will diversity in fashion ever transcend trend?

October 15, 2018

Something out-of-the-ordinary appeared to be taking place over the recently concluded season of Fashion Weeks.

“Spring 2019 [showing] was the most racially diverse season ever,” said Jennifer Davidson, the editor in chief of The Fashion Spot. The catwalks of New York felt almost changed by the representation found at shows like Chromat, Pyer Moss and Rihanna’s Savage Fenty, which closed out NYC Fashion Week with a runway transported from a Feminist utopia.

Black supermodels Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls, Adwoa Aboah, Slick Woods and Chanel Iman were near the season’s apex, featuring on seemingly every runway, while shouldering the burden of making tokenism look like representation.

Since diversity became a “fashion-do”, the above-mentioned Black fashion elite have been joined by more women of color, and by a diversification in body-type and age, at a level previously unseen in the fashion world. “Gone was the feeling I have had so many times in the past, that what I was seeing was merely gestural,” wrote Vannesa Friedman for the New York Times. “A nod to a trend, or political pressure, soon to be forgotten when fashion turned its focus somewhere else.”

BROOKLYN, NY – SEPTEMBER 12: Models walk the runway for the Savage X Fenty Fall/Winter 2018 fashion show during NYFW at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on September 12, 2018 in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo by JP Yim/Getty Images for Savage X Fenty)
BROOKLYN, NY – SEPTEMBER 08: Model walks the runway during Pyer Moss – Runway – September 2018 – New York Fashion Week on September 8, 2018 in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 07: An aerial view of models walking the runway at the Chromat show in gallery I New York Fashion Week: The Shows at Spring Studios on September 7, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

According to data collected by The Fashion Spot, “Out of 229 shows and 7,432 models, 36.1 percent were models of color compared with 30.02 percent the same time a year ago and 17 percent when the tally began.” The Fashion Spot has been tracking runway diversity in relation to race since September 2014 as well as size, gender identification, and age since September 2015.

Even with the growing shift towards representation, it is counterproductive to assume that diversity on the runway means the fashion world is fully committed to change. “Most of the attention on diversity in fashion has been focused on the way its image is communicated to the outside world — hence the obsessive tracking of models,” says Ms. Davidson.

Is this shift being felt behind the scenes?

Runways serve as “The Face” of Fashion Week, and much like the rest of fashion, the people in charge can use diverse catwalks to conceal the fact that the push for inclusivity is merely a superficial attempt at avoiding backlash, or a piggy-backing on the recent wave of social justice marketing.

There certainly are media-side changes. Edward Enninful became the first Black person to become a Vogue Editor-in-Chief, when he took over the British version of the gloss mag. Tyler Mitchell, at the age of 23, was the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover when he shot Beyoncé for the September issue.

Then last Wednesday, Condé Nast reported that Lindsay Peoples Wagner will become Teen Vogue’s new EiC, a position previously held by Elaine Welteroth, who transformed the publication into the critically acclaimed, politically aware magazine it is now. Wagner started out at Teen Vogue as an intern and her journey up the ranks of the publishing world mirrors that of numerous journalists who’ve been afforded opportunities that never reached women of color in fashion. And her appointment came just a few weeks after Wagner penned an editorial in The Cut about the struggles faced by Black figures in fashion, and how the glaring whiteness of editorial teams at top fashion publications is another open secret that progressive catwalks help conceal. So it’s thrilling to imagine the heights Teen Vogue may reach under Wagner.

Enninful is aware that his appointment is not an indication that the job of real inclusivity in fashion is done. “It’s the next step,” he told the New York Times. “We need more internships. Youth programs. The way people get into the industry needs to be widened.” He added, “I’ve been in this industry a long time, and I’ve seen change. But until we’re no longer having this conversation, we’re not there.”

Viola Davis said it best when she won her Emmy: “The only thing separating women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”

Opportunity. Plain and simple.