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The Invisibility of Ethnicity

Many people believe that racism is not only exercised within, but also affiliated directly with the fashion industry. It’s one of many controversies to rock the industry, alongside the ‘size zero’ debate, animal rights, and the exploitation of children. Yet, the issue of racism has gathered momentum in recent years with increasing pressure on the fashion industry to accept responsibility for the lack of cultural diversity displayed within it.

The downfall of John Galliano, the ex-creative director of Christian Dior, for anti- Semitic remarks in a Parisian cafe catalysed this debate, as well as the evident, increasing lack of black and Asian models as cover girls or on catwalks. Is this just a short-term conservative approach for advertisers to create revenue in today’s economic crisis? Or is it a cemented cultural attitude that it is unlikely to change?

The racist incident with Galliano, followed by immediate loss of his job as creative director, left many feeling that the issue of racism is something, which in fact the fashion industry repeatedly ignores. Although shocking, few of the major fashion publications reported the incident in great depth, as if knowing on some level that racism is an existing fact of the industry.

Since the video has been leaked, multiple accounts of Galliano’s racism have surfaced, which leads me to believe that his racist attitude had been previously accepted amongst his close friends and fellow employees at Christian Dior. He is not the only high-profile fashion figure to be accused of racism; earlier this year celebrity hairdresser James Brown, who is a close friend of Kate Moss, was publicly seen hurling racist abuse at Ben Douglas at the BAFTA Television Awards.

Apart from designers and stylists, the modelling industry itself is also often perceived as racist, with many of the world’s leading agencies supporting only a few women from ethnic backgrounds, in comparison to multiple white models. Carol White, founder of leading modelling agency Premier claims that “it’s down to the inadequacy of those photographers and make-up artists who struggle to find the light or make them [ethnically diverse models] up properly.”

In 2007, models such as Naomi Campbell and Alek Wek launched a campaign to fight the discrimination faced by young black models in the industry. Wek, one of the world’s leading black models, talked of her embarrassment when make-up artists did not have the products to match her skin tone or when magazines would pay thousands of pounds to airbrush her skin into looking lighter. We must ask ourselves what impact this is having on young ethnic women around the world, who are forced into believing that their natural skin tone is inadequate.

In 2008, Italian Vogue featured only black models in one of its issues, which saw an unprecedented demand and sold out nationally. The long-term relevance of this issue remains to be seen; yet it was undoubtedly considered to be a landmark for the acceptance of ethnic minorities in the industry.

Nevertheless, it is not just designers and models, which represent the apparent racism in the industry, but leading brands also. French cosmetic giant Loréal were targeted in 2007 by the French campaigners SOS Racisme, when it became known that they had purposely excluded non-white women while casting for their new shampoo promotions. Loréal issued requirements for the women to be of UK size 10-14 and of white descent with blond hair and blue eyes and specifically disregarded women with ethnic backgrounds who applied.

The fashion industry must therefore account for the subliminal racism it portrays and the repercussions this might have on vulnerable women around the world. They must move beyond consumerist ideology and accept their responsibility to portray all types of women, whether of different sizes, hair colours or in this case, races. As noted by Naomi Campbell, “there is a prejudice and we must learn to appreciate other kinds of beauty.”

Lucy Bramley

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