New York Times permalink
RACIAL prejudice in the fashion industry has long persisted because of tokenism and lookism. “We already have our black girl,” says a designer to a fashion-show casting agent, declining to see others. Or: “She doesn’t have the right look.” Laziness, paranoia and pedantry may also have something to do with the failure to hire black models for shows and magazine features in any meaningful number, but, hey, that’s just a guess.
A decade ago the thing to deplore was the stereotyping of black models by dressing them in African-inspired clothes (or the Asian girls in kimonos). This at least gave work to minority models, but it also encouraged a Western view of African culture of the many-bangles-many-beads variety.
O.K., so fashion ain’t deep. It looks into a mirror and sees ... itself. The irony in fashion is that it loves change but it can’t actually change anything. It can only reflect a change in the air. But what changes fashion? What would finally move American designers to include more black models on their runways? That 30 percent of the country is nonwhite? That black women spend $20 billion a year on clothes? That an African-American is the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic Party?
The answer is the individual eye.
In fashion, one of the most influential eyes belongs to the photographer Steven Meisel. His pictures have caught an America basking in the earnest, self-reflected glow of celebrity and money. He has taken innumerable risks, especially with “Sex,” the 1992 volume he did with Madonna, that have paid off with a career that allows him to do whatever he wants.
And he has almost lovingly photographed some of the world’s beautiful women, tapping into their psyches, connecting with them on a human level, while transforming them into fashion deities.
As the model Veronica Webb, who first worked with Mr. Meisel 20 years ago, said: “Steven knows every single tic, every talent that every girl has. He just pulls it out of them.”
For the July issue of Italian Vogue, Mr. Meisel has photographed only black models. In a reverse of the general pattern of fashion magazines, all the faces are black, and all the feature topics are related to black women in the arts and entertainment. Mr. Meisel was given roughly 100 pages for his pictures. The issue will be on European newsstands next Thursday and in the United States soon after.
Under its editor, Franca Sozzani, Italian Vogue has gained a reputation for being more about art and ideas than commerce. Ms. Sozzani also doesn’t mind controversy.
She said that, as an Italian, she has been intrigued by the American presidential race and Mr. Obama, which was one source of inspiration when she and Mr. Meisel began discussing, in February, the idea of an all-black issue. Also, she was aware of the lack of diversity on the runways in recent years and the debate it fueled last fall in New York, where Bethann Hardison, a former model who ran a successful agency, held two panel discussions on the topic.
Ms. Sozzani said the issue was not a response to criticism that she, too, has under-represented blacks or portrayed them as stereotypes.
“Mine is not a magazine that can be accused of not using black girls,” said Ms. Sozzani, noting that Naomi Campbell has had several covers, and that Liya Kebede and Alek Wek have also had covers.
Having worked at one time with nearly all the models he chose for the black issue — Iman, Ms. Campbell, Tyra Banks, Jourdan Dunn, Ms. Kebede, Ms. Wek, Pat Cleveland, Karen Alexander — Mr. Meisel had his own feelings. “I thought, it’s ridiculous, this discrimination,” said Mr. Meisel, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s so crazy to live in such a narrow, narrow place. Age, weight, sexuality, race — every kind of prejudice.”
He began casting in March. “I love the history of fashion, obviously, and I love old, and I tried to get as many of the older girls as I could,” he said. Over Ms. Sozzani’s initial objections, he also hired Toccara Jones, a full-figure model, who became known from “America’s Next Top Model.” “I wanted to say something about weight, and I’m never allowed to do that,” he said. “I met Toccara and thought, she’s beautiful. What’s the deal with her? She’s great and she’s sexy.”
If these pictures have a heightened sense of glamour, it probably has something to do with the atmosphere of a Meisel shoot. According to Ms. Webb, “it’s the darkest studio, like a studio at MGM.”
There are fans and reflectors; many assistants. An area is marked “Hair” and another “Makeup.” (Pat McGrath did all the makeup for the issue, and Guido Palau did the hair.) A mirror is placed behind Mr. Meisel, so the model can see herself.
“It’s a dark world,” Ms. Webb said, “and you’re in the spotlight.”
The four pictures that Ms. Campbell was supposed to make turned into 20. She also appears on the fold-out cover, along with Ms. Kebede, Sessilee Lopez and Ms. Dunn. “Franca doesn’t realize what she’s done for people of color,” Ms. Campbell said the other day. “It reminds me of Yves using all the black models.” She was referring to Yves Saint Laurent, who, like Gianni Versace and a handful of other designers, routinely cast minorities.
Mr. Meisel has his own theories about why black models, save for the token few, have disappeared from runways. “Perhaps the designers, perhaps the magazine editors,” he said. “They are the powerful people. And the advertisers. I have asked my advertising clients so many times, ‘Can we use a black girl?’ They say no.” The concern is that consumers will resist the product, he said. “It all comes down to money.”
Ashley Brokaw, an independent casting agent in New York, believes that designers want more diversity in their casts but, she said, “what they want and what the reality is are two different things.” She thinks that agencies don’t spend enough time to groom new models for the catwalk, making it easy for designers to reject them, and then the cycle of new faces is spinning faster and faster.
But it’s also true that designers, in spite of their creative powers, yearn for the approval of insiders. “They are looking around, over their shoulders, asking, ‘Is that cool?’ ” Mr. Meisel said. He agreed that it’s a crazy kind of paranoia. Whether it’s a new model or hip style, he said with a laugh, “It can only be stated by a certain five people and then they go with it.”
What is striking about Mr. Meisel’s pictures, especially a portrait of Ms. Banks in a soft head-wrap and one of Ms. Lopez in a neat brocade turban, is how much beauty and life he was able to extract from them, so that you almost feel you are seeing these women for the first time.
Ms. Hardison hopes that the Italian Vogue issue (to which she contributed) will open people’s eyes in the industry. “They need to see what they’re missing out there,” she said. This week, in its July issue, American Vogue will have an article about the dearth of black models.
Perhaps no individual, though, will know what it means to be included more than Ms. Lopez. Last year, she barely worked. Ms. Brokaw predicts that after insiders see Mr. Meisel’s pictures, she will have a terrific season.
This kind of perplexes and delights Mr. Meisel.
“Here’s this exquisite girl,” he said, addressing no one in particular. “What don’t you get? She’s a beautiful woman. There was no trick to it.”