Another Fashion Week, Another Colored Model Fad

But still no sign of questioning the Euro-supremacy at the root of what's hot and what's not.

By Akiba Solomon Feb 16, 2011

Ah, New York Fashion Week. It’s a boom time for the industry’s producers, publicists, reporters, party promoters and fans. But according to a recent New York Daily News piece, emaciated teen, dark brown Sudanesecurvy Brazilian, blonde Eastern European Asian models are the true stars of the Fall 2011 story, thanks to the ever-expanding Chinese luxury market. Chris Gay, president of Marilyn modeling agency, sums up the trend:

There have definitely been more Asians walking the runway the past two seasons and it’s just a fact that there’s more of a demand for these faces these days. Just like there’s a demand for a French-look face, or an all-American face, there’s now a demand for an Asian look.

I’m all for more models of color getting work. And if Asian sisters and brothers feel pride when they see rising stars such as China’s Ming Xi (pictured above, at the Thakoon Fall 2011 show), rock the runway, that’s fantastic.

But I’m frustrated with how trend reports like this don’t spell out the Euro-supremacy at the root of who’s hot and who’s not. Sure, they’ll mention how "black models had their champions in Naomi Campbell and Iman," and how "Hispanic (sic) models dominated the field, thanks to buxom Brazilians Gisele Bundchen and Adriana Lima." But they won’t give us one measly sentence about why white models are always the control group.

In search of a less irritated and more clinical perspective, I called Ashely Mears, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University and the author of the upcoming book "Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model." A former model herself, Mears spent two and a half years on the NYC and London fashion scenes studying how agents, models, and their taste-making clients influence and imitate one another. Between her field observations of parties, castings and runways shows, and her in-depth interviews with 40 male and female models, 33 agents and 40 clients, Mears found high-end fashion to be a "site for the reproduction of cultural inequalities." Here’s a (very condensed) version of our talk:

In your research, you identified two distinct fashion markets–consumer and high-end. How do the models working in those markets differ, and how does race factor into it?

Mears: In the commercial market, which includes catalogues, cultural producers look for models who are [considered] mainstream pretty. They’re meant to be relatable, to make sense to a majority of consumers. But in the high-end market, which includes runway shows, cultural producers are constantly searching for models with an "edgy" look–meaning distinctive, rare and deliberately not popular. They care much more about what their peers think of their taste than what average people like. And to the producers in this rarefied world, non-white bodies don’t make sense.??

Whoa. Can you explain that a bit more???

High-end producers were much less likely to use non-white models than commercial ones. They would describe non-white women–particularly African American women–as having problem bodies. They’d say things like, "She’s not the right shape for the clothes.’?"

Do you think they were aware of their bias???

It’s interesting. The people I spoke with aren’t bigots in a classic sense. They live in [cosmopolitan] environments; they’re well traveled, highly educated and have very liberal or progressive politics. But they still exhibited what some sociologists call colorblind racism. They would define their [exclusionary] decisions as aesthetic choices. For instance, I’d talk to a casting director for a fashion show who would say, "I don’t see color. It just so happens ?that the aesthetic I want is that of an Eastern European girl.’?"

Were most of your subjects white???

Yes, but the [people of color] I spoke with had similar ideas. For instance, I would talk to black, Asian and Latino clients who abhorred the problem. But when it came down to hiring non-white models, they would still talk about how these women didn’t fit with their aesthetic.?

Given the influx of fast-fashion chains like H&M, the success of designer lines at Target, and the DIY spirit of personal style bloggers, do you think high-fashion runways remain relevant to the people they exclude???

I think [race-based] exclusion of any person is problematic for that group of people. Not to say that it’s everything to them, but I think–symbolically–it sets the tone for what is valued. As much as, say, the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty tried, it was not as symbolically powerful or prestigious as the catwalk.

This is depressing. Do you think the situation can change???

Fashion is a very hierarchical world, so if elite tastemakers mobilize [the business] toward change, other producers who are jockeying for position will follow. Remember, these people don’t exist in a vacuum. Their job is all about picking up the right elements from street fashion, style bloggers and other sources at the right moment. It’s very hard for them to take risks, but if they do and pull it off, they can be richly rewarded.

For more on Dr. Ashley Mears’ fascinating work, click here.