Do Black Designers Skip Over Black Models to Gain White Customers?

June 7, 2012  |  

Model Gelila Bekele who is represented by Ford took a break from editing her upcoming documentary about two Ethiopian sisters to discuss the tired fashion tropes we’ve become familiar with. “If you want to be edgy, you only hire really, really dark skinned girls, or [if you’re trying] to tap into the Caucasian market… only use a blonde.”

For Bekele, this kind of thinking defeats the whole purpose of modeling. “[Models] are supposed to be chameleons,” she says.  “Whether you are a black model, Asian model, or a Latino model,” she says, “whether it is Bohemian or Rock & Roll, [or] whatever [the trend] is—I think we all can fit that.”

But designers, models, and the rest of the fashion industry don’t live or work in a vacuum. We as consumers are complicit in accepting certain looks and races as “edgy” versus “girl next door.” Aren’t we?

Bekele doesn’t buy that line of reasoning.

“I see a lot of girls flipping through a magazine and most of the time they are not even paying attention to what the model looks like, you know? It’s more about the [overall style of the] look, than if the model is white or black or Asian.”

Ghanaian designer Nana Amoako agrees with Bekele, which is why she cast an Asian model to represent the spring 2012 collection of her clothing line Naana B.  “She’s just incredible in my pieces. It’s just that simple,” she explained over email, even as she admitted to getting flack for some of her model choices.  Though she has cast “models from various places such as Ethiopia, France, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Korea and Brazil,” including international Nigerian supermodel Oluchi, she says people expect her to use only black models.

“One stylist stated blankly to me that she was surprised I used a white model, and then used an Asian model.” Amoako wrote.  “It’s not about the race of the model I choose, it’s about finding the ‘right look’—the model whose energy and look inspires me and tells a unique story about my clothes.”

That said, Amoako has seen a different response from press when her pieces have been photographed on a white model.  “When I used a white model in a previous collection,” she remembers, “I did notice that my PR agent received numerous pull requests for my clothes from a certain high fashion magazine that tends not to feature models of color. Unfortunately, the business of fashion still has a long way to go in this respect.”

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