this is an important issue.