The issue of cultural diversity in the modelling industry has been in contention for a good chunk of more than two decades. However, before even beginning to debate the topic, I’m going to begin by refreshing memories on the definition of the term itself: a wide and differing variety of ethnicities, found within a society or industry.
I asked a bunch of friends to name the first supermodels who sprung to mind, and I included myself in this impromptu survey. The answers: Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Karlie Kloss, Tyra Banks and Gisele Bündchen. There’s cultural diversity right there for you, as not all of them are white, right? Wrong, because if we return to the definition, cultural diversity is only achieved through a variety of ethnicities: cultural diversity is not just “another ethnic background, other than white”, it is not achieved through mixing a few people from one or two varying ethnic backgrounds in with a majority of white European backgrounds, and then claiming diversity. We have to ask ourselves, how many Middle Eastern, Far East Asian, Indian and Pakistani Asian models can we name? I would say that if we struggle to name any, then there is certainly a large proportion of the world’s ethnicities that are being underrepresented on the catwalks.
In April 2016, Vogue Arabia posted an article on their website, commending the promising rise of Middle Eastern faces appearing on runways. However, the feeble list was only five persons long, and who did they include as top two out of five of these scarce, refreshing new lights to represent Middle Eastern culture? Gigi and Bella Hadid: half-Scandinavian on their mother’s side, Caucasian, born and raised in the USA; budding new representatives of Middle Eastern culture on runways. I don’t know which aspect is least promising: the fact that the Hadids were the only faces they could find in the industry to represent the Middle East, or that Vogue Arabia themselves promoted them as such. The choice became further disappointing as Gigi Hadid was chosen as the star for Vogue Arabia’s March 2017 cover, an issue designed to celebrate returning to ideas of “traditional” Middle Eastern beauty.
If we attempt to turn to male runway models for a flicker of hope, the flame is swiftly extinguished, as the diversity is even poorer. Top male models include: Sean O’Pry, David Gandy, Simon Nessman, with only South Korean Sung Jin Park recently serving to be the only saving grace named amongst the famous faces who differs from the White-American and White-British males dominating the fashion scene.
We do not need to discuss in length whether cultural diversity in the modelling industry has been achieved, as the truth of the matter is that as long as it even remains to be thought of as a topic that can be debated, then it is still an issue. If cultures were so thoroughly integrated then we would no longer have to strain ourselves to intentionally think of Asian, Middle Eastern or Black models to soothe our own consciences. Furthermore, it could cease to be considered an issue if fashion houses and agencies no longer consciously sought models from other ethnic backgrounds, to give their companies a novel edge to help them to appear “unique” and “diverse” for having hired anyone who isn’t of white ethnicity. Therefore, the fact that we still applaud companies for hiring non-white models is a troubling aspect of the debate itself. True ethnic diversity is not something that an industry has to strive for, or consciously work towards, it should be something that just is.
By Elicka Ghahramani
Image: Krista Anna Lewis, via Vogue Runway