Racism on the Runway: How Bethann Hardison's Diversity Coalition Is Changing Fashion

Two weeks ago, on the eve of New York Fashion Week, fashion activist Bethann Hardison launched a campaign to end racism on the runway. In an open letter to the governing fashion bodies of the major fashion cities--New York, London, Milan, and Paris--she blasted the industry for its white-washed model casts, stating that "no matter the intention, the result is racism." And she wasn't afraid to name names. Along with the memo, she publicly called out a number of designers who last season featured zero or one model of color on the runway. The designers, it seems, were listening.
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Hayley Phelan
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Two weeks ago, on the eve of New York Fashion Week, fashion activist Bethann Hardison launched a campaign to end racism on the runway. In an open letter to the governing fashion bodies of the major fashion cities--New York, London, Milan, and Paris--she blasted the industry for its white-washed model casts, stating that "no matter the intention, the result is racism." And she wasn't afraid to name names. Along with the memo, she publicly called out a number of designers who last season featured zero or one model of color on the runway. The designers, it seems, were listening.
Photo: Getty

Photo: Getty

Two weeks ago, on the eve of New York Fashion Week, fashion activist Bethann Hardison launched a campaign to end racism on the runway. In an open letter to the governing fashion bodies of the major fashion cities--New York, London, Milan, and Paris--she blasted the industry for its white-washed model casts, stating that "no matter the intention, the result is racism." And she wasn't afraid to name names. Along with the memo, she publicly called out a number of designers who last season featured zero or one model of color on the runway.

The designers, it seems, were listening.

We took a look at the shows of those New York and London designers (full lists can be seen here) who Hardison called out in her letters. We're happy to report that almost all of them greatly increased the number of models-of-color in their cast. Rag & Bone, for instance, featured eight; Calvin Klein, Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, and Narciso Rodriguez all featured six. Over in London, notable designers Marios Schwab and J.W. Anderson featured six and five, respectively. That's a significant increase, considering all of these designers featured only one or zero models-of-color last season. (One exception to the across-the-board improvement is Mulberry, which only featured one model-of-color and zero black models).

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It's an improvement not lost on Hardison and her big-name supporters. Speaking to the U.K.'s Channel 4 News earlier this week, Naomi Campbell said, "The New York shows have just finished and there was a huge difference. Six models of color in Calvin. There were none last year."

When I hopped on the phone with Hardison earlier today she said she was "ecstatic" about the support her campaign has received from the media and the general population. She admitted she hadn't yet analyzed the number of models-of-color who walked in this season's shows, but had "been told" that the numbers had improved greatly.

"When a couple of people say, 'let me try to improve this,' when a couple of design houses add a few [models-of-color], it shows an effort."

But she's not celebrating a victory just yet. "Two, three, four [models of color] is nice. But not when there's 30 girls. I'm very pleased with any improvement, and I say that respectfully." But there's a long road ahead. Hardison says one of her main goals is to see a consistent increase in racial diversity in runway casts. "I would definitely like to see, long term, consistency. Not just one or two seasons, not hit or miss. But just that there are consistently more models of color."

One of the issues Hardison says is that racial diversity varies greatly between seasons. "In spring/summer you always include a little bit more [people of color]. Because you're casting for a girl with a little bit more color. And that's why I chose this season, it's a good time to wake people up. "

Hardison and Iman.

Hardison and Iman.

The real test, she says, will come during the fall/winter shows. "Nothing says something more than when [models of color] are booked for fall/winter shows."

She also thinks cities like Milan and Paris might be slower to adapt than New York and London. "I give this fashion community, the international fashion community a little more credit, I think they'll try to improve. But what I think will be harder, is changing the general population's perceptions. Like in Milan, you don't see black people. So there might be a reaction [among the general population there] like, whoa this is different. But at the same time, some of the most powerful design houses over there...I mean they're global companies. Paris basically looks like Detroit now. There's so many immigrants there. But, historically, they have an acquisition mentality. Paris will be the hardest nut to crack."

As for how the governing bodies of each of those cities responded, Hardison said she "liked what they said.""I loved what [Mario Boselli, head of the Italian Chamber of Fashion] said. [Didier Grumbach, president of the Chambre Syndicale,]'s response just tickled me. Is anyone home? He's way up in the clouds, he didn't hear anything. But you gotta love him. He was funny--but I'm going to call him on it." [Ed note: The two know each other socially.]

She added that she plans on meeting with the CFDA and BFC in the near future to discuss the issue further.

"Bethann knows Diane and me and we met with her last time she organized around the issue," CFDA president Steven Kolb said in an email. "She told me at the Zac Posen show that she has no issue with CFDA and that she knows we are supportive. We plan to meet after Europe."

Hardison said that only two designers--one from New York and one from London--who she named had contacted her about the list. But she's not disheartened in the least.

"Designers, as much as they're individuals, and as much as they create trends, they also follow each other. If a few of them start doing this one thing, others will follow suit. Right now, they're stuck on this one trend--and it's more white than anything."

Hardison hopes that the trend towards a more diverse runway cast will be one that lasts. "It's always come and go, come and go. What I hope is that it will come, and stay."

"It doesn't mean that you have to do a quota [of a certain number models-of-color per runway cast] or do a law," she added. "You hope that people are groovy enough that no one has to specify or enforce anything."

Well, needless to say we--and Hardison--will be watching the runways to see.