Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek, Tyra Banks and Veronica Webb are recognisable names whose success on the catwalk epitomises the proven careers of black models. Yet, to the dismay of many, the longevity of black models with a proven career remains enigmatically small. Inquiry into why this is so flares up an indefatigable finger-pointing exercise. Everyone, BETHSHEBA ACHITSA writes, seems to be telling little white lies where black models are concerned.
The designer blames the modeling agency that does not scout enough black talent; the editor blames the white reader who is less inclined to buy a magazine if it has a non-white face on it whereas the agency blames the editor who fails to book enough ethnic girls. The blame game goes on and on while the black model continues to lose out in this industry.
In 2008, fashion photographer Nick Knight opened fire on the fashion industry’s unspoken hypocrisy through his silent film, UNTITLED, which aired on showstudio.com. One of the world’s most successful photographers, Knight expressed his disgust of what he sees as commercially-driven racial favouritism.
“I am virtually never allowed to photograph black models for the magazines, fashion houses, cosmetic brands, perfume brands and advertising clients I work for. Whenever I ask to use a black model I am given excuses such as black models are not inspirational in some markets or they do not reflect the brand’s values,” he tells Arise magazine, Africa’s global style and culture magazine.
Perhaps his argument is that society must be inclusive; by denying people the right to be beautiful causes deep cultural resentment, alienation and division.
Editors have excused this kind of behaviour by saying that their readers do not respond much to black faces on magazine covers and they do not sell many copies, a crazy and self-fulfilling prophecy.
Seasoned professionals do not feel as confident working with black models as they do with white ones. This explains why professional photographers who have served in the industry for long will unabashedly tell a black model that they don’t know how to shoot her because they can’t light her well.
Alex Babsky, a well known hair dresser, thinks that such shortcomings are not the artist’s fault but are as a result of black models being booked for fewer jobs. Irrespective of who is at fault, it still stands that professional make-up artists, photographers or hairdressers are less comfortable working with black models.
The number of times black faces have appeared as cover girls for fashion magazines is countable. Since 2002, there had not been a black model on the British edition of Vogue magazine until November 2008, when Jourdan Dunn’s face appeared along other two white models. The American Vogue seems to be faring better with black models having appeared on its magazines from time to time. These include Jennifer Hudson (March 2007), Liya Kebede (May 2005) and Halle Berry (December 2002).
The Italian Vogue is making a break-through for the black faces. Nevertheless even when a black man is occupying office of the most powerful nation in the world, the use of very many black women in a fashion magazine is still not considered the norm but political correctness.
Dean Goodman, head of booking at Profile Model Management, who deals with big magazine, advertising and fashion designer clients, believes that the race issue isn’t as clear cut as it appears.
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“Clients have always been interested in ethnic girls over the years. We only need to assess their success over the years,” he notes.
Currently there has been heightened interest in ethnic girls with one media arm embracing the idea of multiculturalism more rapidly than the rest. Benetton seems to lead the way with its United Colours campaign which has seen many black women used to advertise beauty rather than fashion.
Though the Helmut Anheier and Yudhishthir Raj Isar-edited Cultural Economy (the second book of The Cultures and Globalization Series) estimates the global ‘fashion industry’ to be worth US$157 billion (2007 figures), this sector -that encompasses the creation and marketing of new styles and forms of clothing and accessories- ‘is nevertheless not without its share of controversies rangingÂ from concern over the health of fashion models and the image they portray, to racial discrimination within the industry, to labo[u]r practices and the environment.’
The 2009-published Cultural Economy says a movement dubbed ‘Ethical Fashion’ is not only burgeoning but is also demanding that ‘socially-responsible values’ be incorporated into the ‘fashion industry’. ‘This,’ the book quotes BBC News, ‘included looking at the supply sources and people behind the clothes as well as taking into account the environmental footprint that the industry leaves behind.’