In the late summer in New York, matcha lattes in hand and the frenetic pace of fashion week blissfully invisible over the horizon, Tamu and I sat down to talk about diversity in fashion.
It is no secret that this is a stressful time to be a brown person on Earth. To recap world events here would be an exercise in vanity, because we know the ATPB community to be well-versed in the news. However, what feels to me to be the most powerful contributor of stress is that for the first time in a long time, we have the opportunity to talk about whiteness being consistently and dangerously centered nearly everywhere and for as long as most of us can remember, but despite the evidence, the platforms, the experiences, the VIDEOS, this information is being consistently rejected. In the eyes of many, we have finally achieved parity. Perhaps not by coincidence, those eyes often belong to the same people that claim to be blind to color entirely.
So, aside from all of the other evidence of how necessary it is that we prioritize bringing non-white voices to center, I bring one little example to the table that represents both how far we have come and how far we can go as it pertains to our tiny little world of fashion. By the grace of being both a friend and also a creepy superfan of hers, Tamu pops up on my Instagram feed quite a lot. During NYFW this September, Lee Oliveira for New York Times Fashion captured a scene that spurred a thousand regrams: Tamu walking across the street alongside Tiffany Reid (Fashion Market Editor of Cosmo), Shiona Turini (stylist extraordinaire), Nicole Chapoteau (Fashion Director of Allure), and Chrissy Rutherford (Senior Digital Editor at Bazaar). The five of them, each dressed impeccably, smiled and laughed together in between shows, delivering to the internet the sort of perfect Black Girl Magic that we really need every day but so rarely receive.
Photo: Lee Olivera for The New York Times
I don’t know who would not understand how important and uplifting it is for Black women – but especially young Black girls – to see images like this, but I can tell you it would be a whole lot less important if it were not so completely rare. The scarcity is only symptomatic of how badly it is needed, and after reading a few reposts of grown women literally losing their sh*t over how proud they were to see this after growing up unable to name hardly any Black editors, I realized that Tamu and Co. had effectively recreated the Cool Girl movie scene that we all really wanted to see in every teen movie from the 80s and 90s and 00s, but never got (and still aren’t getting) from Hollywood. For that one moment, we were all Getting Our Life through these beautiful, intelligent, successful, stylish Black women. And this is just on the tiny runway of fashion week street style, not an in-book editorial, not a major campaign, not an 82 look show.
Backing up a bit, over those peaceful matcha lattes and a mutual knowledge that Black women in fashion marketing are generally underrepresented and unseen, we resolved to monitor fashion runway diversity over the following weeks of SS18 shows, to measure and discuss designer’s performances, and to compare metrics against seasons past to see what kind of progress we are actually making. And six weeks later, decidedly more adult drinks in hand, we sat down to talk about our findings.
Here, we share our conversation:
Chromat Spring/Summer 2018, images via Voguerunway.com
Anja: So I guess, to start, let’s please talk about these amazing scorecards your intern made.
Tamu: She actually sat down and counted the number of looks in every show for every designer in every city, and then the number of looks for each of those shows that walked on a Person of Color.
Anja: For me, the most striking measure was the percentages, because when we looked at New York, which was definitely the winner this season in terms of diversity on the runways, we saw that Calvin Klein actually had the highest number of exits on a POC, but one of the lowest percentages of POC in his show because they present so many looks. And the top ranking, Vaquera and Chromat, had the smallest shows but the highest percentages of representation.
Tamu: And Miu Miu!
Anja: You loved Miu Miu.
Tamu: It was so emotional!
Anja: I know, but first let’s talk metrics. One thing you mentioned at the outset of this, which I think bears repeating, is that the way we monitored these designers is a little problematic. I think that you and I, because of who we are, went into this paying special attention to Black women on the runways, but what we actually measured was People of Color, which means that we included all Non-Black People of Color as well.
Tamu: Yes, and it makes me nervous to lump everyone all together, even though a victory and gain in representation on the runways affects everyone positively, we are not very well-versed on the struggles of, say, Asian models.
Anja: And it wouldn’t be fair for us to speak for them about specific struggles without that specific point of view. Similarly, we didn’t ask for age metrics or dress size metrics or any of the other equally important elements around representation on the runways.
Tamu: But I hope when we publish this piece that someone more qualified to speak on the NBPOC experience in modeling will speak as well.
Anja: Ok. Now we can talk about Miu Miu.
Tamu: It was so emotional!! Where do I begin? Miuccia really sent a message with that show, and it was so evident that she is really paying attention to what women want. This is aside from the collection, which was outstanding, but more specifically the range of women she cast for that show. There were women your complexion, my complexion, very dark-skinned, natural hair, cropped hair, straight hair – she really ran the gamut and it was so… real. For such a long time there has been this Naomi Campbell-standard of what Black models are supposed to look like, with very few exceptions – like, say an Ajak Deng or Alek Wek. In the past few years we have really started to see designers casting girls outside that box. Naomi will always be Queen, obviously, but restricting Black women to that very specific look is not fair because that’s not the real world.
Miu Miu Spring/Summer 2018, images via Voguerunway.com
Anja: What do you think Miuccia was thinking with this casting?
Tamu: I wonder if she learned from the criticism she received for the lack of diversity in her previous castings. I really think – and maybe this is just because I love her so much, but – I really think that her friendship with Shala Monroque might have been an influencing factor, because that is a muse relationship. Shala is Miuccia’s customer, so she is the perfect muse. She is educated, sophisticated, lively, stunningly beautiful, and has impeccable taste. And perhaps this friendship they have had for some time now is what pushed Miuccia to think about women in a more diverse way. She launched Lineisy Montero’s career, you know.
