Fashion world is keeping stats on catwalk diversity, but what’s the real goal?

Should a fashion show mirror the demographics of the brand’s customers? The wider national population? The world at large? Does this new focus on ethnicity and gender signal a more welcoming industry, or is it just window-dressing?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

People want a lot from fashion models these days. Possibly too much.

During the recent autumn 2016 shows, critics wanted models who were plus-size, old, transgender, Latina, black, Asian, Body Mass Index-normal, beautiful, eccentric-looking and smiling. (Oh, by God, did men especially want them smiling, because a model who is not smiling is, by default, glaring or angry or maybe just too focused, and how dare these young women strutting about in velvet puffer coats and oversized blazers suggest they might have a serious thought floating around in their head.)

We’re hearing these demands because fashion has ceased being a niche interest and is now a fascination for a wide swathe of the population. Fashion is popular culture and big business. The expansion of fashion’s audience is good for the industry and good for the social conversation. People should be more invested in the global production of frocks; it impacts us all. And models are the public face – or body – of that industry.

While designers are increasingly becoming celebrities in their own right, it’s still mostly the models who are responsible for embodying the anonymous ideal of the brand – its notion of beauty and desirability. It’s the models who are expected to connect to consumers and welcome them into the fashion fold.

Diversity should be part of that equation. But how much? And what sort?

In the past few years, the conversation about diversity has focused on race. Influential members of the fashion industry, from activist Bethann Hardison to models Naomi Campbell and Iman, have spoken up about why racial diversity matters. Part of their activism included publicly chastising brands that mount runway shows without casting black models. That public shaming awakened a lot of designers to their subconscious prejudices, and they changed their ways.

And now, that tough love has progressed to a regular statistical analysis.

According to The Fashion Spot, nearly 32 per cent of the models on the autumn 2016 catwalks in New York were black women. It has been a slow slog to reach this point; in the mid-1990s, the percentage was closer to zero. But that website and others have also taken to counting the number of plus-size models, transgender models and those who are deemed “aged”. What other categories shall we add: lesbian, disabled, Native American, and so on? After all, they are part of the great consumer melting pot, too.

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Diversity is now being measured, defined and demanded in so many ways that it’s almost impossible for a single catwalk or a single designer to tick all the boxes.

It’s useful to have an accounting of who makes it onto a fashion catwalk in order to measure our progress towards inclusiveness, but this kind of bean-counting presumes a certain end goal. What is the magic percentage that will signal victory? Is it 36 per cent, the approximate percentage of the American population that identifies as African-American, non-white Hispanic and Asian? Is it 50 per cent? Or 100 per cent? And should that percentage be the same regardless of where the designer is based, the product price point and its aesthetic?

Does a designer inspired by street style have a greater obligation to express racial diversity on a runway than does one focused on fantasy cocktail dresses? Does the size or stature of a brand matter? Some critics argued “yes” after Demna Gvasalia’s show for Vetements and his well-received debut at Balenciaga. Both collections had aesthetics born out of street style. The Georgian-born, Paris-based designer chose an eccentric-looking group of models – but there was no obvious racial diversity. That caused an outcry because both shows buzzed with possibility. They were the epitome of cool. And being part of them meant something more than simply being gainfully employed as a model. It meant being part of a wave of influence.

Gvasalia embraced diversity, but not the kind that his critics deemed most important.

In contrast, the New York-based designer Zac Posen presented a show that was dominated by black models. Kanye West populated his Madison Square Garden production with black men and women.

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Both of them did so to make a point, and good for them. But that’s not a win; that’s just part of the skirmish.

Surely success is when those models are regularly just part of the mix at Prada, Céline, Saint Laurent and other shows that have far-reaching aesthetic influence and can launch a model into a lucrative advertising contract.

Ideally, diversity should be part of the story-telling and myth-making, not a mathematical equation. All the counting is well-intentioned, but what’s the goal? If it’s to have a catwalk show more honestly reflect the consumer base of a luxury brand, well, clear the runway for 30-something men of Asian and Middle Eastern descent. Is it to more accurately represent womankind – at least the American version? Then there should be a glut of size 14 models who stand 1.6 metres tall. But no one is counting the number of short models on the catwalk (Lady Gaga in the Marc Jacobs show notwithstanding).

We understand that fashion must balance fantasy with the reality of doing business in a diverse world. Those models booked for a catwalk show are cast to express a unique vision, to make viewers dream. They are, by definition, a rare and lucky lot. They are the chosen.

They should also be a diverse group because they bear the responsibility of embodying a cultural standard.

But as we all become more invested in fashion, there is the temptation to expect that each show should offer a unique representation of every conceivable consumer. To some degree, we are looking to see near mirror-images on the catwalk. But fashion has a responsibility to reflect the culture, not the individual.

It’s fine to dissect diversity in all its many iterations. The question is whether all those fractions add up to a more welcoming industry or are just a growing list of numbers.

The Washington Post