Ask an optimistic fashion insider about the state of diversity in the modelling world and prepare to hear a litany of ways that things are looking up.
2017 was the year, after all, that a black model (Janaye Furman) opened the Louis Vuitton show for the first time. That hijabi model Halima Aden broke through on the runways and on magazine covers. That curvy goddess Ashley Graham, who landed the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 2016, climbed onto Forbes’s list of the world’s highest-paid models.
It was also the year that Vogue got its first black editor in Edward Enninful -- and a diversity advocate of a cover star in Adwoa Aboah. That a major luxury fashion house (Versace) put middle-aged models (yes, the supers really do qualify as middle-aged) front and centre on the runway. That a trans model starred on the cover of another edition of Vogue (Valentina Sampaio, Vogue Paris, March 2017).
Was 2017 the most diverse year in fashion yet? Please.
These women and their achievements are far from insignificant -- but they were both outliers in the industry and exemplars of the same old stories fashion likes to tell about itself. The fact is that fashion remains dominated by extremely thin, young, white models, to a greater degree than is often comfortable to recognise.
Of all the women on Forbes’s list of the world’s highest-paid models, Graham is the only one who represents a different vision of beauty than ‘straight-sized’ names like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley. And she’s in tenth place.
Meet the models breaking down barriers in the fashion industry
When Sampaio appeared on the cover of Vogue Paris, it was with the otherising cover line ‘la beauté transgenre’ (the transgender beauty). While more models of colour are breaking through on the runways, there remain plenty of anecdotes about brands that want all- or overwhelmingly white castings. New York Fashion Week in September became the most diverse NYFW ever, just by virtue of at least two models of colour walking in every show in the city. Meanwhile, Fashionista reported that diversity on the covers of 10 leading US fashion publications actually declined in 2017.
And as powerful as the supers-in-gold-chainmail Versace finale may have been, don’t be deluded into thinking that asking Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer to appear on the runway represented a broadening of the same narrow vision of beauty that catapulted them to fame decades ago.
Diversity isn’t a box you can tick that simply. It’s a matter of race, yes, but also of size, shape, age, gender and different abilities, among other identifiers. There are so many aspects to the notion that sometimes the word ‘diversity’ itself, like ‘sustainability’, can come to seem a husk, an empty buzzword. But the intimidating number of ways that the industry can fail on diversity should in no way detract from the importance of working to get it right.
The bottom line is that diverse representation creates more space for all women to see themselves reflected in fashion, and that can only be a good thing.
There have been some heartening developments, but the main thing changing is the audience’s attitude. Models can take to social media to report shoddy behaviour. Stars can speak out and publicise injustice. And our collective impatience with the people in charge getting it wrong means that everyone is on notice (any art director who contemplates altering a cover star’s appearance to the point of fiction will think twice, remembering how hard those cover stars - and their fans - can come down on publications in light of Grazia’s Lupita Nyong’o debacle).
It's enough to make failing to embrace diversity in a substantive way look regressive, which nobody in fashion wants to be. Let's hope that 2018 will be the year that everyone catches up.