Versace, Vogue and the Obamas

How the Obamas have the fashion world taking notes on racial diversity.

ROME, Italy, June 25, 2008 — -- Europeans may have little clue about Sen. Barack Obama's presidential vision, but most Italians seem to have taken note of his debonair fashion flair.

Italian news and gossip magazines continue to be fascinated by Obama's elegant jacket-and-tie look and are taken with his wife Michelle Obama's athletic figure and tidy hair-flip. The Obamas are bringing style and class back to the presidential race, editors say, and now Italian designers are even offering them some sartorial advice.

Never shy of hitching on to new trends, Italian fashion icon Donatella Versace announced that "the man of the moment," Barack Obama, inspired her entire spring-summer 2009 collection presented on Milan's runways earlier this week during Men's Fashion Week.

Chatting to reporters after the show, Versace said her new collection was created for "a relaxed man who doesn't need to flex muscles to show he has power."

Inspiration maybe, but nothing that appeared on the designer runways this week in Milan looked much like what Obama has been wearing on the campaign trail.

Who knows if the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee will follow Versace's fashion suggestions but, along with her collection, she offered helpful fashion tips: Ditch the ties, "jazz up the shirt," wear a silk T-shirt for diversity, use "crazy zigzags" to break up the monotony of pinstripes and checks and throw in some pastel shades of pale blue, lavender or lemon yellow. And while you're about it, sling a "structured jacket softened by a double lapel or no lapel at all" over your shoulder.

Versace's endorsement of Obama's style came a few months after her recommendations that Sen. Hillary Clinton wear fewer pantsuits and be more feminine went unheeded.

While Barack Obama continues to try to inspire voters in the United States, his image is not only inspiring a fashion collection but also spurring a serious debate in the fashion world in Italy this week.

An all-black issue of Vogue Italia hits the European newstands Thursday and goes on sale in the United States soon after.

The editor of this trend-setting fashion bible, Franca Sozzani, said that as an Italian she has been intrigued by Obama and the American presidential race. With "Obamania" sweeping the U.S., "I asked myself, if America is ready for a black president, why are we not ready for black models?"

Sozzani said she was very aware of the lack of diversity on the runways in recent years and the debate it has fueled.

Critics have said that fashion magazines under-represent black models and portray them as stereotypes. Although Sozzani doesn't believe that her magazine can be accused of this — Naomi Campbell, Liya Kebede and Alek Wek have adorned the cover in the past — she admitted that racial prejudice continues to be a problem in the fashion world.

Together with Steven Meisel, the influential fashion photographer, who was given 100 pages in this month's issue to feature black models, the July issue was designed to highlight their commitment to stamp out racial discrimination in the fashion world.

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, "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."

In a year when many around the world are keenly watching the American elections, racial prejudice has once again become a hot-button issue.

But, as Italian Vogue rolls out its "all-black" issue, it remains to be seen if this newfound focus will turn out to be as fickle as last year's skinny jeans.

Ammu Kannampilly and Elena Sheppard contributed to the reporting of this story.