It has been 25 years since a model of colour was on Vogue’s September cover. This year, Joan Smalls, a Puerto Rican model, is part of the September cover along with two white models, Cara DeLevingne and Karlie Kloss. The cover itself is a fold out, which includes models Imaan Hammam and Fei Fei Sun on the inside of the fold. The last model of colour on the September cover was Naomi Campbell in 1989.
Traditionally, the September issue of Vogue is the most important issue of the year as it is the introduction to the year’s fall/winter fashion — always the most anticipated collections. They attract the most attention and revenue, and offer the best opportunities for models. The importance of the fall issue was also highlighted by the 2009 documentary The September Issue.
It should be noted that Halle Berry was indeed on the September 2010 cover; however, she is an actress and this has different implications about her being the focus of attention. Berry has a persona far beyond the fashion industry. Models like Joan, on the other hand, are meant to be representations of a social ideal of beauty.
This draws attention to the marginalization of models of colour in the fashion industry, as well as the exploitation of race.
This is definitely not a response to a shortage of Black models, but rather evidence that women of colour are simply not given the same type of opportunities or attention in this industry. They are either ignored, or turned into costumes to be worn.
Racism is still a selling point.
And by the way, so is cultural appropriation. All to say, “We don’t like you, but we think your traditional outfits are sort of pretty. Prettier on white models, though.”
It is also important to note, not just the racism in general that permeates the industry, but specifically anti-Blackness.
There is a uniqueness to the experience of a Black person, even in the fashion industry; blackface and slavery are employed as on-going themes. Let’s not forget Pakistani designer Aamna Aqeel’s fashion spread called “Be my Slave” : the shoot depicts a fashionable, high class white woman with her “slave”, a young Black boy, used as a background prop (below).
There are endless examples. Donna Karan used two Black teenaged boys as props for her “Haiti campaign”. If that’s how we now define philanthropy, please let me leave this planet.
I have personal experience working at one of the most important fashion spots in Vancouver, where I see a variety of people come through regularly. The harsh reality is that the fashion industry does not reflect its consumers. The majority of shoppers and buyers — the ones that keep the high-end fashion retail lucrative — are indeed women of colour: Asian, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Black women.
Obviously, women of colour are involved in the consumption of fashion, so why are we not being better represented in fashion media? And why are the representations of people who look like us made through costumes or tasteless, insensitive stereotypes?
It only makes sense to see more models of colour, given the influence women of colour have as fashion consumers. Clearly, we have far to go, but I think this issue is a little positive step.