The Fall 2017 women's ready-to-wear shows were the most racially diverse in recent years, with women of color representing nearly 28 percent of the models who walked in the 241 on-schedule shows — a 3.2 percent increase from Fall 2016. This is encouraging progress for an industry that has historically been whitewashed, despite the fact that it is consumed by all ethnicities. But as those statistics change and models of color become more present on the runways, it's unclear exactly how deep the commitment to inclusivity runs beyond the public eye. Once you get beyond the surface-level numbers about diversity, there's the question of how models themselves — the people, not the concept — are experiencing fashion week.
Model (mis)treatment has been a buzzy subject, especially throughout the past few seasons. But for women of color who model on the NYFW runways, what about their experience differs from that of their white colleagues? Perhaps the most obvious answer, at least to anyone who has ever gone backstage at a runway show during hair and makeup prep, is through beauty. What, exactly, does backstage beauty prep at NYFW look like for models of color who are still walking into majority-white castings and having their hair and makeup done in settings set up for white women?
Not all makeup artists are consistently prepared to match the growing gamut of skin complexions and, likewise, not all hair stylists are experienced in handling hair that falls unlike their own. This isn't a new problem; Iman famously created her own makeup line because makeup artists were constantly ill-equipped to work with her skin tone. But as the fashion industry makes strides in diversity, there are other aspects of the fashion week process that are still playing catch-up.
"In my opinion, the fashion industry still has a very long way to go before we can call it 'diverse,'" says JAG model Diana Veras, who hails from the Dominican Republic. Veras was cast for the Chloé Sevigny x Opening Ceremony show when she was just 16; she's since modeled for Me + You and Calvin Klein's #MyCalvins, and she walked in NYFW for Chromat last fall — a show that earned the architectural swim and athletic wear brand recognition for boasting the most inclusive runway, with 77 percent models of color.
Some stylists work well with Veras' hair, though others have applied too much heat, altered the texture and even used products that are damaging to curly hair, she says. Consequentially, she's dealt with damaged hair and cringes at the sight of curling irons.
Veras admits that, as a "very light-skin Afro-Latina woman," she feels privileged in the makeup department, but she has witnessed other models who carry their own foundations or wear shades that don't match their skin.
"I think it's absolutely absurd and unfair — it's blatantly racist," she says.
Take, for example, Victoria Gomez, a curve model of color who is also signed to JAG. She has also walked for Chromat in both the S/S 17 and F/W 18 seasons. While her experiences with Chromat, in particular, have certainly been progressive due to the brand's diverse cast of models, she does carry some of her own makeup with her to shows.
"The majority of makeup artists I've worked with have had to mix foundations to match my color because they don't have my exact shade on hand, and that's okay," she explains. "I have heard endless nightmare-ish stories about makeup artists not knowing how to work with darker skin tones, so I always bring my foundation along with me though just in case."
With regards to her hair, she says every stylist that has ever come into contact with it has been instantly intimidated — though she doesn't blame them; she has a lot of it.
"My hair usually takes longer than other models'," Gomez says, which is consistent with many models of color, who, on average, have earlier prep times to compensate. "I think there are quite a few stylists who aren't experienced in working with different hair types and can end up damaging curl patterns because they don't know what they're doing. There have been quite a few instances where the stylists didn't know how to work with my hair and I had to intervene and assist, or just end up doing my hair completely on my own."
However, she says she's thankful that her hair has been embraced in its naturally thick, voluminous, curly state for the majority of the jobs she's booked. And Gomez isn't alone in forgoing the irons and products: Philomena Kwao, born in London to Ghanaian parents, is also recognized for embracing her natural hair texture and for being outspoken about her experiences as a model of color.
Kwao, who has modeled for international brands spanning Torrid, Nordstrom, Lane Bryant and Evans, told Fashionista in a recent interview that people don't seem to understand her skin or hair. "People don't understand black skin when it comes to makeup or photography lighting," she said. "They also don't understand black hair and what it can do and what it cannot do. So it's not like I can turn up to set one day and they want my hair really curly. Like, that takes a lot of prep. So there just seems like a general lack of education, and a lot of ignorance surrounding black skin and black hair, which is quite frustrating actually."
It's also a question not just of a specific model's own hair texture or even the stylists' experience with diverse hair types — there is also the issue of the designated look for each show. If, for example, every model is getting uniform, stick-straight hair, it's going to be easier for models with naturally stick-straight hair to get there. That in turn can mean more time, work (and, in some cases, unpleasantness) is required for models of color as compared to their white counterparts.
Some models are hence taking to more extreme lengths to avoid hiccups during backstage beauty prep. More recently on the hair front, models like Maria Borges and Dilone have simply gone for super-short crops in order to maintain ownership over their looks (and prevent hairstylists from messing too much with their curls).
Sabina Karlsson, a model who's walked for Chromat, Christian Siriano, J.Crew and Additionelle, among other designers, is hopeful that as the fashion industry makes progress in embracing diversity, progress on the beauty side will follow. "I think it's getting better as models have raised their voices about these concerns," she says. And she notes that ethnic diversity isn't the only type of diversity worth prioritizing: "As a curvier model, I'm very happy to see more diversity among bodies on the runway. The designers that I've walked for have been very good with inclusivity, which makes me even prouder to walk for them."
