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On N.Y. Fashion Runways, White Models Remain The Norm

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. This week was Fashion Week in New York City. That's when the big designers show off their new lines in runway shows. And one thing that hasn't changed this year is that most of the models were white. Reporter Arun Venugopal of member station WNYC looks at why the runways have so few models of color.

ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: A couple days ago, Shawn Grain Carter was teaching a class at the Fashion Institute of Technology when she decided to make a point on racial diversity at New York Fashion Week or the lack thereof.

SHAWN GRAIN CARTER: The first thing I said was take a look at the picture and tell me what you see and tell me what you don't see.

VENUGOPAL: As she tells it, she showed her students a page from The New York Times, a Fashion Week review with a bunch of runway shots.

CARTER: Beautiful-looking models but they're all Caucasian. You don't see an Asian model. You don't see a Latina. You don't see a black model.

VENUGOPAL: New York Fashion Week has celebrated designers of color like Jason Wu and Tracy Reese, and the crowds are quite mixed, but the runways are pretty homogenous. About four out of five of the runway models are white, according to journalist Jenna Sauers, who's done a regular analysis for the website Jezebel. Sauers says white models are the norm wherever you encounter images of luxury.

JENNA SAUERS: So when on the runway you have mostly white faces, the flow-on effect is that you have mostly white magazines and mostly white advertising.

VENUGOPAL: Ashley Mears is a sociologist and former model who wrote "Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model." She says high fashion is looking for something edgy.

ASHLEY MEARS: Edgy meaning something off, something distinctive, something different, and it's always meant to be distinctive in just the right way so that it's read as higher class.

VENUGOPAL: Meaning light-skinned, youthful and possessing a sort of sexual purity, she says. Black models in particular feel affected. Marcia Mitchell has been repeatedly told she should get a nose job to have a more aquiline appearance. And her hair, she says, stylists can't deal with it. In some ways, she says, the business is completely frank about race.

MARCIA MITCHELL: They just sort of said: We're not doing black girls this season. I'm sorry.

VENUGOPAL: Some designers, like Diane von Furstenberg, have called for more diversity, and China's growing appetite for high fashion has resulted in more Asian models being cast for shows. But some also see this as a kind of art form and don't think it should be subject to some sort of quota system. Backstage after designer Nicole Miller's show, her 20 or so models were standing around, celebrating with Miller. A quarter of them were models of color.

NICOLE MILLER: I had five diversified girls, plus a redhead, which is the most diversity because they're very - the lowest percentage of the population is redheads.

VENUGOPAL: Afterward, I met celebrity stylist Shalik Harford, who wore a pretty audacious ensemble of sequins, stripes and furs. People were taking his picture because he's the kind of eye-popping character that makes Fashion Week so much fun. He said the absence of models of color was frustrating for the black community.

SHALIK HARFORD: We want to flip through the pages of Vogue and Cosmopolitan and Glamour and all these amazing editorials and see our people there. And so when our people look into the magazines, it's like, well, where are we?

VENUGOPAL: But some says fashion is simply responding to consumers and their tastes. Preston Chunsaumlit is a casting director for models. He's also Asian.

PRESTON CHUNSAUMLIT: For me, personally, it's beyond my control. I'm not the client. I just facilitate. And is it the client's responsibility or the magazine's? You know, it's just - we can't fight racism. Fashion is not here to fight discrimination.

VENUGOPAL: If change is to come to fashion, he says, consumers will have to demand it. For NPR News, I'm Arun Venugopal in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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