Supermodel Joan Smalls on why the fashion industry needs to become more racially aware

Mixed-race model Joan Smalls talks about diversity and the racial discrimination that is rife on catwalks and in photoshoots

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 January, 2017, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2017, 6:05pm

Beautiful, glossy haired, with swooping cheekbones and a svelte figure, Joan Smalls has become an industry trailblazer for racial diversity. Like Gigi and Bella Hadid and Karlie Kloss, she is one of the most recognisable models in the world, walking for brands including Chanel, Prada and Tommy Hilfiger, and with an Instagram following of 1.9 million. Nevertheless, as a mixed-race Latina model from Puerto Rico, Smalls also has experienced firsthand the industry’s problems with discrimination.

There has been a lot of talk about diversity in fashion in the past year with regards to age, size and race and at the recent Business of Fashion Voices conference, Smalls aired her views on the issue of race: “The industry should be reflective of the world that we live in,” she said. “I feel brands have to be more open-minded and mindful when they choose their cast [for the runway and campaigns] because they do hold a social responsibility to represent their consumers in the media and advertising.”

Looking at the catwalk shows, she said: “I see a runway with all the same models that are just cloned, I’m like: ‘Is that your beauty? Is that your world?’ It’s very one-sided and bland.”

The 28-year-old psychology graduate, who grew up on a farm in Puerto Rico, had just walked the Victoria’s Secret catwalk show in Paris with models from different cultural backgrounds – although such diversity is not always the norm.

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“I remember when I started modelling and being the only non-white girl in the fashion show,” says Smalls in our subsequent interview. “I was grateful to be there, but at the casting there had been many beautiful women of different descriptions, and I was wondering why they were not being represented. It is not just about a designing a beautiful collection, it is about putting out a positive message about social responsibility.”

In a way, Smalls steps into the high heels of Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks, who dominated the international catwalks as the black supermodels of the 1990s. But it wasn’t until 2006 that a fully Chinese supermodel was to emerge: Du Juan, the first Asian model on the cover of French Vogue. For many seasons she was the token Asian face on the international catwalk and picked up a number of influential advertising campaigns with brands including Louis Vuitton, Roberto Cavalli and Gap.

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However, in fashion, money talks, and as the rest of the world slipped into recession in 2008, fashion sales in China were booming. Brands shrewdly realised that if they were to reach the Asian audience, they needed to show their clothes on Chinese models. Sui He became the first Asian model to open the show for Ralph Lauren, and Fei Fei Sun, Ming Xi and Liu Wen have quickly become as familiar on the international catwalks as Joan Smalls. The Chinese “supers” have starred in many campaigns aimed at the east Asian market.

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Liu Wen was the first Chinese citizen to appear on Forbes’ annual list of highest-paid models in the world, alongside Gisele Bundchen, Miranda Kerr, Kloss and Lara Stone. She has an Instagram following of 2.4 million, was the first Asian model for Victoria’s Secret and in 2011 became the first Chinese model to represent Estée Lauder. Smalls became the first Latina model to represent the cosmetics giant in 2010 and remembers how proud she felt about the achievement.

“I cried and got goosebumps and was super grateful not just for myself, but for the group of people that I represent as the first black and first Latina model.”

Liu Wen in a recent interview (with Net-a-Porter) explained how she finds it heartening that women of East Asian origin are becoming more prominent players in fashion. “It’s through diligence that each of us can represent our culture, our gender – whichever parts of our identity – in the best way. To me, today’s [young] Asian women are working hard to pursue their ideals.”

However, even Chinese models have not conquered all of the overt racial discrimination that is rife in the modelling industry, which feeds the fashion shows and advertising campaigns of major international brands.

Just recently, Vetements and Balenciaga, both steered by influential Paris-based Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia, had an entirely white line-up for his autumn-winter 2016 catwalk shows – a policy that was marginally revised by the time it came to the spring-summer 2017 collection, after garnering much criticism in the press.

American casting director James Scully at the Voices conference spoke out against the racism and bullying that he has witnessed behind the scenes in the fashion business. “In Europe, not being diverse is not a problem for us,” is an excuse he commonly hears. “We have black and Asian casting directors being told not to cast black and Asian models to their face,” said Scully, adding that a prominent photographer once said to him, point blank: “I don’t shoot blacks.”

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In July 2008 Vogue Italia published an issue aimed at fighting racism, which featured only black models. It caused a sensation and was reprinted three times.

For Smalls, her breakthrough moment came in 2010 when Riccardo Tisci cast her for his Givenchy show. “He gave me an exclusive because he saw the potential in me. I remember going to castings in Paris prior to that and people disregarding me the moment they saw me. I have lived the life that James [Scully] described. What he said is completely true.”

She describes how she has always struggled to get a hair campaign: “It’s mind-boggling. I’ve been on option, and they dropped me at the last minute. And the excuse was, ‘We were afraid to try something new.’ By new they meant they had never shot a black girl. ” As she adds so adroitly “the world isn’t just one palette” – and the industry needs to take more heed of that.