Mixed-race models ignored by British fashion industry

They are under-represented on the catwalk – so they are holding their own glamorous contest
  • @emilydugan

From triumph in the White House to Olympic and Formula One garlands, via just about every stage and screen, mixed-race people have made massive leaps forward in the past decade: everywhere, it seems, except in British fashion.

Though there is no shortage of glamorous mixed-race celebrities in public life – think Lewis Hamilton, his girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger, or Thandie Newton – it's quite a different story on the UK's catwalks. Britain's first modelling contest exclusively for mixed-race entrants will take place later this month amid accusations that the fashion industry is overlooking them because they are too hard to pigeonhole.

The competition, set up by Mix-d, a social enterprise aimed at tackling racism, will allow only entrants who have parents of different racial backgrounds. Bradley Lincoln, the charity's founder and a judge in the Mix-d: Face 2010 final on 30 October, said: "I noticed that there was a problem in the fashion industry for mixed-race models who weren't seen as black enough to be black and not white enough to be white. I don't think it's conscious; [the industry] will pick what they like and think is current and mixed-race models often aren't what they think of."

Demographics suggest that fairly soon they will have little choice but to do so. Mixed-race people are the fastest-growing segment of the UK population. Although just under a million Britons are of mixed race, government projections suggest that by 2020 they will overtake British Asians to become the largest ethnic minority group in the UK, reaching about 1.24 million. One in four inner London children now have parents of different races – and the numbers are rising.

Yet, thus far, models such as Noémie Lenoir – the former face of Marks & Spencer, whose mother is black and from the island of Réunion and whose French father is white – are still in the minority.

This is doubly ironic given that, according to the latest research, mixed-race faces are considered the most attractive. A survey earlier this year by Cardiff University found that people whose parents are different races are considered the most naturally beautiful. The study took 1,205 black, white and mixed-race faces from Facebook groups and had them rated by participants on a scale of one to 10. Mixed-race faces has a 55 per cent greater chance of being rated attractive than either of the single races.

The former model and online fashion editor Lynda Moyo, who is one of the competition's judges, said that the fashion world had yet to catch up with public attitudes. "As a mixed-race person you do feel you are in between what's wanted," she said. "I'd get sent to castings where they were asking for a tall girl with tanned skin and brown hair and I'd struggle; there was much more chance of getting those jobs if you were a white person."

Caryn Franklin set up the project All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, which aims to raise the profile of models of different races, ages and sizes. She said: "Clients are guilty of having a set idea of what any racial type other than caucasian should look like. They'll have a very set image of how a black, Asian or mixed-race person should look. You'll often get someone operating in a tokenist way who thinks 'I want a black model'. A lot of black models hear they're not black enough or too black; white models don't get that."

Researchers believe the benefits of being from different races go far beyond just good looks. Dr Michael Lewis, lead researcher in the Cardiff University study, said: "There is evidence, albeit anecdotal, that the impact [of being mixed race] goes beyond just attractiveness. This comes from the observation that, although mixed-race people make up a small proportion of the population, they are over-represented at the top level of a number of meritocratic professions, such as acting with Halle Berry, Formula One racing with Lewis Hamilton and, of course, politics with Barack Obama."

Aisling Serrant

The 18-year-old from Bradford is an archaeology student at Liverpool University and one of the entrants for Mix-d: Face 2010

"I'm just starting out in modelling, so I thought I'd give it a go. I think there is still a lot of prejudice in fashion; it's difficult if they're after a certain look. I've met only a couple of mixed-race models – mostly models seem to be white with dark hair. There needs to be more variety. When I did a fashion show the other week I was the only mixed-race girl there. All the others had their hair in buns and they made mine really big and into an afro. All the others were made to look the same."