August 9, 2013 -- Five years ago, Vogue published an article whose headline asked a stark question: “Is Fashion Racist?” It was hard not to answer yes, when models of color -- particularly African Americans -- were nearly impossible to come by on New York, Milan, London and Paris runways.
Not much has changed since 2008 -- in part because there is no institution to hold designers accountable to represent their diverse customer base.
Until now, that is. A former fashion model is launching a social media campaign to bring public scrutiny to designers and brands who do not use black models.
Bethann Hardison, a former model and agent, is organizing a campaign that will launch during Fashion Week next month to shame the designers that don’t include black models.
She said she hopes once consumers are aware of the lack of diversity some designers have in their runways shows they’ll think twice about where they spend their money. “I wonder if that would make them have second thoughts about buying the shoes, the accessories and the bags,” Hardison told the New York Times. For decades, fashion insiders and consumers have pointed out that the models walking down top haute couture runways remain mostly white. During New York Fashion Week earlier this year, international powerhouse brands like Calvin Klein and Juicy Couture presented collections entirely bereft of models of color. Thirteen companies featured all-white models last season--and many more only featured one or two models that were Hispanic or Asian, with many omitting black models entirely. Jezebel.com has tracked the dismal number of models of color on NY Fashion Week runways and released detailed -- and depressing -- diversity reports.
Hardison’s campaign, though, represents a new kind of media pressure on the industry.
It’s unclear what hashtag will be used or what social media platforms will be involved. Hardison did not respond to requests for an interview.
But considering recent history, her campaign may be the first to scare the designers in to looking into who they cast in their shows.
Young black and Latino internet users are more than twice as likely to use Twitter as are white internet users, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Black and Latino internet users overindex on Instagram and Tumblr, too. That social media leverage translates to formidable cultural power.
That power has been visible as of late.
Hours after juror B37 in the George Zimmerman trial announced she was going to write a tell-all book, she decided not pursue her publishing deal, due to the backlash she and her agent received, mostly from Twitter. Twitter user Genie Lauren, along with the diverse network of online activists known collectively as “black Twitter,” spearheaded the persuasion campaign that convinced the B37’s literary agent to roll back the book deal.
The success of ABC’s television series “Scandal” has also been widely attributed to promotion and discussions about the show on social media.
These internet communities now they can force designers and casting directors to think twice about who they include -- and who they don’t -- in their runway shows.
Now the question is whether guests invited to the big fashion shows will stick their necks out to tweet during a show to point out when there are no black models.
Latinos, American Indians and Asian models are also heavily underrepresented, as well--not to mention body types. It’s going to take people of all races, ages, sizes and celebrities and consumers following at home to participate in order for this to work.
Casting agents and fashion designers, beware.