The fashion industry has been garnering upworthy praise the last few weeks for the diversity being seen on the catwalks. Headlines and articles proclaiming New York Fashion Week as having an undercurrent theme of and promoting “diversity” have been splashing across the Internet. Mashable wrote, “The runways are seeing more ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, sizes and abilities than ever before.”
This is true. But it’s also misleading.
Source: Getty Images
While we have seen the first down syndrome woman, Jamie Brewer (above), vitiligo-affected Winnie Harlow, and models with disabilities (from amputee Jack Eyers to several models in wheelchairs) on the runway, they haven’t been a part of the major runways of the festival. FTL Moda Loving You was cast via Models of Diversity for an Italian foundation supporting spinal cord injury research, and Jamie Brewer walked for a show called ‘Role Models Not Runway Models’ – the irony of the title highlighting the problem: as much as these shows are important and wonderful, they aren’t on the main stage of fashion week.
But fashion festivals still pick up the praise for this progressive and forward-focussed celebration of diversity, even when they’re not a part of the main program. Having these sideshow type catwalks, whatever the good intentions are behind them, tend to feel disingenuous when looking at the wider program. They tend to come off as “being on display at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying beware of the leopard.”
There are a few designers who are making an effort to be more representative in their runways – just this week we’ve seen Zac Posen present a racially diverse show (something he’s done pretty consistently) and Winnie Harlow, mentioned earlier, walk for Desigual (Harlow is diagnosed with the skin pigmentation condition, vitiligo) at NYFW. Kanye West, as well, delivered a show that saw a number of shapes, sizes, and colours. And these are the guys getting it right.
Source: Zac Posen AW15, Getty Images
The rest of the time it often feels tokenistic, like it’s ticking off a box. Its aim not being to better represent the society we live in but to get the kind of glowing admiration that comes with it from the wider public.
The Debrief summed up this sentiment, saying, “It’s tempting to celebrate this as ‘radical’ or ‘boundary-pushing’, when it’s really not – because telling the truth about the world around you should really be the simplest, and most natural, thing of all.”
Too often it feels as if designers are shoe-horning in diverse models simply to capitalise on the press these inclusions bring. As Stylelite commented, “These are images that are intrinsically share-worthy, and when 99 percent of fashion shows are experienced through photographs and social media, anything to increase clicks is fair game.”
Because of that shareability, diversity in fashion begins to feel like a trend, and that’s weird.
Closer to home our own Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival this March is promoting diversity on the runway with Curvy Couture – a plus size runway – and an Indigenous Fashion Runway. These are great initiatives, but their place within the program seems odd – you’ll find these one-off events within the Community section of the cultural program of the festival, not mixed in with the centrepiece runways.
Firstly, what is “cultural” about showcasing models of different sizes or First Nation designers? I don’t doubt the well-meaning intention of these initiatives in wanting to promote variety and include all Australians, but main runways speak louder than cultural programs. These “cultural” inclusions feel more like after thoughts than an attempt at blazing the trail for the fashion community or truly celebrating what the events are meant stand for. Tacking on these kinds of events, rather than integrating them at a foundational level means that at the end of the day, nothing changes. Diversity still only gets as much run-time as a trend like sports luxe.
Jodie Layne describes how dangerous this can be in her article for Bustle:
“If you have a pair of sneaker wedges in your closet, you understand that trends are fickle and change too often. I’d like to see runway diversity stick around and continue to go even further: Casting tokenized models of color is no longer enough to count as diversity, so I think we can continue to push the boundaries of what we consider “the norm.” Diverse imagery needs to be the rule, not the exception. I want more people to be able to recognize themselves and see a part of their identity represented on runways and in media. I want a truly diverse array of body sizes to be seen. I mean, so far only two plus-size models have ever walked the runways at NYFW. And I don’t want us to have to keep asking black designers about the lack of black designers. We’re still waiting to see the diversity on the runway trickle down to diversity in big box stores and clothing chains.”
With this in mind, consider this: VAMFF is Australia’s consumer- and commercially-driven fashion festival. If we want to be seeing change, shouldn’t this be where it’s happening?
Commenting on the racial diversity, The New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman – via former Vogue editor-at-large, André Leon Talley – suggests that fashion has a “blind spot” for things like “ethnic variety”: “because it identifies itself as a haven for minorities of all kinds, whether because of sexual orientation, gender, race or piercings, it has not made an effort to determine whether or not the identity actually holds up.”
Balmain designer Olivier Rousteing believes the fashion industry can be turned in on itself too much, that it misses the wider conversation, saying, “Fashion wants to be modern and reflect the street and talk to people but at the end of the day they just talk to themselves.”
At the very least, with the wider public and media outside of the usual fashion publications identifying the pros and the pitfalls in diversity and the fashion world, we can be hopeful they’ll rise to the challenge.
Bethann Hardison, former model and model agent who makes it her mission to see more diversity and inclusiveness on the runway, believes the fashion industry thrives on its critique. “I find it a joy to bring some energy back to fashion, by calling it out,” she said. “Fashion needs it.”
“Ultimately, we have a long, long way to go from Fashion Week stunts to daily representation,” says Layne, echoing this sentiment. “Regardless of designer intentions, if the result is seeing more diverse imagery, it feels hard to complain about this progress. But it also doesn’t make it feel difficult to ask for more.”