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Why Fashion Keeps Tripping Over Race


Viktor & Rolf backstage, fall 2001.  

The head-scratching experience at the Lanvin show was just another chapter in a story that never seems to end. After putting out its much-talked-about all-black issue in July 2008, Vogue Italia came back with a separate website dedicated to black style and, in its latest issue, an all-black editorial. In 2009, French Vogue ran a story featuring a model in blackface. This past summer, Essence, the premiere lifestyle magazine aimed at black women, hired a white fashion editor, sparking much debate.

And then, of course, there’s Michelle Obama. Nowhere has she been greeted with more enthusiasm and respect than in the fashion world. The industry elevated her to the status of icon. She wears a cardigan, and it sells out. She wears a gown by a non-American designer, and debate rages for weeks. Given a bit of time, designers may find themselves inspired by her in the same way they’re energized by Jackie Kennedy, Babe Paley, or Countess So-and-So und So-and-So. The only problem is that while they’re busy celebrating this singular woman, they’re not too keen on understanding what it’s like to be the only black person in a room filled with white folks.

Michelle Obama featured in Vogue, September 2007.   

The history of blacks in the fashion industry has only occasionally been addressed in detail. Beverly Johnson was the first black model on the cover of Vogue, in August 1974. The popularity of black models continued through the eighties and early nineties with women such as Iman, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Beverly Peele, and Veronica Webb. With the rise of the waifs in the mid-nineties, however, black models disappeared. Ivory-skinned Brazilians and then Eastern Europeans replaced the waifs. Now black models are on the upswing, with Liya Kebede, Chanel Iman, Sessilee Lopez, and Jourdan Dunn among them.

In 1992, the Museum at F.I.T. mounted an exhibition in honor of the Black Fashion Museum, whose collection of more than 1,000 artifacts recently was donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open in 2015. In 2004, Thelma Golden curated a retrospective on the late Patrick Kelly at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In 2006, the Museum of the City of New York mounted “Black Style Now,” an exhibition that focused, to a great extent, on the rise of hip-hop. But the country’s premiere fashion museum, the Met’s Costume Institute, has been mostly mute on the subject.

LeBron James adn Gisele Bündchen on the cover of Vogue, April 2008.   

This January, however, the Met hosted a luncheon in the Temple of Dendur in celebration of the models of the Palace of Versailles. These ten women of color participated in the famous fashion smackdown of 1973, when ten designers—five American and five French—presented their collections in a grand fête benefiting the restoration of the historic site. The American designers won the audience over on the strength of the black models, who dazzled the French audience with their powerful runway presence (a precursor to the Lanvin fashion moment?).

Alva Chinn, Norma Jean Darden, China Machado, Pat Cleveland, and Bethann Hardison were among the original models, and they gathered for an afternoon of stories, good wishes, and proclamations. Designers Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows, who had both participated in the historic show, hosted the event. After lunch, De la Renta and Burrows came to the podium to reminisce. When De la Renta asked if there were any questions, Teri Agins, a longtime fashion journalist, asked Burrows to discuss what it was like being the only black designer participating in the show. Indeed, it was Burrows who’d encouraged the Americans, who also included Bill Blass, Anne Klein, and Halston, to use the black models.

Vogue Italia's "A Black Issue," July 2008.   

But De la Renta took the microphone. Burrows, he said, was at Versailles because he was a great designer; race had nothing to do with it. De la Renta added that he was tired of people making distinctions based on skin color. He was, for example, fed up with being told that he should take a look at some beautiful “black model.” Why can’t she just be a beautiful model? Remove race from the description altogether, he said. De la Renta, who was born in the Dominican Republic, was making a heartfelt argument for color-blindness.

Yet as guests were departing, Agins and others expressed annoyance that De la Renta had quashed what could have been a conversation about diversity; after all, one of the co-sponsors of the lunch was the Met’s Multicultural Audience Development Initiative. “The reason I asked the question—and it wasn’t a question about race—[was because] it was a diversity event and I wanted Stephen’s view of being the only black designer back then,” Agins later said. “I wanted him to talk about his experiences.”

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