As fashion week approaches, designers with local ties turn attention to model diversity

Runways are still overwhelmingly white, but these Maryland natives hope to change that.

When David Hart set out to cast his fall and winter menswear collection this month in New York, he knew black models would be key to the show.

Hart, a white fashion designer originally from Severna Park, showcased a collection inspired by 1960s jazz — the era of John Coltrane and Miles Davis — and cast exclusively black models for the presentation.

"We didn't feel that it [would] feel authentic if we didn't cast the show the way we did," he said."There is so much going on with the Oscars. We wanted to highlight the diversity in modeling. It was a proud moment for the guys participating in the show. We made a strong statement for the men's industry and the fashion industry in general."

Don't expect a similar approach from other fashion designers during New York Fashion Week, running through Feb. 19. Hart's is a rarity in the fashion world, which routinely weathers criticism for its lack of diversity among designers and the models chosen to represent their clothes. But he and other designers with Maryland ties are turning their attention to the issue by casting more diverse models, shining a light on gender diversity or dressing celebrity women of color.

During the spring 2016 season, The Fashion Spot, an online fashion industry news site, reported that white models made up 77.6 percent of the appearances in 373 shows across New York, London, Paris and Milan. Those numbers were slightly more representative of the population than the 80 percent they reported for fall 2015 and the 83 percent from the previous spring season. In contrast, the U.S. is 63.7 percent white, according to U.S. Census data.

Print ads were less diverse. . Of the 460 fall 2015 print ads in national magazines and trade publications, nearly 85 percent of the models featured were white. It was approximately the same percentage in previous seasons.

Unlike Rick Owens' all-black fashion show during Paris Fashion Week in 2013, where he sent women down the runway with unkempt hair and menacing scowls, Hart's collection wasn't received as a gimmick.

"So far, the reaction has been fantastic. It's really all we could have hoped for," Hart said."Diversity is so important. When we do our casting, we really want to encapsulate the world that we live in."

Stevie Boi, a Baltimore-based eyewear and clothing designer, plans to showcase his coming collection "Cabin" this weekend in New York with 30 models. More than half will be nonwhite.

"As a fashion designer, I cast every single ethnicity I can," said the designer born Steven Cordell Strawder. "My shows are very mixed. All of my shows have every ethnicity."

Boi, who is black, said he vividly remembers being told he didn't look "American" or "European" enough during casting calls for modeling gigs.

"I've dealt with a lot of racism. I'm from the South, so I experienced it growing up," he said. "It hurt. But that's why I made the decision to cast multiple ethnicities. I don't know what other people can do other than speak up."

Katrina Bell McDonald, an associate professor of sociology at the Center for Africana Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, isn't surprised that the fashion industry — like Hollywood — is struggling with diversity issues.

"We're still having so many discussions. This one doesn't stand out more than other race conversations that we are having across the board," she said. "There is a basic lack of understanding why people are resistant."

McDonald said she is perplexed as to why designers would ignore potential customers, given the wealth in China and the Middle East and the influence of tastemakers such as first lady Michelle Obama and Jennifer Lopez.

"It sounds like the industry is still unwilling to accept the body shape and skin shade for their clothes," she said. "It leaves us with the uncomfortable feeling of racism — not wanting people of color to play in the game, because it's not their game to be played."

Gisele Soto, owner of CIMA Talent Management, a modeling and acting agency based in Columbia, knows the struggles of models of color all too well.

For the most part, she's given up trying to send models of color to New York City and Europe for work, she said.

"I've had agencies tell me that African-American models' noses are not 'white' or 'European' enough," Soto said. "You have to figure out where to place them. They book in South Africa. But Germany doesn't want them. It's not happening in London. Certain markets aren't picking up on African-American models either.

"They are looking for tons of Caucasian girls," Soto added. "A lot of castings coming in are very specific for Caucasians."

Although half of the models at Soto's agency are nonwhite, she struggles to find work for them. "I have to make sure that I can get them work," Soto said. "I have to take a limited amount of African-American girls for that reason. It's so unfair. Especially being African-American myself."

Designer Christian Siriano said he doesn't think about diversity. For him, it's automatic.

"We've used every girl from day one," said the Annapolis native, who is best known for winning the reality TV show "Project Runway" and for dressing celebrities — especially during red-carpet season. "My customer is every woman."

Although Siriano typically features two to three models of color in his runway shows, he is known for dressing a substantial number of minority celebrities, including Gabourey Sidibe, actresses from "Orange Is the New Black" and Vanessa Williams for her return to the Miss America pageant last year.

Siriano said he doesn't understand excluding models of color. When he presents his fall collection this weekend in New York, he said, he will feature several models of color.

"You should show diversity. That's who's shopping," he said. "I don't know why other people don't see that. It alienates people.""

Bethann Hardison thinks that the fashion industry has a long way to go.

Hardison, a casting director and supermodel during the 1970s, has been a leading voice in urging more diversity among models.

She has written scathing letters to the Council of Fashion Designers of America and several fashion governing bodies in Paris, Milan and London; she's written op-eds about inclusion among the modeling ranks; and she's taken to television, appearing with Naomi Campbell and Iman to address the issue.

"The best thing is to keep on bringing it out," she said. "The media has to keep on mentioning it. We need to keep talking about it until you make people uncomfortable enough."

Hardison said a number of designers are getting it right. She praised Zac Posen, Marc Jacobs, Givenchy, Diane Von Furstenberg, Balmain, Tracy Reese and Celine, a brand she at one time called out for its lack of diversity.

Hardison first examined model diversity in 2007 when she released findings that runways were overwhelmingly white. As a result, sites like Jezebel and The Fashion Spot have continued to release reports charting runway diversity.

Jen Hausner, an art director at Illume Communications in Baltimore and member of the creative at (Cool) Progeny, a parenting blog, is cautiously optimistic about achieving more diversity on runways and in ad campaigns. She pointed to Hollywood — at least one aspect of it — as an example of hope.

"The red carpet is a good example," she said. "There are far more people of color on there that are recognizable and wearing top designers than there were 20 years ago. But then I look at print — Vogue, Vanity Fair — and I don't see much diversity there. …The world is changing, but it's a slow progression.

"I would like for my daughter to be able to flip through Vogue and not have to only see white people," said Hausner, who is Asian-American..

Boi wants to take the conversation a step further and address gender diversity in modeling.

Boi is currently working on a project with actress Whoopi Goldberg that looks at transgender models attempting to break into the industry. The yet-to-be-titled show is scheduled to take place this year on Oxygen.

Boi said he intends to feature six transgender models in his New York Fashion Week show.

"Now I'm able to open up more of a conversation," he said. "Now I'm able to introduce people to more than the black-and-white. That makes them uncomfortable."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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