Out of Fashion: The Absence of Color
Last night's discussion led by former model and agency owner, Bethann Hardison was in many ways like a long overdue family reunion. There were photos to be taken, dirty laundry needed to be aired and points had to be made, but mostly it was time to strengthen 'the ties that bind.'
"One of the first steps toward change is by pricking," said Bethann in her opening remarks, her hand motioning as if pinching at some indiscriminate matter. "Tonight we are here to continue the discussion and begin the process for change." And so it was that so many folks, mostly from the fashion industry, gathered at the NY Public Library to talk about the ever decreasing numbers of Black models appearing on runways and in major editorial spreads. I walked in with Beverly Smith (formerly of Vibe), IMG model Quiana Grant and Harriette Cole from Ebony magazine and as we were led through what had to be a 15-minute labyrinth of twists, turns and ramps and two elevator rides, the excitement became that much more palpable. Although this was my first time meeting Beverly and Quiana, I felt an immediate sense of sisterhood, which living in NYC, is something quite rare. Our rapport was warm and humorous like it should be between homegirls. And even though Quiana was the only model in our mix, Bev, Harriette and I knew that we were there because the dilemma, that thing that needed to be pricked, affected us all.
The event was sold-out and it was standing room only. No surprise after the article in Sunday's NY Times and the hoopla Vivienne Westwood made in Sunday's London's Telegraph. After taking my seat and looking around I noticed so many familiar faces in the crowd including Iman, Tia Williams, Claude Grunitzky, and Barron Claiborne all sitting in the front row. Also in the house were: Beverly Smith, Yaya DaCosta, Vera Wang, Michaela angela Davis, Beverly Bond, Marc Baptiste, Memsor Kamara, and Jaunel Mckenzie and so many more whose names escape me right now.
The night got off to a rather fiery start when former model and current agent, David Ralph spoke about the kind of Black models that are usually booked. Using Liya Kebede (think Estee lauder campaign) he asserted that the reason she is booked more frequently than an Alek Wek is that her features are "smaller and finer" and therefore more accessable (read European) in character than African. The straw that broke the camel's back though or should I say got under Iman's skin, was when he said that he knows these women are thought of as white women "dipped in chocolate." Immediately shooting from the hip Iman blasted back, "I take offense when people say to me I look like a white woman dipped in chocolate. I am African and I look like an African!" She put him on blast and everyone knew what she felt like saying was "That's bullsh*t," but Sister Iman, as I referred to her later that night in my comments, is a lady. She spoke, no she challenged Mr. Ralph on these notions and for her five minutes on the mic she never relented. It was so dang refreshing to see her, in particular, show just how personal, hurtful, rude and repercussive this kind of thinking can be. Too often we sit with our legs crossed and talk politely, intellectually, about racism and the weight it bears on our professional and personal lives, but every now and then we need someone to shout and show just how pissed off we are. I really wish I'd had gotten video of her and some of the other conversationalists, which included designer Tracy Reese, casting agent James Scully and stylist Lori Goldstein.
After an extensive Q&A that touched on a number of topics from why Black models wear weaves to a suggestion that we no longer support (ie. buy) goods from labels like Prada that do not hire Black models (that idea was immediately shot down b/c on an international level there just isn't enough of us that Prada would even care never mind be affected by our ban), Bethann wrapped up the night's activities by speaking about designers not liking models anymore and not developing relationships with girls and the consequences of no longer having models with personalities and its visual effect on the runways in terms of overwhelming blandness and subdued racism.