Is the Fashion Runway Racist?

As Italian Vogue's July issue features all black models, will U.S. mags follow?

June 25, 2008— -- When was it decided that beauty meant blond? Or that runway shows were a dull parade of the same bland girl, with the same sad pout?

Since pale and pinched has been the norm on runways and magazines, the fashion industry has been under scrutiny for its obvious lack of ethnic diversity. Reversing that trend is Italian Vogue. Its July issue will feature pictures of only black models, and all accompanying articles will be about black women in the arts and entertainment.

The woman behind this change is Italian Vogue editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani, who, during her time as editor, has made the magazine synonymous with culture over consumerism. Sozzani attributed the inspiration for her July issue to a trip in February to New York City for fashion week. Struck by an absence of diverse faces on the runways, Sozzani told, "There were no black girls, and the blond girls all look alike."

Sozzani said the lack of diversity in the fashion industry is in marked contrast to other aspects of American culture, particularly the current political scene. "There were no black girls," she said, "but at the same time, people were talking about Obama."

"There is no reason for it beyond blind prejudice," Michael Musto, culture critic for the Village Voice, told, about the dearth of black models on the runway and in magazines.

To convert her New York-born idea into an Italian reality, Sozzani called upon famed American photographer Steven Meisel, noted for his bold fashion photographs and his pool of celebrity subjects. Meisel is widely known for the 1992 book "Sex," on which he collaborated with Madonna.

To grace the nearly 100 pages allotted for Meisel's photographs, there was the task of casting. The Meisel-Sozzani team called upon new and familiar faces, bringing in modeling legends Iman, Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks, as well as comparative newcomers Jourdan Dunn and Liya Kebe, among others. The issue will hit European newsstands Thursday and will be available in the United States shortly thereafter.

While the choice made by Italian Vogue highlights a need for change and diversification, it also underscores a larger question: why is such an issue only now being published?

Asked about the relative infrequency with which black models are booked, Sozzani said, "I think this is a fault of the agencies and not the designers. The white girls sell more, so you only ever find blond, blue-eyed girls. They don't dedicate enough time to scout black girls."

Sozzani added that it is not a low demand, but a low supply that's to blame. "Naomi [Campbell] has been on the market for 20 years, and everybody likes her," she said. "It's not that fashion doesn't like this look."

Musto took a different approach.

"I blame the editorial, the people who run the fashion magazines," he said. "They can call the shots."

And they do. American Vogue has had just 34 black women, most of them models, on its cover in its 116-year history. When Jennifer Hudson, the singer and actress from "Dreamgirls" graced its cover last year for Vogue's "Power" issue, she was only the third black celebrity to be on the cover. Musto said the magazine treated it as "a big noble gesture."

Vogue also received scrutiny for its April 2008 cover featuring white supermodel Gisele Bündchen together with black NBA star LeBron James -- the first black man to make Vogue's cover -- in a pose that some critics called racist.

But American Vogue is not taking the criticism lying down. In its July issue, released in conjunction with the historic Italian Vogue, it will feature a six-page spread, focusing on racism in the fashion industry. The article will highlight the careers of three up-and-coming black models, Chanel Iman, Arlenis Sosa and Dunn, who is also featured in Italian Vogue.

Patrick O'Connell, director of communications for Vogue, told, "American Vogue is taking the issue very seriously."