Fashion - the final taboo

The editor of Italian Vogue has cleared its pages for black models, highlighting a shameful problem in the industry. Peter Popham reports
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Black models have been getting a terrible deal from the fashion industry for years. Back in the Seventies and Eighties, it seemed the race barriers in the industry had been blasted away by the beauty and charisma of models such as Iman, wife of David Bowie, and Naomi Campbell. The latter became one of the most famous faces of the Nineties, appearing on the cover of British Vogue seven times following her debut in 1987.

But in the past decade the gates have slammed shut again. Leaf through any glossy magazine today and you see an unvarying succession of broad-faced, pop-eyed, strawberry blondes with dazzling teeth and big hair. Campbell, despite her legal travails, is still hanging in there but today she is pretty much on her own – and she doesn't like it.

"Black models are being sidelined by the major modelling agencies," she said last year. "People don't appreciate black beauty. Even myself, I get a raw deal from my country, in England. I hardly come on the front cover of London Vogue. Only white models are put on the splash pages. I don't want to quit modelling until I find that black models get equal prominence and recognition by the world media."

But suddenly, something's changed and not in the US –where the Barack Obama phenomenon might be expected to have transformed the climate – but in Italy's fashion capital Milan, which is often regarded by industry insiders as the most retrograde and conservative of all the fashion capitals on race issues.

In the July issue of Vogue Italia, due on newsstands later this month, the magazine's legendary editor Franca Sozzani, one of the most powerful figures in the Italian business, has cleared the entire magazine for black models. Every item in the magazine is worn by black models – and all the other faces in the magazine are black too – wrapped around articles about black women in the arts and entertainment.

But the centrepiece is a colossal portfolio by La Sozzani's favourite photographer, Steven Meisel, consisting of more than 100 photographs which expose what the editor defines as the "outrageous laziness" of either ignoring black beauty altogether or confining it to a ghetto of stereotypes and bling.

Here are none of the cliches, the stacks of bangles, the steamy evocation, the corny efforts at provocation. Instead, the mood is restrained, classy, elegant. Campbell is featured, sensitively lazing on a Restoration sofa while wearing a turban and lacy black cocktail dress. Sessilee Lopez, a lynx-eyed American who has scarcely worked all year, revives the glamour of the cigarette, fuming behind an old-fashioned veil. She wears a double-breasted jacket and a pillbox hat with a thunderous brooch pinned to it, as well as strings of pearls that seem to climb up her left ear. Tyra Banks wears nothing but a towel wrapped round her head and a look of genteel disdain.

Ms Sozzani conceived the idea of going big on black models when she attended New York Fashion Week in February. The Democratic presidential primaries were going full-pelt and all the talk was of an Obama presidency, with lots of front-page photos of Barack and his statuesque wife Michelle. "I always notice the black girls on the streets of New York, more than I would in Milan," Ms Sozzani said. Initially, she and Meisel were talking about doing three or four stories with black women as the focus, then it became the entire issue. "I asked myself, if America is ready for a black president," she added, "why are we not ready for black models?"

Vogue Italia is the most independent of all the magazine's editions, and the tough-talking Ms Sozzani, who operates from a tiny but highly-charged office in central Milan, goes her own way. It was the same with this landmark issue. Did she consult her paymasters at the magazine's publisher, Condé Nast, about the all-black issue before she embarked on it? "No, I didn't tell them before, only afterwards. Both my presidents, in Italy and New York, were very happy."

Ms Sozzani says she is consciously trying to start something. "I'm not sure if it will change things," she said, "because it is not easy to change the mentality of people and what they think about these things. But the fact we were doing this issue has been known for some time and already I see it is having some effect. Other Italian magazines have black girls on the cover. I think this can push people to do something similar. I certainly hope so, because we made such an effort with this issue. But some clients and advertisers are already taking notice. I see black girls used to advertise sunglasses, for example, which you didn't see before. We will move things a little bit."

Ms Sozzani is harshly critical of what she calls today's bland, anonymous models, in contrast to the supermodel phenomenon of the 1990s that she and her magazine were an important factor in creating. She likens what she is trying to do with black models as similar to the revolution in attitude towards models which catwalk stars like Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista embodied. "We started with them because we thought of a different approach to models," Ms Sozzani said. "Until that time, no one considered who they were. They were not expected to have any personalities. Today all these eastern European models look the same. But it is not enough for a model to be beautiful, personality is also essential. This could be the beginning of another big change."

The most common reason given for not using black models is that they do not sell clothes. "That is just laziness," Ms Sozzani said. "Estée Lauder is using Liya Kebede in its campaigns and it is selling the same as before. The fact is there are so many more offers for white girls that the agencies seriously scout for them. There is not the same seriousness in scouting for black girls. In my view, the problem is not the designers but the agencies. They don't make the same effort."

It has to be pointed out that, while the July issue of Vogue Italia is Afrocentric from cover to cover, the June issue has no black models at all – except for a postage stamp of Iman and Bowie on the social page. But there are beautiful features about the Chinese actresses Maggie Cheung and Lucy Liu. "Chinese, Japanese, black, it shouldn't be any more a problem," added Ms Sozzani. "Someone has to break down the walls, then we can go forward."

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