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Race and fashion: Still an issue?

By George Webster, for CNN
October 9, 2011 -- Updated 0805 GMT (1605 HKT)
Jamaican model Sosheba Griffiths (pictured) says that things are looking good for diversity in the fashion world.
Jamaican model Sosheba Griffiths (pictured) says that things are looking good for diversity in the fashion world.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • How far has fashion industry tackled racism since Vogue Italia "All Black" issue?
  • Young black model and editor of black women's magazine have different views
  • But both agree that the future is only going to be more diverse

(CNN) -- From designer John Galliano's anti-Semitic tirade to Vogue Italia's recent reference to "slave earrings" -- the fashion world is often, it seems, at the sharp end of the race debate.

In 2007, several of the world's black supermodels, including Naomi Campbell, Somalian-born Iman, and male model Tyson Beckford launched a campaign against race discrimination in the fashion industry.

Former model Bethann Hardison organized the campaign. A model in the 1970s, she later formed her own agency and helped launch the careers of both Campbell and Beckford.

She was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "Modeling is probably the one industry where you have the freedom to refer to people by their color and reject them in their work."

The following year, Vogue Italia published the "Black Issue" -- celebrating models of color from the past and present. The magazine sold out in the United States and Great Britain within 72 hours.

So how far has the industry changed since then? As Paris Fashion Week comes to a close, CNN spoke to two black women with two different experiences of the industry.

There's a tendency to see black models as part of a trend rather than as a blank canvass
Constance White, "Essence" magaizne editor-in-chief

Sosheba Griffiths, 22, is a model from Kingston, Jamaica who was discovered on her way home from school, aged 16.

She moved to New York to launch her international career and has since worked with a long list of top designers including Roberto Cavalli, Vivienne Westwood and Diane von Furstenberg. She says things are looking good for models of all ethnicity.

Constance C.R. White is Editor-in-Chief of Essence magazine, a monthly title aimed at African-American women focusing on fashion, lifestyle and beauty. White acknowledges progress has been made, but says there's still a long way to go.

How far have things changed in the fashion industry since 2008?

Griffiths: There has definitely been a big improvement since 2008 ... After the all-black edition of Vogue Italia, we have seen the numbers of black models go up on catwalks, magazine shoots, adverts, everything.

Everyone is much more aware of it now. I think that in the last couple of years people feel OK to talk about race, to say there has been a problem and to try and change that.

White: Yes, there has been progress. Remember, there were no black models at all in the 30s and 40s and it was only as recently as the 1970s that we had the first black face on the cover of Vogue.But the change has not been anywhere near fast or dramatic enough.

Unfortunately, there a still hurdles to overcome. Even this year there were some shows in Milan that didn't have a single black model. More generally, there are fewer jobs for black and Asian women ... and even though there are and have been a number of big name black supermodels like Naomi Cambell, Tyra Banks and Iman -- you rarely see them together in the same shoot.

Are you concerned that the increased use of ethnically diverse models is just a fashion trend?

White: There is a tendency to see black models as part of a trend rather than as a blank canvass. Designers and editors will say a certain style "looks good" on a black person -- generally something bright and colorful -- but you'd never hear the same discussions around white models.

When we do shoots, some of the makeup artists don't know what colors to use on our face or how to style our hair
Sosheba Griffiths, model

On top of this, the "black look" is defined narrowly within the fashion system. When an agency or designer says they want say, an "all American" look -- what does that mean? Do black models get sent on call for shoots like that? Mostly not.

Griffiths: Ethnic looks are much more fashionable now than they used to be ... You see a lot more really lovely African fabrics, traditional tribal colors, Indian jewelery and stuff like that.

But even if it started as a trend, I'm sure it's now something that is here to stay. The high-end designer clothes are getting more popular all over the world, not just Europe and America, so the designers will have to have models for all the different customers.

How does life differ for black models on a day-to-day basis?

White: Most white models are groomed for life in the fashion industry from a young age. An agent will invest resources so that they know how to dress, how to speak and how to behave on shoot. This type of thing doesn't often happen for black models, so they have a steeper learning curve and are more likely to feel like outsiders from the start.

Griffiths: I think maybe I was one of the lucky ones. When I started in 2006, I moved from Jamaica to New York and it was amazing -- but everything was new to me. My agency took me to Topshop to buy a new wardrobe, and they told me the kind of thing I should say in castings and everything I needed to know to do well.

From day-to-day there are some things that are different. When we do shoots, some of the makeup artists don't know what colors to use on our face or how to style our hair, and they maybe get a bit frustrated. But I don't get mad at them, I just try to help, I bring my own foundation and let them use that.

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