First the formalities:
Malaika Firth is one of the newest faces for Prada’s ad campaign! Yaaaay! Woot! You go girl!
And now down to business:
Can the idea of a black model fronting a high-fashion ad campaign STOP being news already? Please? No, seriously, I beg of you.
When Malaika was revealed as a face for Prada’s latest campaign, a number of fashion blogs were stoked. “Whoo-hoo! Progress!” they cheered. “First brown face for a Prada ad since Naomi Campbell!”
Some may have thought the comparison to Campbell was flattering, but they’re wildly off-base, not to mention off-putting. For one, Firth looks nothing like her Amazonian predecessor. (Campbell’s coffee skin and full lips have no resemblance to Firth’s cafe au lait complexion and keen features. Malaika’s serving more Veronica Webb than Naomi.) And second, third and fourth, being the first black model that a fashion house has cast in an ad campaign in almost twenty years isn’t exactly cause for celebration.
When you think about the fact that the last time a woman of color fronted Prada’s ad was in 1994 (when “Friends” premiered, to give you a cultural touchstone), the idea that we should all be applauding their casting of black woman in 2013 is actually insulting. It’s almost like they're saying, “We haven’t really used a black girl since Rachel moved in with Monica, but we found one now so clap for us!”
Nah, b. I’m good.
For an industry that purports itself to be ahead of the cultural zeitgeist, fashion has an abysmal record -- in recent years at very least -- in reflecting the growing diversity of its followers and patrons. As Jezebel helpfully points out every year, the seasonal runway shows are overwhelmingly white. Chanel Iman and Jourdan Dunn, who are two of the most lauded models today, still speak about being turned away from shows and being told, “We already have a black girl.”
Designers have said “black girls just distract from the clothes” so often that the sentiment has become cliche. We still have makeup artists refusing to touch black skin. And the fact that Dunn was tickled about being cut from a Dior show because of the size of her breasts -- and not because of the usual reason, which is that she is black -- speaks volumes about the stark reality of being a black fashion model, even today.
The current climate of disregard is even more insulting when you consider the work of the “greats”-- the Naomi Campbells, the Pat Clevelands, the Beverly Johnsons and the Imans. All have talked about the limitations imposed upon them in their heyday, and they have worked in their individual ways to bring more diversity to the fashion industry.
Naomi Campbell, for example, has always been vocal about discrimination in the industry, while Iman created her own cosmetics line so that women of color could be just as glammed up as their white contemporaries. And whenever you have two hours or so to spare, the documentary Versailles ‘73: An American Runway Revolution is a particularly fascinating account of the role black models had in securing international credibility for American fashion.
All that work and yet, decades later, those contributions and sacrifices made by black models all seem for naught. While I’m happy for this opportunity for Malaika Firth, I’m sad that fashion has once again regressed to tokenism and black-girl quotas.
Even in 2013, fashion continues to allow the practice of racism under the guise of aesthetics. And one black girl appearing for one half-second in one ad does little to resolve that.