Vive La Différence?

Tim Blanks on the lack of diversity walking on the runway

Vive La Différence?
Tim Blanks discusses the lack of diversity walking on the runway
When I interviewed Anjelica Huston recently, we talked a lot about her pre-Hollywood career as one of the top models of the early ’70s, when her peers were black beauties, creamy English blonds, girls from Hawaii and Japan—and extraordinary, strong-featured creatures like herself. Yves Saint Laurent, the most influential designer of the day, found inspiration in Africa. It’s also where his best models came from. The runway was a rainbow nation. Story continues >
These designers show true colours on the runway. TOP NOD: Phillip Lim
Marc Jacobs   Phillip Lim   Phillip Lim
Proenza Schouler   Thakoon   Michael Kors
Flash-forward 35 years and something unsettling has happened. Anjelica wouldn’t even get a go-see, never mind a shot at a show. Fashion is firmly entrenched as an international language, so it ought to be embracingly global in its self-expression. But, instead of loudly extolling the value and virtue of diversity, it has taken to muttering in a Slavic-accented monotone. The mannequin of the moment is a blank-featured, unpronouncably monikered teen android from somewhere east of the Urals. I call them the Ova Girls (there’s often an –ova in their name). My malingering impression of the Spring ’08 shows is of a never-ending lockstep march-past of robot blonds. Look at a show such as Calvin Klein’s, where the minimal sinuousness of the clothes would have benefited enormously from an injection of model personality. Imagine Linda or Naomi in those dresses and you’ll get the picture.

Actually, that’s part of the problem. Designers do imagine such a thing, and their egos blanch at the thought of their creations being overshadowed by the genetic va-va-voom of a new Campbell or Evangelista. Better a bland cipher—at least it’s the dress we’re looking at. (And think of the money designers save on models—no need to pay top dollar for these disposable teens.) Since the twilight years of the supermodel phenomenon, the true story of the fashion industry’s attitude to modelling is perhaps best told by this single stark statistic: sample sizes have relentlessly dwindled from a 6 to a 4 to a 2 and below. It’s flesh made metaphor—the shrivelling of sample sizes mirrors diminishing diversity.

It makes no commercial sense. As was pointed out by the various panels and conferences that were hurriedly convened in New York following the Spring ’08 shows (where the startling absence of models of colour rang racism alarm bells), black women in the U.S. spend more than $20 billion a year on clothes and accessories. And how many more times are we going to hear about emerging markets in China and India saving fashion’s bacon in the 21st century? You might assume prescient designers would be positioning themselves for these realities. True, some are (Diane von Furstenberg, John Galliano), but most are playing follow the leader. And the leader is Miuccia Prada, whose casting director, Russell Marsh, has been instrumental in discovering models such as Sasha Pivovarova and Freja Beha, the most distinctive faces of the new breed.

Prada is a conceptualist, prone to challenging anything preconceived—beauty, for instance. It’s her genius to bring a paradox like ugly chic to life. But her genius is rare, and what plays on her catwalk as an extension of her own idiosyncratic aesthetic simply looks like numbing homogeneity on someone else’s. Like her, Prada’s hero Saint Laurent chose models who embodied his own ideal. (Hence, black models who perfectly complemented his peerless colour sense.) That’s what is missing now—independence of thought.

Of course, it will change. It always does. But I’m not alone in counting the days until the rule of the robot blond is Ova!


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