Fashion is racist: insider lifts lid on 'ethnic exclusion'

One of Britain's leading model agents has offered a disturbing insight into the racial discrimination holding back the careers of black models in the British fashion indusrty. Rob Sharp reports

Speaking as London Fashion Week drew to a close, Carole White, co-founder of Premier Model Management, which supplies models to top fashion brands, admitted that finding work for black clients was significantly harder than for the white models, because both magazines and fashion designers were reluctant to employ them.

"Sadly we are in the business where you stock your shelves with what sells," she said.

"According to the magazines, black models don't sell," White continued. "People don't tend to talk about it, but black models have to be so beautiful and perfect because we can't have a lot of diversity with black models; it's harder work for the agency because there's not so much on offer. White models can have more diversity."

Ms White pointed the finger at those organising model castings, adding: "We have had casting briefs which say 'no ethnics'. But we are better in London than Paris and Milan; there if you offer a black girl they will drop the book like it's hot; it's such hard work for the bookers."

Her comments will reopen one of the most sensitive debates within the fashion industry, where the presence of racism has been a cause of fierce resentment in the past. After a brief golden age in the Eighties and Nineties, Ms White's analysis suggests that fashion show designers and the industry media have regressed to an earlier, more blinkered approach. Naomi Campbell has been particularly critical of the trend, at one point threatening to set up a model agency for black women.

While the director of the Storm agency, Simon Chambers, recently denied the number of high-profile ethnic minority models was diminishing, he said the move towards racial diversity "is not happening quite as fast as predicted".

Ms White said the lack of ethnical-minority models was partly due to a lack of courage in catwalk shows on the part of designers: "In the Eighties and Nineties, you had whole shows with black girls. Now each agency will have one, maybe four; the designers are not as brave."

Images from London Fashion Week, which ended yesterday, feature few black and ethnic-minority models. On the web pages of the fashion site style.com, three shows chosen at random featured black models in eight out of 136 photographs taken during the week. The March issue of Vogue – with more than 400 pages of editorial and advertising – has 14 shots with black or Asian women – two of them featuring Naomi Campbell.

This month's 362-page Marie Claire has eight photographs featuring black women and four examples are in the current 312-page Glamour magazine.

The use of black models in catwalk shows and magazines tends to be limited to a handful of "big names". They include Campbell, the Ethiopian Liya Kebede and Alek Wek, who is Sudanese.

Ms Campbell, a former Premier model, said yesterday: "There is a lack of women of colour within the fashion industry which needs to be addressed. It is important for the agents, managers, advertisers and designers who are promoting change to speak out. We are not here to complain, we need to find a solution."

Ms Campbell highlighted the work of her manager, Bethann Hardison, who recently led a series of discussions in New York on the lack of diversity in fashion. Responding to the latest evidence of racism in the industry, Ms Hardison said: "The problem for me is that, in the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a good representation of black people on the catwalks and in the magazines. It's not like black models never had a sense of participation. Once you have climbed to the top of the mountain and crossed the river it is disappointing to have fallen all the way back down again."

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who helped write a series of documentaries three years ago on the changing faces of beauty, said it was a misconception that black models were less versatile. He said: "The idea that black models can only be put in exotica or urban clothing is 15 to 20 years out of date. But if you look at four of the world's most famous black models – Campbell, Tyra Banks, Wek and Noemie Lenoir – they come from four countries, their looks are all different and they are all physically dissimilar. There's more diversity in those four than there are in all the models of Britain, Italy and Scandinavia put together."

Janelle Oswald, a reporter at The Voice, aimed at the UK Afro-Caribbean community, was equally scathing. "Black people and models are very diverse," she said. "Within the black community, we have a motto that says 'out of many we are one'. I just came from London Fashion Week and I saw the Jamaican supermodel Nell Robinson – who has graced numerous magazine covers, done work for Victoria's Secret and the Gavin Douglas show today. How much diversity do you want?"

Nick Knight, a photographer who is known for his shoots featuring unconventional models, said the lack of black girls in British fashion was "a pitiful reflection on the industry. But it's not just fashion, I work in film and advertising and it's the same level of racism. And I do think that if we don't use a model because of her skin colour then it is racism."

Mr Knight confirmed he had heard of editors not using black models on their covers because they believed they did not meet readers' expectations.

Ms White said her agency did make an effort to seek out more diverse modelling talent: "We actively scout for black models. We do find Indian and Pakistani models harder to recruit because often their parents don't like them entering the business."

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