CROSSING FASHION’S ‘THIN WHITE LINE’

Criticism About a Lack of Ethnic Diversity on Runways Puts Attention on Casting Directors
By RACHEL DODES
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

February 1, 2008

Earlier this week, fashion designer Peter Som and casting director Jennifer Venditti stood in his office studying five photos of pale, thin teenage girls with dirty-blond hair.

“Weird,” said Mr. Som, scanning the teens in the photos. “They’re all the same.”

Ms. Venditti, who is hired by designers to cast models for their fashion shows, noted that “there are so many of these types. You could do a whole show with them.” She advised Mr. Som to pick no more than two of the five blondes to appear in his fashion show Monday.

HEARD ON THE RUNWAY

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Read more about the latest fashion news and New York fashion week in the WSJ fashion blog.

Amid recent public criticism about the lack of ethnic diversity on fashion runways, the role of casting director is drawing more attention as New York’s fashion week gets under way today. In the past, designers chose the models themselves. But now that designers are required to produce multiple collections, make media appearances and court celebrities, the job of casting director is usually outsourced to specialists like Ms. Venditti. Her specialty: navigating models’ competing schedules, negotiating with frantic designers and fighting with agents.

Bethann Hardison, a former model who has been organizing efforts to raise awareness about the lack of color among runway models, says the growing power of casting directors, many of whom cast multiple shows, is part of the problem. “Everybody gets into this Stepford Wives mentality,” says Ms. Hardison, a black woman who modeled in the ’70s, when there was a big demand for black models. She notes that designers now all are looking to hire many of the same models, who tend to be white and very thin.

[Models photo]
Line of models on the runway at Calvin Klein’s show in New York last fall

In response to the recent exposure of the issue in the media after Ms. Hardison’s efforts, the Council of Fashion Designers of America has been lobbying designers to hire a broader range of models this fashion week. In a letter sent to designers, modeling agents and casting directors on Jan. 9, CFDA President Diane von Furstenberg encouraged industry players to create fashion shows “that are truly multicultural” and to embrace “whole groups of people no matter their race or color,” according to a copy of the letter. Steven Kolb, the CFDA’s executive director, said, “We are reminding people of positive behavior.”

Just who is responsible for diversity on the runway depends on whom you ask. Casting directors say they work for the designers, so if the designers decide ethnic models don’t fit their aesthetic, they don’t hire them. Designers gripe that they would use more minority models, but the agencies don’t send any “good” ones. And the modeling agencies say they aren’t scouting and developing many minority models because the market hasn’t been demanding their services.

A designer’s goal with an expensive fashion show is to keep attention on his or her clothes, not the models. That’s why, many designers privately explain, they don’t like to hire distinctive-looking models, either ethnically or otherwise. But the public concern has put so much pressure on the industry that some say they have to change.

“The tricky thing about this business is that [designers and casting directors] can always say it’s a matter of personal and aesthetic freedom,” says Roman Young, an agent at Elite Model Management. “You wonder, ‘Are they racist or are they just dumb?'” Mr. Young says he hasn’t been aggressively scouting models of color because, until now, designers haven’t demanded them. Very young, newly scouted models are highly in demand every season since the market likes fresh, unknown faces.

African-American models like Iman and Naomi Campbell broke through the race barrier long ago. And several Asian, Latina and black models routinely appear on the runways. Chanel Iman, a 16-year-old black model, is particularly in demand this season.

[Female student, right center, with Kate Moss]
Female student, right center, with Kate Moss

But nearly everyone in the fashion industry acknowledges that minority representation on the runways, as well as in high-fashion advertising, doesn’t approximate the general population. The lack of minorities in high fashion contrasts with a noticeable increase in the casting of ethnic models in print and TV commercials, as well as in television and movies.

For casting director Ms. Venditti, the recent conversations about ethnicity have emboldened her to push harder for diversity this season. When one of her client’s stylists said she didn’t need to book a second black model because they already had one, Ms. Venditti says she told her, “They’re both beautiful. Why can’t you have two?”

At Mr. Som’s casting call this week, he explained that his fall collection was inspired by the social outcasts captured in the photographs of Diane Arbus. He was seeking models with a “loopy and loony” vibe, he said.

After casting the two blondes, Mr. Som asked Ms. Venditti how many ethnic models were on the roster. She told him there were four — two black and two Asian — out of a then-selected cast of 18. “I do not want an all-white cast,” he says. “But there’s always room for improvement.”

Ms. Venditti, now 35 years old, once modeled in a fashion show for the local Saks Fifth Avenue near where she grew up. But when a scout from the John Casablancas modeling school began calling her house and leaving messages, she never returned the calls, explaining now that she preferred to be in charge of shaping the image, not the image itself. She moved to New York, working first at KCD, a fashion-show production company and then as a free-lance stylist.

She started her own company, JV8 Inc., in 1998. For her first casting job, she found a homeless woman and a local band for a photo shoot in W magazine. Advertisers like Gap and Benetton began calling to request her services.

