The Role of Race

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James Scully says he "flipped" the first time he saw pictures of model Liya Kebede three years ago, but the fashion-industry casting agent had trouble finding others whose enthusiasm matched his. Liya had already spent a couple of years in Chicago slogging away at catalog work, the style world's equivalent of toiling off-off-Broadway. When Liya moved to New York City in 2000, Scully took her portfolio around to designers and advertisers, who unfailingly turned him away. "The line I'd always get was, 'Wait until she's more experienced,'" he says. It wasn't until Tom Ford cast Liya in his show for Gucci that others began clamoring to work with her.

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Scully has little doubt that initial objections to Liya, 25, who is originally from Ethiopia, had less to do with her experience than her race. It's a problem he often confronts when trying to get work for Asian, Hispanic or black models. "I once tried to make a magazine editor use a black girl on a shoot, and she didn't speak to me for two weeks," he says. Resistance can be cloaked in euphemisms. "I've had a photographer's agent tell me, 'He doesn't know how to shoot black girls,'" he says. Sometimes things are more direct: Michael Ross, an agent with the modeling firm Marilyn, says that when he's asked to send models for a casting call, frequently "the client will specify 'No Asians' or 'Caucasians only.'"

Says Ivan Bart, vice president of IMG, the New York City management agency with which Liya eventually signed: "We hear things every day that people in any other industry would realize aren't appropriate to say, but in the fashion industry, it's chalked up to a creative vision." He says it is not uncommon when he tries to book a black model for a runway show to be rebuffed with "We already have our black girl."

While average Americans are likely to view such machinations as far removed from their own lives, the world of high fashion is hardly divorced from the mainstream. A rarefied few may see designer runway shows in Paris and Milan, but the models who make an impression there secure editorial work at widely circulated magazines like Vogue and Marie Claire and eventually end up in images that pervade daily life, whether it's in a nationwide advertising campaign or as the host of a show on MTV.

Such is the case with Liya. After the Gucci show, she started walking the runways for Donna Karan, Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana, among others; she frequently appears in American Vogue and had an entire issue dedicated to her by the magazine's French edition, becoming just the third black model to appear on its cover. In April she signed a multimillion-dollar contract with cosmetics giant Estee Lauder, the first time in its 57-year history that the company, already represented by Elizabeth Hurley and Carolyn Murphy, signed such a deal with a black model.

But Liya is a rare example, one of only three or four models who are not Caucasian currently working at a high-fashion level, an unspoken quota that, despite a few anomalous seasons, has persisted for years. Jennifer Starr, an industry casting agent, says she has never heard a designer say he doesn't want an African-American or Hispanic model to represent the brand. "He'll describe the feel and inspiration for the collection, and we'll send as many models, regardless of race, that fit that description," she says. Says designer Diane von Furstenberg: "Sometimes you're not thinking about race; you just cast what's available. You don't actually think, 'Oh, my God. Do I have enough black girls?'" Nevertheless, Von Furstenberg's show at the presentations of the fall ready-to-wear collections in February was rare in that it featured at least half a dozen black and Asian models. Many of the other shows had only one model of color (usually Liya), while some, like Prada and Calvin Klein, had none at all.

More than 30 years after minorities began making initial inroads into the fashion world, it seems the industry is still struggling with race, and some people think things have worsened. "We are actually in a moment where we are seeing fewer black models than ever," says IMG's Bart.

So what or who is to blame? To some degree, the situation can be chalked up to trends. At various times, certain looks are more in demand. Says Liya's IMG agent, Kyle Hagler: "A while ago, every show had to have Asian girls, but that seems to have passed." At the moment, one would be hard pressed to find a model who hails from somewhere other than Eastern Europe.

Bart suggests another factor may be that right now the more influential decision makers hold less than enlightened views on diversity. Bethann Hardisonwho was a model and design assistant in the 1970s and in the '90s ran her own modeling agency, which launched the careers of many black modelspoints out that over the past decade, virtually every design house has been bought by a conglomerate, which she believes has stifled creativity and imagination.

