Top fashion runways fade to white

The Baltimore Sun

In the days of blithe racial assumptions, flesh crayons were the color of white people. "Invisible" makeup and nude pantyhose were colored in the hues of Caucasian skin. The decision by manufacturers to ignore whole segments of humanity went unchallenged for decades before the civil-rights movement came along and nonwhite consumers started demanding their place on the color wheel.

Nowadays, the cultural landscape is well populated with actors, musicians, media moguls and candidates for the American presidency drawn from the 30 percent of the American population that is not white. Yet, if there is one area where the lessons of racial diversity have gone largely unheeded, it is fashion. This reality was never plainer than during the recent showings of the women's spring 2008 collections in New York and Europe.

Of the 101 shows and presentations posted on during the New York runway season, which ended in September, more than a third employed no black models, according to Women's Wear Daily. Most of the others used just one or two. When the fashion caravan moved to London, Paris and Milan, the most influential shows -- from Prada to Jil Sander to Balenciaga to Chloe and Chanel -- made it appear as if someone had hung out a sign reading: No Blacks Need Apply.

"It's the worst it's ever been," said Bethann Hardison, a black former model who went on to start a successful modeling agency in the 1980s that promoted racial diversity.

Among the people she represented were Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford, the chiseled hunk who broke barriers in the 1990s by becoming the unexpected symbol of the country-club fantasia that is a Ralph Lauren Polo campaign.

"It's heartbreaking for me now because the agents send the girls out there to castings and nobody wants to see them," said Hardison, referring to black models.

In October in New York, Hardison convened a panel of fashion experts at the Bryant Park Hotel to discuss "The Lack of the Black Image in Fashion Today."

"Modeling is probably the one industry where you have the freedom to refer to people by their color and reject them in their work," she said.

The exclusion is rarely subtle. An agent for the modeling firm Marilyn once told Time magazine of receiving requests from fashion clients that baldly specified "Caucasians only."

The message is not always so blatant these days, but it is no less clear. Take for example the case of two young models, one white, one black, both captivating beauties at the start of their careers. Irina Kulikova, a feline 17-year-old Russian, appeared on no fewer than 24 runways in New York last month, a success she went on to repeat in Milan with 14 shows, and in Paris with 24 more. Honorine Uwera, a young Canadian of Rwandan heritage, was hired during the New York season for just five runway shows.

While Uwera's showing was respectable, it was not enough to justify the cost to her agency of sending her to Europe, where most modeling careers are solidified.

"We represent a lot of ethnic girls," said Ivan Bart, the senior vice president of IMG Models, which represents a roster of the commercially successful models of the moment, among them black superstars like Alek Wek, Campbell and Liya Kebede.

"We have new girls, too," Bart added, young comers like Uwera, Quiana Grant and Mimi Roche. "We include them in our show package, give them the same promotion as any other girl, and get the same responses: 'She's lovely, but she's not right for the show.' "

Although, in fact, Roche and Grant, both black, were seen on spring-fashions runways, the reality was that only one black model worked at anything like the frequency of her white counterparts: Chanel Iman Robinson, 17, who is African-American and Korean.

Particularly in Milan and Paris, Robinson's was often the only nonwhite face amid a blizzard of Eastern European blondes.

It is not just a handful of genetically gifted young women who are hurt by this exclusion. Vast numbers of consumers draw their information about fashion and identity from runways, along with cues about what, at any given moment, the culture decrees are the new contours of beauty and style.

"Years ago, runways were almost dominated by black girls," said J. Alexander, a judge on America's Next Top Model, referring to the gorgeous mosaic runway shows staged by Hubert de Givenchy or Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s. "Now some people are not interested in the vision of the black girl unless they're doing a jungle theme and they can put her in a grass skirt and diamonds and hand her a spear."

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