In the decade or so I’ve been writing about style, two complaints have sprung up as often as Nina Garcia in the front row of a fashion show. One: The models are too skinny. Two: All the models on the catwalk are white. The more I heard the complaints, the more I paid attention. Turned out they’re right.
Once again, there was little diversity on the runways at New York Fashion Week last month. The shows were filled with slicked-back ponytails, silk gowns, and ashen faces. Welcome to the smoky eyeshadow fashion cotillion! To protest this, runway icons Iman and Naomi Campbell launched an initiative calling for more models of color. They didn’t call designers racists, but they did contend that excluding models of color was “a racist act.”
As noteworthy as the initiative is, the groundswell that took place in Paris last week may do just as much to change model casting as calls for inclusion.
Rick Owens, a celebrated American designer working in Paris, rejected the notion of what a runway show should look like. Instead of models, he invited four US step teams to produce a fantastically synchronized presentation that looked more like an elaborate “So You Think You Can Dance” routine than a typical fashion show. The majority of Owens’s models were women of color, and decidedly not reed-like waifs. The women imparted the designer’s neutral tunics and shorts with the kind of energy his clothes have lacked in previous seasons.
If you haven’t seen the show, it’s required viewing on YouTube, even if you aren’t a follower of fashion. It’s also an exhilarating glimpse into what can happen when a designer decides to ignore the rules. Perhaps the show’s greatest legacy will be its popularity. Owens has got people talking and other designers will likely pay heed. With any luck, we’ll be seeing a new trend on the runway next season: inclusion.