It's an open secret in the fashion industry: black models rarely get jobs on catwalks, in magazines and on billboards. According to executives, they do not inspire women to spend money.
Apart from Naomi Campbell in one Louis Vuitton advertisement this season, it would be difficult to find a single black model in a prominent position in a magazine. Carole White of the Premier Model Agency says she has received casting briefs requesting "no ethnics" and adds: "According to magazines, black models don't sell."
The leading British photographer Nick Knight says: "The fashion industry and the advertising industry are steeped in racism. You just have to look around at the number of black girls you see in ads – virtually nil. Among the main fashion brands, they are completely under-represented. It's shocking and atrocious."
Mr Knight blames business people at the top of the industry. A common attitude among them, he says, is that black models are "not aspirational" or "don't sell in Asia". He goes on: "I have tried to redress the balance. It is enormously important to use black models and models of different ethnic backgrounds."
Now a counterattack to the racism of the fashion industry is coming from an unlikely source: Vogue Italia. The July issue of the fearsomely cutting-edge quarterly will feature black models almost exclusively, shot by the photographer Steven Meisel.
Franca Sozzani, editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia, told The Independent on Sunday: "We are using a lot of black models, like Iman, not only the models of today – a lot of different girls." Asked why she had decided to do this, she said: "Because nobody is using black girls. I see so many beautiful girls and they were complaining that they are not used enough."
Ms Sozzani admitted the issue could yet prove to be unpopular among some in Italy, where the xenophobic Northern League is part of the new coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi: "Maybe in our country it is not the best idea. But I don't care. I think it is not my problem if they don't like it – it's their problem."
Sarah Doukas, managing director of model agency Storm, says: "There has been frustration over the years from a lot of ethnic models, stylists and editors who have felt that they were not working as much as some of their Caucasian counterparts."
But she added: "There has been a shift recently: supportive media coverage has had an impact on the fashion industry."
Nick Knight welcomes the prospect of Vogue Italia's all-black edition but adds a note of caution: "I hope all the advertising goes in that issue."
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