Hardison was around in the early 1970s when this was not the case. "In New York in those days, we were coming off the tail end of the civil rights movement, and everything was so creative and open," she recalls. "It was all about style. Girls could be white, girls could be black, but they had to have style." There were at least half a dozen widely known black models who worked regularly, including Pat Cleveland, Naomi Sims, Iman and Beverly Johnson, who in 1974 became the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue.

Even then things weren't always rosy. Iman says that when she arrived in New York in 1975, she realized she was being pitted against Beverly Johnson. "I learned that magazines would only use one black girl at a time, and they were trying to create a competition between us," she says. And no one knew how to do her hair or makeup. "The colors they had for girls like me were hideous, so I started bringing my own makeup woman." (In 1994 she launched her own line of cosmetics specifically for black skin.)

Conditions improved in fits and starts. In the early 1980s, after repeatedly being told by agencies that her Puerto Rican looks were "too ethnic," Talisa Soto managed to break through, but only when photographers Bruce Weber and Steven Meisel insisted on working with her. The late 1980s and early '90s proved promising as a whole class of black models was able to thrive. Naomi Campbell was among the first models of any race to be anointed a "supermodel," and African-American models Beverly Peele, Karen Alexander, Tyra Banks and Veronica Webb all worked consistently. In 1992 Webb became the first black model to win a major cosmetics contract when she was signed by Revlon, but she faced many of the same hurdles as Iman. "There was never the possibility that there'd be someone on a shoot who looked like you," she says. And Webb never went on a job without bringing her own foundation and having her hair done beforehand.

Webb insists that such hardships are relative. "It wasn't like working at the Perdue chicken factory," she says. True enough, and in a world that can be as insular as fashion, such a perspective is important to maintain. But it's the sort of obstacle that has the potential to keep images of black beauty out of view. The motive may not necessarily be racist: some hairdressers who work the runway shows say they are reluctant to style black hair because they have little experience doing so and don't want to do a bad job. What seems surprising, however, is that the industry has yet to solve the problem. Michael Ross says a black model represented by his agency was hired for two major advertising campaigns last season but ended up not being pictured in either because no one knew what to do with her hair.

Advertising is where models get the serious money, or as Iman calls it, "the spoils of war," but models who aren't white have a hard time getting companies to put them under contract. "Calvin Klein helped launch my career by putting me in ads," says Soto, "but he never put me under contract." She had similar experiences with cosmetics companies: they were happy to hire her on a job-to-job basis but, in contrast to the rewards given her white colleagues, never signed her to a contract. Companies are more likely to link their products to known personalities, like Revlon with Halle Berry and Lucy Liu or L'Oreal with Beyonce Knowles.

This is why Liya's Estee Lauder contract was such a big deal and one cannily planned by her agency. "We really pushed her as a beautiful woman, not a beautiful black woman," says Bart. Meanwhile, Estee Lauder president Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne had been looking for a way to update and broaden the brand's appeal, concerned that its image had become fusty and middle-aged. "The choice of Liya herself was first linked to her style and personality," he says. "But she also makes the image of the brand hipper and more fashion forward. You can't have a single white face express the diversity of the world today." And certainly not the diversity of the U.S. by some estimates, black women account for 19% of all cosmetics sales in the country. Estee Lauder has expanded the range of makeup shades it offers, and Liya's ads will appear not only in publications like Essence, targeted at black readers, but also in W and Vogue.

While Liya says ideally the world of fashion would focus exclusively on makeup and clothes, not social inequities, she is nevertheless hoping to inspire others. "I'd love it if young girls can see me and say, 'She's done it, and so can I.'" And her agents think she has done something unique, as Estee Lauder is a prestige brand--that is, one that can be bought only at high-end department stores and not the corner Wal-Mart. Similarly, Gucci's Ford, who is widely praised for his seeming inattention to the color of a model's skin, has signed Indian model Ujjwala Raut to represent Yves Saint Laurent cosmetics, and Lancome has hired Japanese-German-British Devon Aoki and Nigerian-born Oluchi.

Few people would be surprised to learn that models are judged by a criterion as superficial as the color of their skin, and it's debatable whether fashion is significantly more racist than other industries; the images it projects, however, are inarguably more pervasive. "When you think back on an era," says Iman, "it's the pictures, not the words, that you remember, which is one reason fashion and beauty should be put under a microscope."