Ms. Venditti quickly developed a reputation for finding unusual characters for modeling jobs. For a photo shoot in Detroit, fashion photographer Bruce Weber asked Ms. Venditti to bring him a local guy to appear alongside supermodel Kate Moss in a fashion spread for W magazine’s September 2006 issue. Ms. Venditti camped outside a high-school prom at Detroit’s Lewis Cass Technical High School. The following morning, she presented Mr. Weber with photos of a tall Puerto Rican student in a tuxedo. “I thought, ‘Wow, this guy is so beautiful,'” Mr. Weber recalls. When Ms. Venditti informed him that the student was a female, Mr. Weber decided to use her in the shoot instead of a young man.

As for whether the industry will ever change, Ms. Venditti says it’s all about whether racial diversity becomes the latest fashion trend. “In general, [the industry] is a bunch of followers,” she says. But “the conversation has started.”

Write to Rachel Dodes at rachel.dodes@wsj.com

6 Comments

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6 responses to “CROSSING FASHION’S ‘THIN WHITE LINE’

  1. Black women spend billions of dollars on fashion every year. Are we going to believe the lie that they can’t hire a Black model because we’re not profitable?

    The fashion and beauty industries are 75 years behind when it comes to race. People of Color make up 33% of America’s population yet the fashion industry’s runway and ad campaigns remain lily-white.

    What about modeling agencies? Most of the modeling agencies are located in relatively affluent white areas and often dispatch modeling scouts to mainly white shopping centers and malls instead of cities and neighborhoods of Color to recruit models. What the industry wants to project is a false lily-white image of America to the world and most people fall for it.

    The faux idea that white women are the epitome of beauty, virtue, and affluence is being exported to the far corners of the earth along with hateful images of Black women. This racist/misogynistic duality of women has harmed women in America and the world. The fashion industry wants to project the image of white models so that brainwashed and gullible public buy into the notion of affluent white womanhood above all others.

    This is what the industry wants and prefer and want it to continue because the industry, like everything else is soak completely in the oil of racism/classism.

    What are your thoughts on this?

    Stephanie B.

  2. Ann

    What is so galling is the fashion industry/casting directors mindset:

    “Designers gripe that they would use more minority models, but the agencies don’t send any “good” ones. And the modeling agencies say they aren’t scouting and developing many minority models because the market hasn’t been demanding their services.”

    Any “good”ones, as in not light enough, not European-looking enough, not waif-thin enough—–just way TOO Black, Latina, Asian-looking.

    “A designer’s goal with an expensive fashion show is to keep attention on his or her clothes, not the models. That’s why, many designers privately explain, they don’t like to hire distinctive-looking models, either ethnically or otherwise. But the public concern has put so much pressure on the industry that some say they have to change.”

    Of course people look at the clothes—but, they also see the models, and all they see are WHITE/OR WHITE-LOOKING models.

    “The tricky thing about this business is that [designers and casting directors] can always say it’s a matter of personal and aesthetic freedom,” says Roman Young, an agent at Elite Model Management. “You wonder, ‘Are they racist or are they just dumb?’”

    Umm…..

    …..yeah…….

    Dumb and racist.

  3. Amar

    I am an agent and i think this is really sad, most of my board is with colored girls, and i am proud to say i happen to make them work as well. But its a struggle. White people are ruling the industry and there ideology of beauty is white.. Which is actually a shame for themselves as they dont think how many diff. ethnicities buy there clothes.
    And its not a matter of black or white, what about all the colors in between. Now its all about the asian girls. And when the clients asks for black girls , they want them pale.
    I am not gonna give up on this subject and i think people should keep reminind the industry.
    It will become better one day i believe so, but i feel like we have decades to go..

  4. Ann

    “I am an agent and i think this is really sad, most of my board is with colored girls, and i am proud to say i happen to make them work as well.”

    If by “colored” girls you mean black girls, please do not use the term colored, as it is both pejorative and archaic.

    I do agree, the fashion industry should acknowledge that white consumers are not the only ones who appreciate and buy fashion. People from all races/ethnicities do. The best way to show that the white-dominated fashion industry cares about all of its customers is to represent the various racial groups in the world by hiring more than just wan, waif-like thin white models.

    There is room enough in the fashion industry for the inclusion of Black women, Asian women, Latina women, Native American women, Arabic women—as well as white women—as models.

  5. Lora

    AMAR…please DON’t say “colored”.

  6. adolf

    ok 1st of all , i believe dat fashion iz nt about da model itz about da clothez . an modelz r basicaly walkn clothez hangerz , itz nt about tryna make a social/political statement about ppl . 2nd , a designer iz like a clothin artist ?
    lastly , we az blk ppl tend 2 b a lil neurotic an wat im meanin iz dat we dnt feel comfortable within ourselvez so we constantly need reassurance dat itz ok 2 b blk . after bein opresd 4 so lng , itz ez 2 associate thngz dat hav nutn 2 do wit each other an call foul whn there rly iz nun . whn we c dat there r virtualy no blk modelz , it sendz da message dat there iz sumtn wrng @ least dat iz hw we take it , an den we say ” there need 2 b mo blk modelz so we cn feel like we r ncluded az wel . itz unfortunate dat nw ppl r tryna make da fashion ndustry tend 2 our personal problemz . dis iz nt da battle we need 2 b fightin . i am a blk heterosexual male , btw .

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