Prada’s School of Diversity

January 10, 2014 • Fashion

Prada-SS14-Campaign-by-Steven-Meisel

We’ve all been hit in the eyes by Prada’s latest campaign for Spring Summer 2014, shot by Steven Meisel, mostly because it’s a visual bomb of bright artsy prints that will one day be archived under the heading ‘campaigns where we tried to fit in as many colours as possible.’

It’s also got everyone talking because it’s styled to look like an end of yearbook class photo, and that would be the photo none of us can identify with (because we don’t recall any leggy aliens in our double Geography class), and I doubt that the shoot’s hair stylists used two kinds of pound-shop gel, half a can of Elnett hairspray and a small paintbrush to get those models side bangs looking as slick as that.

No, Prada’s ass-kicking new campaign is mainly causing a stir because it’s a continuation of their stance in calling out racial discrimination in the industry, by using women of colour. Kind of.

Out of the 18 models used in the campaign, only Cindy Bruna and Malaika Firth are not white. Yes, it’s a step in the right direction, but a small one, which should obviously be taken in embellished rubber flats worn with sport-tastic legwarmers (as seen in the SS14 show), which no doubt Anna Dello Russo will be seen working somewhere in Milan.

Kenyan-born Malaika also fronted the brand’s AW13 campaign, and along with the UK’s Jourdan Dunn walking in their 2008 show, and Naomi Campbell being cast back in 1994, Prada has slowly been adding racial diversity on its to-do list for a while now. That other designers and brands have been slow to embrace diversity is obvious, especially when you consider that the list of Forbes Top 10 Highest Paid Models in 2012 were all white, and for 2013, the same list now features China’s Liu Wen and Puerto Rican Joan Smalls – hardly a significant shift in industry trends and attitudes. London-born Dunn also vocalized her thoughts on the industry’s failure to employ more models of colour, discussing London Fashion Week with the Guardian newspaper in 2008, saying, “London’s not a white city, so why should our catwalks be so white?”

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Prada’s F/W94 campaign.

This issue is of course not unique to London’s catwalks. In Paris, Raf Simons was heavily criticized by prominent casting director James Scully (who provides models for shows including Tom Ford, Jason Wu, Stella McCartney, Lanvin), telling Buzzfeed, “I feel the Dior cast is just so pointedly white that it feels deliberate. I watch that show and it bothers me – I almost can’t even concentrate on the clothes because of the cast.”

Scully also accused further houses, including Saint Laurent, Chanel and Louis Vuitton, of not being racially diverse enough, asserting, “the more diverse, the better.” So last year, and for the first time in ever in Dior’s history, the Fall/Winter 2013/2014 haute couture show featured six black models. Was that inclusion a response to the criticism? Of course it was, and it’s about damn time.

In New York last year, African American model-turned-agent-turned-activist Bethann Hardison – backed by supermodels Iman and Naomi Campbell – tackled diversity by opening up a debate focusing on fashion’s most high profile catwalks. Heading up The Diversity Coalition, Hardison sent a letter to the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America), ahead of fashion week, asking the big chiefs at the top, and designers, to address the lack of minorities on the runways.

“No matter the intention, the result is racism,” her letter stated, “Whether it’s the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society.”

Her comments were supported by Iman, who further stated, “There is a time where silence is not acceptable at all. And if the conversation cannot be had publicly in our industry – then inherently there is something wrong with the industry.”

Of course, it’s not just casting directors, stylists and models themselves who are striving for change. Some designers have been on the fashion activist bandwagon for a while now, opting to go against industry trends. Take Jean-Paul Gaultier for example, who, when I interviewed him last year for Dazed & Confused magazine, told me, “When I cast models, I love to show a variety of women. Beautiful sexy women with curves, ethnic women, androgynous women. I don’t want to have just one specific image of a woman in my shows, I want to present what really exists.”

Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci has also long been championing ‘Vive la différence,’ selecting Puerto Rican model Joan Smalls for previous campaigns, and most recently, African-American singer Erykah Badu as the face of the house’s SS14 campaign. Jeremy Scott’s SS14 runway show was one of the most racially diverse of the season – and who could forget the ground-breaking and boundary-pushing SS14 RTW show from Rick Owens, who presented one of the most notable celebrations of diversity ever seen at Fashion Week.

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Rather than the usual mix of sashaying clotheshorses, Owens opted for an army of racially diverse and fuller-figured female step-dancers, who transformed the traditional ‘walk, walk fashion baby’ catwalk into a stompin’ performance of all-girl aggression set against his signature leather and draping. Instagram and Twitter exploded with praise for the designer, and Owens further cemented his cult status.

When addressing diversity in fashion, it’s important for the industry to stop passing the buck as to where the blame lies. Designers blame model agencies for casting mostly white models, while model agencies say they’re only meeting the demands of the designers and trends within the industry. But as Ashley Mears, author of “Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model” highlighted last year, when minorities are included on agencies books, and in catwalk shows, it’s ‘tokenism,’ as they tell hopeful wannabes, “we already have two black girls on our books,” or, “we already have an Alex Wek.”

Fashion has become such an important part of human culture and identity, and there are so many meanings wrapped up within it, which fundamentally provide a medium for conversation. For those of us who work in the industry, it’s vital that we recognize and foresee social and cultural movements, and how significant they are in shaping trends – that’s why we need to continue the debate on fashion’s blindness to representing racial diversity.

I shouldn’t even be writing articles like this in 2014, because it’s a total embarrassment and reminder that many parts of our industry are still so out of touch with reality. It’s about time fashion seriously reflected the cultural richness of our world, and told the story like it really is.

Maybe the industry should follow Apple’s lead, who in their 1997 advertising campaign, encouraged the world to “Think different.”

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