During a brunch with my girlfriends I glanced around the table and noticed the number of designer handbags. I spotted a Chanel 2.55, YSL Chyc, Prada Saffiano and of course there was the ubiquitous Céline tote, resembling a bag about to take flight. You could take these items as proof of our hard work or a sign we’re a group of conspicuous consumers with absurd spending habits.
Interestingly, I noticed most of the bags belonged to women of color. So then I proceeded to ask, “Why do we support brands that consistently ignore us?"
My close friend rolled her eyes and ordered another drink, “Not today Christiana, please not today.” At some point in my life I’ll grasp that cocktails aren’t a helpful aid when discussing politics – in particular the politics of fashion and race.
One of the women present suggested that high fashion is there to represent a fantasy world rather than the masses. It doesn’t depict or reflect anyone accurately – including the white women who tend to be the focus of their campaigns. “How many women in the world are 5'10'', rake thin and perpetually unsmiling?" she asked.
“Barely anyone. But why can’t they use a diverse group of miserable looking thin women?" I responded.
A recent New York Times article asked a similar question. It explored fashion’s blind spot, commenting on its alarming lack of diversity and feeble efforts to change things. Céline hasn’t used a black model in a runway show since Phoebe Philo became its Creative Director in 2009. Despite this, variants of the Céline tote remain the “It” bag for fashion conscious women globally.
Since 2008, Jezebel has tracked the number of women of color walking the runways at New York Fashion Week. The results are depressing yet unsurprising – there’s a deficit of women of color and it doesn’t look like things will change anytime soon.
It’s tricky deciphering causality with this issue. Modeling agencies blame the fashion houses and fashion houses blame the agencies. But even if we ascertained the cause, it’d be futile. You can’t regulate the fashion industry and insist they use diversity quotas as no regulatory body or individual has that power. Plus to try and give fashion designers and executives a sense of moral responsibility would be moving them beyond their remit, as their aim is to turn a profit.
Many of the women present at the brunch felt the absence of women of color in fashion was a commercial decision rather than a racist one. They speculated that those in power think using diverse models in editorials and runway shows will isolate their customers. This irked me because it neglects the fact that people of color are also their customers.
One of my friends piped up about the “Black issue” of Italian Vogue in 2008 and asked by a show of hands how many of us had bought it. It turned out most of us had. Most bought it as a mark of solidarity and we wanted to help prove women of color sell too. However while the editorials featured black women exclusively, barely any of the advertisements did. Proof the issue of racism in fashion is so much bigger than the runway.
As the drinks flowed, it became apparent we weren’t going to agree on this topic. One lady commented that with the plethora of serious issues women of color encounter everyday (specifically those living in the developing world), being preoccupied by how many of us walk runways during fashion week is fickle and a symptom of the western woman’s obsession with things that don’t matter in the broad scheme of things.
I disagreed. Hierarchizing women’s issues isn’t just divisive, it dismisses things that matter deeply to some, but may not matter to all of us.
The fashion industry has somehow become the unelected barometer for what’s deemed progressive, acceptable and beautiful. Apparently it’s a projection of our collective beauty aspirations. By subtracting a significant portion of the world’s population from that equation, what’s implicitly being said is that these women aren’t acceptable, they don’t belong and they’re far from beautiful.
I know that the brands that benefit from the earnings of diverse consumers should have a duty to reflect them in their images. But I've guilty myself. My passivity surrounding this issue and insistence on purchasing from brands that treat me as if I’m invisible, is just as much a part of the problem as tacit or overt racism in the fashion industry is. They’ll only realize the importance of women of color when we take our money elsewhere.
So perhaps it's time I took the Chanel Boy off my vision board. However it's just a "perhaps" I wish I could honestly say I'll never buy a designer item until things change, but that would be dishonest. The fact is I feel torn and this issue represents a conflict. A conflict that myself and many fashion conscious women of color feel. We get lots of enjoyment from these items. Whether it's the gorgeous timeless Chanel handbags made from caviar leather or the vintage couture pieces you found while thrift shopping in Paris. For many it's not just about wearing a "brand", it's about the craftsmanship, quality and durability that comes when you buy a luxury item.
And it's with sadness I have to admit, I feel a loyalty and affection towards brands that couldn't care less about women who look like me. Isn't that tragic?