Makeup artists usually do have shades for her complexion, she says, though sometimes they make her skin appear lighter when she should be wearing warmer foundations. With regards to her hair, she says she makes sure to speak up if she feels like they are "doing something that could be damaging." That's not an insignificant act, especially considering that models are so often expected to be "easy to work with" and game for anything.
While these struggles may be apparent to models of color themselves — though, like Karlsson, they do indeed recognize improvements — makeup artist Janice Daoud says that the chaos is all part of the process, especially when she's trying to get 30 or more models ready in just a few hours.
Daoud has 13 years of experience at NYFW and has worked backstage at shows for Marc Jacobs, Rodarte, Thakoon, Alexander Wang, Helmut Lang, Rag & Bone, Marchesa, Baja East, Naeem Khan, Vera Wang and more.
"Models [sometimes] get booked for three or more shows a day and, at times, they overlap; so when they walk through our doors from the last show, they're attacked by everyone as they have minutes to be ready for show time, so it's not deliberate — it's just about getting the job done," she explains. "Backstage will always be backstage, and it can be very chaotic."
The process, she says, can be different for any model depending on her look and the look that the brand has envisioned for her. But she makes a point of being prepared to work with any and all models and sees it as a crucial part of the job. "Any real makeup artist will always come prepared with all shades — from lightest to darkest. I personally carry around five brands of foundations at all times, plus darker shades that can't be found at your local cosmetic counter because you never know who will sit in your chair."
And many different women are indeed sitting in Daoud's chair. Winnie Harlow, for one, walked in a Marc Jacobs show last season wearing her hair naturally, and Daoud worked on her makeup.
Daoud notes that diversity in runway shows is "the new normal," but that there's still room for improvement. "I do think we should continue to make sure that Fashion Week mirrors not only our country, but also the entire world where diversity is concerned."
Carole Colombani, a Paris-based makeup artist who works shows in Paris, New York, Milan and London, also says that she's seen change over the years. She started NYFW shows eight years ago with Suno and Matthew Ames for several seasons and, last year, she worked with Reem Acra, Etienne Deroeux and Ground Zero.
"When I started shows, black girls were scared to go to makeup," Colombani remembers. "Especially in Paris — we didn't have this kind of diversity at that time (and it's still less today than in New York). Girls were scared. Can you imagine? It was a shock to me, so I took them in my chair and we talked together; they shared some experiences and I understood them — they were treated so badly sometimes they were grey, so I learned a lot listening to them and using their own products."
In subsequent seasons, Colombani says she was ready; she brought products for models of color and tested new pigments and stronger colors. Bobbi Brown, MAC, Fashion Fair, Nars, Maybelline and Becca are her go-to brands for darker skin tones, and Shu Uemura, Shiseido and Clé de Peau are her basic brands for Asian models.
"I treat all skin the same — it's just about adapting textures and colors," she explains. "I didn't go to any school, so I don't have any habits. I like to reinvent on every face and feel what's best — not apply rules." Backstage today, she says she has no more "scared girls in makeup."
With regards to hair, session stylist for label. m, Patrick Nadeau — who's worked backstage at Dior Couture, Yeezy, Alexander Wang, Rick Owens and more — says that in his 17 years of experience, he's realized that hair is a canvas. "If you haven't worked with a specific type of hair, it might be tricky at first," he explains. "Every person on the team has their strength and weakness but, in the end, we always make it happen as a team."
The more experience stylists have with models of color, as more casting directors pull them for shows, the simpler it wil become to handle different types of hair, says Nadeau. "[Models] must feel like [gems] during the whole process," he adds. "And I think [embracing natural hair] adds a cool twist, and it is so beautiful."
Of course, makeup artists and hairstylists don't bear all the responsibility here; beauty brands producing the makeup and hair products in which they invest should also be held accountable.
A recent paper published by the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, "The Environmental Injustice of Beauty," analyzed nearly 1,200 products marketed specifically to women or color. The researchers at the Environmental Working Group found that black women have limited choices for healthy products marketed specifically to them — and these limited options could mean they're being exposed to more potentially hazardous chemicals.
Of the beauty and personal care products marketed to women of color analyzed, about one in 12 was ranked "highly hazardous." Fewer than one-fourth of the products marketed to them scored low in potentially hazardous ingredients, compared to about 40 percent of the items marketed to the general public. The worst-scoring products marketed to black women were hair relaxers, hair colors and bleaching products. So, when makeup artists and hair stylists do invest in the products that are intended for women of color, those products are perhaps not necessarily any better.
Too often, race is addressed with surface-level, Band-Aid resolutions, but as the fashion industry mobilizes to diversify, it's crucial that beauty brands, stylists and designers make sure that backstage beauty prep is keeping up.
Karlsson, for one, is optimistic. "I can see a big change from when I first did NYFW, which was over eight years ago." And she's encouraged by her fellow models who are speaking up and becoming their own activists. She's on board: "I'm ready to be out there to represent."
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