Is Fashion Ready to Scout African Models?
June 20, 2011 § 3 Comments
Yesterday, Italian Vogue Editor Franca Sozzani posted a blog entry titled “Why is it so hard to scout for black models?” In it, she discusses the disproportionate white-to-black model ratio in fashion today, which she attributes to model agencies’ heavy scouting in Eastern Europe and lack of scouting elsewhere. Franca, a steadfast proponent of diversifying fashion, offers one possible solution to increasing the number of black models: scout in Africa! “There’s a new generation of models coming from Tunisia and Morocco,” she says, so more aggressive scouting in these areas would increase the number of black models, right?
I have no doubt that scouting in Africa would result in greater numbers of black models on the runway and in magazines, but but I have reservations toward this idea because of the exotified way in which the fashion industry currently treats African, and more generally, black models. One way they do so is by physically separating them from non-black models in various fashion gigs. Take Lanvin’s S/S 11 show, for example, in which a cluster of 5 black models closed. Before this point in the show, the other models, almost all of whom were non-black, walked the runway as they usually do: one-by-one. In an interview with Robin Givhan, Lanvin’s designer Alber Elbaz explained that the gesture was purely aesthetic. The black models wore a group of prints he didn’t think coalesced with the rest of the show, and to work them in, he put them on a group of black models at the end as a visual addendum. “They would be separate. But equal.” Givhan writes.
The separation of black models is often seen in magazine editorials as well, and quite often, they’re dressed to look African, or at least African in the way the West conceptualizes it. This has happened in American Vogue several times this year alone. This past February, for example, they published “Gangs of New York” and dressed a group of black models in large head wraps and earthy Rodarte clothing. The head wraps were not part of the Rodarte show, but rather were a stylistic addition by Vogue. The other pages of the spread consisted of either all white or all Asian models wearing clothing that extended beyond ethnic costume: pantsuits, printed scarves, and playful cocktail dresses to name some.
Just one month later, Vogue published “The Life Rhapsodic,” in which a group of black models danced around in African-inspired looks. Some of their outfits were covered in animal prints, and those models with longer hair had dried plants woven through their braids.
So what are the repercussions of separating black models and conceptualizing them as old-school African? One is that these models lose their individual identities. Last week, New York Magazine featured Sudanese-American Grace Bol on their “Meet the New Girl” series that features fashion’s latest up-and-comers. In her interview, when asked if people compared her to Sudanese model Alek Wek, she replied:
“All the time! People actually think I’m Alek when I’m walking down the street. Several people have chased me down just to get my autograph, and even when I explain to them that I’m not Alek, they think I’m lying!”
To be fair, both models are skinny, dark-skinned, and have little-to-no hair. But still, repeatedly presenting black models in groups and styling them as tribespeople would encourage people to misidentify them. Why? Because it prevents black models from creating individual identities, or one that is distinct from other black models. We, as consumers, are taught to look at them only as part of an exotic group of “others.”
If modeling agencies begin to scout more heavily in Africa, I hope designers and editors dress them in more creative ways than animal prints and head wraps. I hope that they are given as much diversity in their work as their non-black counterparts, walk the runway individually, have their picture taken with models of different races, and get gigs that encourage personality and maybe even sexiness. This, to me, will diversity fashion in a way that feels genuine, and in a way that promotes real diversity.