It was London Fashion two weeks ago and as per usual, among the catwalk shows and outrageous clothing, a debate was raging. Last year the argument was about the use of “size 0” models; this year it surrounded the lack of Black or Asian models on the catwalk, a topic that has long been discussed and discarded in Europe.
The question “why” has often been answered by fashion industry with the argument that ethnic models are harder to sell. In other words the clients don’t want them. Their clients, the clothing and cosmetics companies as well as the magazines, argue that their customers cannot relate to ethnic models, despite the fact that the populations of large European cities such as Paris and London are more than 20% ethnic. I suppose what they really saying is that their products are not marketed at ethnic minorities; that is not where the "big money" is.
Regardless of their reasons for it, it is obvious that the fashion industry is biased against ethnic minority models. Naomi Campbell, the most famous of the Black European models and the most vocal against discrimination in the fashion industry, has been quoted as saying she had a little help form her friends all the way. Other models would have to threaten to boycott catwalk shows if designers refused to use her before she was led backstage and she contends that she would never have graced the cover of French Vogue if Yves Saint Laurent had not threatened to pull his adverts. Yves Saint Laurent, who was the first designer to use black models in his catwalk shows way back in the 1970s, has long been a supporter of ethnic models, as has Dame Vivien Westwood.
The shows during the last fashion week proved that they are in the minority as hundreds of white models walked the catwalk, with one or two ethnic minorities trailing them. So is the real reason that there is no demand for ethnic minority models or is it simply that we in Europe are racist? Many advertising campaigns have been “white washed” so to speak. Ford was greatly admonished in the 1990’s for removing the faces of its black employees from a picture contained in an advertising drive when it was run in Spain. Last year Santander, a Spanish owned bank, removed Lewis Hamilton from its campaign pictures in Spain. There was outrage in France when it was alleged that L'Oréal had described the women they wanted to front a 2000 advertising promotion as 18 to 22 and "BBR," the initials for "bleu, blanc, rouge," or blue, white, red - the colours of the French flag a designation know by French agencies to mean white.
It is easy for us in the UK to be smug about the number of black faces in our advertising but how “black” are they? When I first saw the Marks and Spencer adverts featuring Noémie Lenoir, the Black French model I did not realise that she was black, so close is she to looking like a white woman. Everywhere you look there are women who could pass for white passing for black models. How often do we have Alek Wek gracing the cover of mainstream glossy magazine?
As much as we would like to point the finger, it is not just Europe where the majority of people believe that true feminine beauty is white or as close to it as one can get. I remember being at school in Kenya when a girl was described as being pretty in the eyes of other black people albeit by a white girl. There were a lot of black people nodding in agreement as she said it. Then there was the blond never could tan girl, who in reality was as plain as could be but somehow became the definition of beauty.
These perspectives are not new, stemming from the days of colonialism when our humanity and worth was measured by the lightness of our skin and straightness of our hair. Even those who lived in Europe valued untanned skin; Descriptions of beauty in English literature often mention the beauty of milky white skin. Look closely at the descriptions of the beautiful body and there is little mention of behinds that are often a feature of the black woman’s body. And still we continue to judge our looks according to these standards and Black men and women the world over use skin lightening creams and straighten their hair in a bid to have “good” skin and hair. There are places where even now you will see light skinned people in dominate positions (though the naturalness of their skin colour may be disputed).
We go on extreme diets in order to attempt to conform to the definition of beauty that we see around us, that is marketed to us by the very companies that refuse to use black models. We are complicit in the message that white is beautiful. In the face of societies perception of beauty perhaps the argument for using white models is not that black beauty does not sell; conceivably it is simply that the majority, even of us black people, do not believe it exists.