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Does All-African Vogue Mean Black Beauty is Appreciated?

Black America Web.com, News Report , Jackie Jones Posted: Jul 08, 2008

Fashions come, and fashions go -- and the same can be said about black models.

But it has been particularly difficult for black models to remain active players in the fashion industry game. Vogue Italia takes on racial discrimination in its July issue, which features only black models, including Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Iman, Pat Cleveland, Alek Wek, Chanel Iman and Jourdan Dunn. The U.S. issue of Vogue tackles the topic in an article in its July issue.

While most purveyors of fashion would suggest its a natural part of fashion to pick a flavor of the month, so to speak, many observers note that highly-paid supermodels such as Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek, Mounia and Iman have been pretty much replaced on the runways by models from eastern Europe.

But the industry is now abuzz over whether it has a problem and what will be done about it. It all started when Iman and former model Bethann Hardison, now an agent, got together to discuss the lack of black models on the catwalk. In September, Hardison organized the first of three town-hall meetings in New York City to put it all on the table.

One of the things people need to understand and come to grips with is theyre in the business of defining beauty and selling beauty, said Robin Givhan, a fashion writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator for The Washington Post. Beauty is a form of currency and if the industry is in the business of defining what is beautiful, then it also is in the business of defining who is valuable and who is invisible.

Givhan, who wrote an essay on the subject for the July issue of Vogue Italia, told BlackAmericaWeb.com that she was skeptical of the fashion industrys ability to sustain a conversation like this and to affect change.

I couldnt shake this kind of ambivalence, she said. I dont want to pooh-pooh an issue thats celebrating black beauty because I knew it was going to be gorgeous, but at the same time I couldnt shake the feeling this was fashions equivalent of Black History Month.

She said there was too much finger-pointing and too little stepping up to the plate to address discrimination against black models. Designers say the modeling agencies or bookers dont send them black models; the magazines say models of color dont fit the sample sizes for fashion shoots; bookers say the agents aren't scouting black models.

Somebody has to step up and say this is what I want to bring this to a halt, Givhan said.

While it may all sound high-falutin to people who cannot afford couture, Givhan says fashion has a trickle-down effect that hits everyone.

The clothing industry is a $170 billion business, she said. Were not talking about high, high end. Were talking about clothes that are sold at Wal-Mart as well.

Teri Agins, who covers the business of fashion for The Wall Street Journal and is author of The End of Fashion, the Mass Marketing of the Clothing Business, told BlackAmericaWeb.com that the fashion industry is likely alarmed at the suggestion that it might be racist.

They see themselves as very progress because they accept gay people and errata, Agins said. They are also lemmings. When Yves St. Laurent in the 70s had Mounia, brown, strong, full-lipped, flat noseshe became the muse and for the 70s; she was considered a challenging beauty. But once St. Laurent decided to use Mounia, then Givenchy selected a black model and others followed suit.

The reverse happened when Calvin Klein made waif-like Kate Moss the face of his label, veering away from glam superstar models like Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Tyra Banks, whose personalities were suddenly deemed a distraction to the clothes.

Agins said the problem she has with Vogue Italias stand is that it could become a one-off, meaning once the magazine dispenses with the subject of race in one issue, it wont have to revisit it in any way.

The world doesnt look like that. I want it to look normal, Agins said.

One magazine that has successfully incorporated diversity without a bunch of fanfare, she said, is Town & Country.

When Pamela Fiori took over as editor-in-chief in 1993, she made the magazine more reflective of the changing face of affluence in the country. Instead of old money bluebloods, the magazine began to feature self-made doers, Agins wrote in a Journal article.

Fiori also diversified the magazines staff. Fourteen members of the 42-person editorial group are black, and there are other minorities on staff as well. According to Agins, Fiori introduced readers to a diverse group of achievers, instructed the magazine's network of event planners and freelance photographers to seek out good-looking, prominent people of color and used black people regularly as cover subjects.

I dont know what makes people enlightened, Agins said of the Vogue Italia issue. It shouldnt be a big deal; we should be beyond the big-deal stage. I am an expert about the fashion industry, not the black fashion industry. But I am also very sensitive to the fact that we need to be global.

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