Supermodel Iman watched the runways like a hawk this New York Fashion Week - but she wasn't looking at the clothes.
Iman joined with Naomi Campbell and veteran modelling agent Bethann Hardison for an unusual effort they are calling Balance Diversity to bring more black models to the runway, and they called out designers who instead whitewash their runways in an open letter early last week.
By all indications, the letter made a difference, with a rise in diversity at the previews that ended last week. All the top designers presenting in New York used at least one black model, and some who previously had no black models used as many as seven this season.
"I've always said runways and photos are important to shape our young girls," Iman said in an interview last week. "To see models of colour on the runway is important to the self-esteem of our young girls. To see otherwise makes them feel like they can be 'in or out'."
What remains to be seen is whether the greater black presence on runways is a lasting trend or just more fast fashion? If black models fall out of favour next season like a short hemline, is that racist?
Balance Diversity is part activist group, part blog, part watchdog. They posed a catwalk challenge just before the seasonal style previews were to begin in New York.
"Eyes are on an industry that season after season watches fashion design houses consistently use ... one or no models of colour. No matter the intention, the result is racism," said their open letter to the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
They called out by name some industry heavyweights, including Donna Karan, Proenza Schouler, The Row, Victoria Beckham and Calvin Klein - designers the group said used almost no black models in last February's shows. The website Jezebel calculated that 82.7 per cent of that season's New York Fashion Week models were white, 9.1 per cent were Asian, 6 per cent were black and 2 per cent Latina.
Iman and Hardison both note they aren't calling designers or casting agents racist - but they say defining one's look with only white faces is a racist act. And they acknowledge that sometimes designers don't see the models until a day or two before a show, but say they are nonetheless ultimately responsible.
Their letter went to the heads of the London, Milan and Paris fashion councils. The European designers, Iman said, were bigger offenders. She makes an exception for Tom Ford and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Some black models remain in hot demand. Campbell is the favourite, even in a jaded industry that typically likes the next big thing. The crowd at Diane von Furstenberg gave her bigger cheers than the designer. Joan Smalls and Jourdan Dunn are also consistently booked in top-tier shows. But Iman said it has to be about more than a token or two black models and it has to be about more than the established names. Without a turn on the runway, younger black models don't get discovered and booked for advertising jobs.
Recently, shows moved towards a blonder, whiter cast, with a few minority model slots filled by Asians, she said, in an effort to appeal to the growing consumer economies in Asia. And even when big international brands put black models on their billboards, those same brands were holding out on the runway.
Designer Nanette Lepore, who was not targeted by Balance Diversity and whose runway featured a diverse group of models, said she tried to cast a runway reflective of the world.
"The fashion world goes through these moments where people think that to get their message across they have to have one certain type of model," she said. "At one point everyone had to look like Kate Moss. Or it's eastern European, or it's Brazilian."
Lepore also noted seeing more Asians, and, this season, more black models. "I think this will be the trend now," she said optimistically.
Things did change in New York: Calvin Klein increased its use of black womenswear models from zero to five this season, while The Row, the label led by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, used seven dark-skinned models, according to Modelinia, an industry website.
"This season will be more fun to count," Hardison said. "Before it was a job. I think it's going to be a pleasure this season."