Working in Lincoln Center, I have the privilege of a bird’s eye view of fashion week. Most of the time, that’s just starting at the top of the tent from my window, but my morning commute gets more interesting every February and September. Out on the plaza, fashionistas preen and pose for fledgling bloggers and established industry media. New York’s streets are always a fashion show, but Fashion Week kicks it up an extra notch.
In addition to the press surrounding the collections, there’s a lot of talk about this fashion week’s “diversity.” It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot lately but too frequently gets appeased by tokenism; instead of casting the net wide, it’s common to cherry pick a handful of representatives to check a box and stay on trend.
Winnie Harlow. Photo courtesy of Refinery29
As a black model with vitiligo, 20 year-old Winnie Harlow dealt with plenty of haters growing up. But after appearing as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model, her flawless beauty caught the attention of Desigual and Diesel. She’s still working towards her ultimate goal: landing the cover of Vogue. If her showing in New York is any indication, it won’t be long until that dream becomes a reality.
Jamie Brewer. Photo courtesy of Bustle
During Carrie Hammer’s show at Lightbox, Jamie Brewer became the first model with Down’s syndrome to hit the runway. The American Horror Story actress joined other high powered business women like Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant and Microsoft’s Director of Social Good Programs, Wendy Norman. Hammer figured that her line of sophisticated business wear would look best on real life lady bosses; I’d have to agree.
Megan Silcott for Nina Perdomo. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News
Other shows featured models with prosthetic limbs, in wheelchairs and using walkers. Antonio Urzi of FTL Moda partnered with Fondazione Vertical, an Italian nonprofit supporting research on spinal cord injuries, to send a whole fleet of non-traditional models down the runway. Yet perhaps my favorite moment occurred during Nina Perdomo’s show. The Academy of Art designer featured Megan Silcott, an 18 year-old currently recovering from Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis. Three years ago, the disease left Silcott paralyzed from the neck down, but that didn’t stop Silcott from taking her turn on the catwalk. As she rounded the final turn, the next model seamlessly strode down to take her place.
Taken as a whole, I’d say these small changes are a good first step. So much of fashion is about imagination and the fantasy behind it. But if, according to an analysis of the S/S ’14 season, 79% of models are white, then what exactly does that say about this desired fantasy world? It smacks of the same flawed logic as those who argue that a hobbit, a storm trooper, or Annie can’t be anything but white: in an imaginary place, these limitations on appearance live only in a person’s mind.
Perhaps this homogeneity reflects what’s behind the runway: only 12 of the Council of Fashion Designers of America‘s 470 members are African-American. It seems premature to deem the entirety of this season as incredibly diverse; rather, small pockets of people embraced a broader swath of the population. At any rate, this focus on diversity stems from cultural demands reaching far outside the boundaries of fashion. From television and films to government and business, a growing number of people want to see a broader representation of society.
FTL Moda/Antonio Urzi. Photo courtesy of MindBodyGreen
But it’s unclear as to whether or not the industry as a whole recognizes that it is, in fact, a tiny microcosm of society. With the expiration of its lease in Damrosch Park, Fashion Week must find a new home come September. If a New Yorker on the street can’t buy a ticket, the city says, its exclusivity violates the terms of using public land. Limited access leads to an insular environment and less opportunity for change, but some major players are speaking up. Say what you will about Kanye West, but his vision for Adidas stretches well beyond the fashion world’s narrow definition of beauty; a self-proclaimed “Robin Hood of fashion,” he wants clean lines and sleek style to be accessible to everyone. His show featured a fleet of models with wide ranging aesthetics, not as branding tactic but because his posse reflects his target audience: actual humans. For West and other like-minded designers, moving away from an army of seven foot tall beige 16 year-olds just makes sense. It’s not a trend; it’s a movement, and the resulting inclusion will never go out of style.