Anja: I didn’t know that, I love Lineisy.
Tamu: I think for a long time, there was this trifecta of Naomi, Iman, and Tyra, who are all so beautiful but they are so glamorous. Like, very well-coiffed and shiny. But that is such a narrow idea of what Black women look like.
Anja: Which we know is actually a huge range of looks.
Tamu: Right, we know. But in general, society doesn’t understand what Black women can look like.
Anja: Even in New York, which has a reputation for being progressive.
Tamu: And they don’t acknowledge how much of mainstream culture is created by Black voices. Fashion has a love affair with hip hop, athletes, movie stars – count the soundtracks on the runways and I guarantee you would have a healthy number of POC artists behind the music. And historically, there has been this sort of uncredited appropriation of cultures and looks that everyone has always gotten away with. If we are such a huge driving force in popular culture, then yes, we should expect to be represented properly on the runways and in other forms of marketing.
Anja: I don’t know if this is true in Italy, but in the US a lot of POC in fashion and entertainment – especially Black people – get real vitriol from the public when they raise their voice to talk about injustice and inequality. The thing I most commonly see people say is “this is fashion, it’s supposed to be a break from politics.” And I know it sounds like I am talking about the NFL, but it actually happens a lot in our industry, as well. And it seems there is this overall willful ignorance from some people who have the privilege of their politics being unlinked to their bodies. Which is never the case for POC, because we are just born into politicized existences.
Tamu: When I launched All the Pretty Birds, my original explanation was that we use clothes and personal style to express ourselves, and identify who we connect and relate to. And that’s still so true to me. I am an immigrant Black woman, and I will tell you, turning your back on politics is a flawed way to live.
Anja: Ok so let’s talk about your conversation with Bethann Hardison.
Bethann Hardison, Battles of Versailles, 1974
Anja: She has been a major thought leader in influencing the way people think about diversity in fashion for the last thirty or forty years. Maybe longer. Did she feel that this season was a step forward in runway representation?
Tamu: You know, I actually used the phrase “step forward” with her and she responded, “This is not about single steps, this is a march!” And she’s so right, because even if we do experience an increase in casting diversity across the globe, we still have to keep pushing. I think we start to lose when we start to feel like we are gaining ground and run the risk of getting lazy.
Anja: Or when we let designers feel like they’re “diverse enough” at any point. I recently saw a blurb from a Gloria Steinem interview that feels relevant to this actually. She said, “The new form of obstructivism is to say ‘Oh, well, it’s over,’ when really it’s only just begun.”
Tamu: And I do think we have a long way to go.
Anja: Going back to the Black Model Archetype, did she have any comments about how this has changed? Because it has definitely changed.
Tamu: Yes, over these last few years we have begun to see Black girls that, a decade ago, would not have been cast for major designer work. Perhaps faces like Ajak and Alek paved the way for this in the 00s. And now we see these amazing newer faces that have a sort of awkwardness or quirkiness to them. Bethann’s point was that, as the look designers are seeking has turned away from the glamorous and more in this direction of awkwardness, these new WOC models are really competing with their white counterparts.
Anja: Which is so true, for instance when you look at the Top Newcomers of SS18 on models.com, there is Oumie Jammeh, Ana Maria Figueroa, Adut Akech, Shanelle Nyasiase. And none of them fit the sexy standard, there is something just a little… off about each of them. In the most intriguing way.
Tamu: The most empowering thing that Bethann said was that agents will continue to seek out young WOC talent and designers will continue to diversify their marketing if they feel that it is directly linked to their relevance. Because no designer wants to look irrelevant. And when you show 60 looks and only three of those looks are on Models of Color, that designer looks dated and a bit ignorant.
Anja: So to me that means that it is important for us to speak up about this and to keep this conversation in the forefront of everyone’s minds.
Tamu: Exactly. And we have all of these social media channels now for connecting and information sharing and speaking directly to brands. We need to be using the tools we have to make sure that these designers and agents know that we are watching.
Anja: But we have had these tools for a long time now, actually. I’ve been on Instagram for seven years. I think a huge part of this progress is that people in general are starting to understand their personal power. Especially in America, where we are currently being faced daily with all of these legislative affronts to the way we live our lives, I know there are a lot of women who have never called their local or state representative before in their lives who are now blocking out time for it every day. So part of it is that we need to continue to empower people to speak up, because the only way I see progress slowing down is if we start to lose our voice.
Jacquemus, Spring/Summer 2018, images via Voguerunway.com
Tamu: We have to discuss this all the time.
Anja: Yes! I think it goes with the territory of being a successful brand these days, you need to be able to answer questions about not just your representation but also your ethics and sustainability and transparency. Brands do not get to exist in the shadows and collect a margin anymore. We have a choice as consumers in what we demand for our money. I don’t want to spend money on something designed by a person who doesn’t consider the multi-ethnic world we live in, because that means that they are not a part of it. If I wanted to buy something made by someone who isn’t thinking in a modern way I would just shop vintage.
Tamu: So what do we do next?
Anja: I think after this season’s shows, we can spend some time praising and highlighting the designers that did show progress, and we can maybe vocally challenge designers who didn’t…. and maybe also ask them why. Because maybe some of them, after being asked ‘why’, will challenge themselves to join this march forward.
Tamu: ‘Why’, what?
Anja: Maybe not ‘why?’, as much as ‘when?’.