Anger as black fashion title takes on white director

Fashion editors normally make the headlines for their sharp tongues, whittled waists and dictatorial deskside habits, but the latest recruit at an American women's magazine has found herself in the spotlight because of the colour of her skin.

Ellianna Placas, who has been appointed fashion director at Essence, America's largest magazine for African-American women, is white. The row has turned attention once more to the lack of racial variation within the fashion industry.

"I am so, so hurt and confused and frankly angry by this news," said writer, stylist and former Essence fashion editor, Michaela Angela Davis, on Twitter earlier this week. "I feel like a girlfriend has died."

Davis's comments have in turn prompted outcry and accusations of "reverse racism", but many other readers and media figures have threatened to stop buying the magazine in the wake of Ms Placas's appointment.

"I trusted Essence to represent me as a black woman," one reader wrote on the magazine's Facebook page yesterday. "Now, with talk of a white fashion director, I may need to cancel my subscription because Essence no longer understands what I need in a magazine. There must be qualified black women to work at a black magazine. Vogue and friends never cared about me."

Essence has yet to announce their latest signing officially, but the move was revealed on publishing website this week, which stated that, as well as shooting fashion stories, Ms Placas's role would be to: "Communicate the Essence style mission on sales calls and represent the brand on television."

Ms Placas has previously worked for Time & Life, Us Weekly and O, The Oprah magazine – all popular magazines that are widely read in the mainstream American market – and is set to make her masthead debut in Essence's 40th anniversary September issue.

Black women's lifestyle website Clutch – often referred to as Essence's "little sister" – posted an article in response to the news on Monday: "It felt like our Mom walked us hand in hand to the centre of the biggest shopping mall in the state, turned around and left us."

Those working for the magazine were also displeased. "This is about the fact that the publishing industry remains just as segregated in its hiring practices as it was in 1988," says Joan Morgan, a long-time Essence writer, referencing the lack of ethnic diversity at some leading publishing houses. "When these institutions start to employ hiring practices that allow black professionals the same access to their publications, that's when I get all 'Kumbaya' about Essence's new fashion director."

It isn't the first time the fashion industry has faced accusations that it doesn't adequately reflect diversity in in the job market.

"The best person for the job should always apply," says fashion commentator, Caryn Franklin, whose "All Walks beyond the Catwalk" campaign works toward greater diversity in the industry, "and where there are few representations in a dominant culture, be it gender, race, age or otherwise, there has to be a purposeful promotion to even up the lack of balance".

The industry has attempted to react to the imbalance, with varying degrees of success. In April 2008, American Vogue featured LeBron James, the basketball star, on its cover with his arms around Gisele Bundchen, the supermodel, and came under fire for portraying the sportsman as a "wild, savage, white-woman-obsessed beast".

Last July, Italian Vogue released a "black issue" which featured 100 pages devoted to models such as Naomi Campbell, Iman and Jourdan Dunn.