The most diverse fashion season ever on the runway, but not the front row

Of all the things that have stuck with me in the week since I returned from the fashion shows, reintegrating myself to real life, one of the most lingering was the diversity that was apparent on the runways. This was, by anecdotal observation and actual data, the most inclusive season ever, especially in New York, where models of almost every colour, as well as many sizes, ages and gender identities, were represented.

>>Vanessa FriedmanThe New York Times
Published : 14 Oct 2018, 12:08 PM
Updated : 14 Oct 2018, 12:08 PM

Gone was the feeling I have had so many times in the past, that what I was seeing was merely gestural — a nod to a trend, or political pressure, soon to be forgotten when fashion turned its focus somewhere else. This wasn’t Joan Smalls and Adwoa Aboah on every single runway; it wasn’t tokenism. There were multiple women of multiple shades on multiple runways. We had reached a point of genuine change.

“Spring 2019 was the most racially diverse season ever,” said Jennifer Davidson, the editor-in-chief of The Fashion Spot, an online editorial platform that has tracked runway diversity counts on race since September 2014, and on size, gender identification and age since September 2015. This was true in every city, with models of colour in New York reaching almost 50 percent.

Overall, preliminary numbers show that out of 229 shows and 7,432 models, 36.1 percent were models of colour compared with 30.02 percent the same time a year ago and 17 percent when the tally began.

But all of these visuals also served to highlight another reality: What was true on the runway was not, necessarily, true behind it. The contrast between the diversity of the models and the uniformity of the people watching them was striking. Not in terms of celebrity guests — Amandla Stenberg and Spike Lee were popular invites — but in terms of the industry power structure itself: the editors, retailers and decision-makers.

The runway may have become the front line of diversity, but it definitely is not the end.

“It’s something I think about when I go to work every day,” said Samira Nasr, the executive fashion director of Vanity Fair, and one of the few women of colour in the front row. (She is of Trinidadian and Lebanese descent.) In a career that in the past two decades has included stints at Vogue, InStyle and Elle, Nasr has often found herself among only a handful of fashion editors of colour in her offices.

“This is a starting point,” said Edward Enninful, who became the first black editor of any Vogue (and, for that matter, any major fashion glossy) when he was named to the top spot at British Vogue in 2017. “But there’s still a long way to go.”

For years it was André Leon Talley, the onetime creative director of American Vogue, who was, as a New Yorker article famously called him in 1994, “the Only One” — the only black man in the front row of most fashion shows.

More than 20 years later, Talley celebrated Enninful’s appointment but noted, in an interview with The New York Times this year, that he still finds himself in fashion rooms where he asks, “Where are the black people?”

And this is true not only for glossy magazines. Design houses are still notably lacking in racial diversity at the top. Hence the brouhaha over Virgil Abloh being named artistic director for Louis Vuitton menswear earlier this year. Along with Olivier Rousteing, the creative director of Balmain, he is one of the few designers of colour at the head of a French heritage house. (At the end of Abloh’s first Vuitton show, in the gardens of the Palais Royale, which was attended by his former creative collaborator Kanye West, both men were overcome by emotion.)

In June, for the first time, the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards ceremony was hosted by a woman of colour, Issa Rae. “Which is crazy,” she said.

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. Davidson, of The Fashion Spot, said that the site had decided to do the diversity reports to “look at it through a consumer’s eye, and focus on how brands represent themselves and who they choose to represent. If I’m a consumer, do I see myself on this runway?”

There is no question that that matters. But it’s also dangerous, because it can lead to complacency; to the sense the issue is solved, or has been addressed. It looks so much better! “Looks” being the operative word. Now, according to Enninful, it is time for behind-the-scenes change.

“It’s the next step,” he said. “We need more internships. Youth programmes. The way people get into the industry needs to be widened.” Enninful added that he felt a responsibility to be a visible representation of what was possible, and a public figure for the next generation, whether on social media or in the front row.

“It’s about letting people who have never been included in this industry know that it exists,” Nasr said. “I am very aware that I, as a brown woman, have this incredible platform.”

Though it may be a natural conclusion that once you change the top, the bottom will follow — that there will be a trickle-down effect — Davidson cautions against any such assumption. “There were Asian designers in New York who had the least diverse runways,” she said. “You’d think being in a minority would make you more sensitive to representing the breath of the population, but our data does not support that.”

Nevertheless, Nasr believes that simply by attrition, if not intent, things are changing. That a new generation is on the rise that looks more like the population they serve, like Tyler Mitchell, the young black photographer who became the first African-American to shoot a cover of Vogue in the magazine’s 125-year history when he shot Beyoncé for the September issue.

Or Shaniqwa Jarvis, who has photographed ad campaigns for Liberty of London, Supreme and Nike; or Nikki Ogunnaike, the style director of; or Lacy Redway, a hairstylist who works with Ruth Negga and Priyanka Chopra, among others. Nasr is “really hopeful” about the future.

Indeed, Condé Nast announced Wednesday that Lindsay Peoples Wagner would become the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, a title previously held by Elaine Welteroth — who, when she was named to the post in 2016, was only the second African-American editor of a Condé Nast magazine in the United States. (Keija Minor of Brides was the first; Peoples Wagner is the third.)

Formerly the fashion editor of New York magazine, she is the author of a widely read article published earlier this year, “Everywhere and Nowhere,” which explored “what it’s really like to be black and work in fashion.”

Certainly, New York labels like Telfar and Pyer Moss — which put diversity front and center in their design approach, creating communities that empower or give voice to the previously unheard, and which are being celebrated for their aesthetic invention and their belief system — are exploding the status quo not just on the runway, but far beyond.

Yet, Enninful said: “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.”

© 2018 New York Times News Service

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher