Advertisers putting black models front and center

By Ruth La Ferla

Nearly a decade ago, when Precious Lee arrived for a modeling go-see, she was grilled about her ethnic background. The clients, who were representing a deep-pocketed luxury brand, were looking for a mixed-race model, Lee recalled. When she told them that she was Black, their faces fell.

“Oh, you’re just so pretty,” they rushed to reassure her. She was as quick with a comeback.

“I didn’t know being Black didn’t come in pretty,” she said.

Fast-forward a few years to find Black models making token appearances in fashion campaigns as part of a multicultural mix. “The typical casting was one Black model and one Asian,” said Alton Mason, a Black model who has been featured in campaigns for Etro, Missoni and Tommy Hilfiger. “The rest of the models were white.”

Times change. A health crisis combined with a summer of civil unrest and protests against racism forced a shift in mindset. Magazine editors reacted, enlisting high-profile Black personalities — among them Rihanna for Harper’s Bazaar, Cardi B for Elle and Kerry Washington for Town & Country — to front their September issues.

Advertisers have been at least as swift to seize the moment.

“People got woke in the middle of this,” said Kenneth Richard, creative director and chief executive of The Impression, an online fashion magazine.

Models of color had already graced some campaigns, a nod in part to the widening influence of Black artists, thinkers and athletes on the popular culture. “But it took a big social awakening to really expedite things,” Richard said.

The movement is gathering steam.

The pandemic hampered efforts by The Fashion Spot, an online publication that tracks diversity in the industry, to collect an official tally this year, but the numbers reported last fall showed Black models represented by an increase of 1 or several percentage points at the publications it tracks, according Morgan Schimminger, a contributing writer and editor.

“The assumption would be that the move toward diversity will continue in that direction,” Schimminger said.

In the light of the latest campaigns, that forecast seems conservative.

These days models of color are virtually omnipresent in leading style publications.

During lockdown, Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative director of Valentino, unveiled “Empathy,” a campaign that harnessed the star power of “friends of the house,” notably Laura Dern and Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Campbell and Sudanese Australian fashion star Adut Akech.

J Brand, a Los Angeles jeans label, captured newcomer Oumie Jammeh posing languidly in a field of wildflowers; Fendi released a print campaign and short film featuring singers, and sisters, Chloe x Halle, both demurely garbed in puff-sleeve frocks.

Even the formerly recalcitrant Hedi Slimane, creative director of Celine, performed an about-face. Called out for excluding Black models from his runway and Instagram account, Slimane cast neophyte Essoye Mombot, shooting her in St.-Tropez for his fall campaign.

Spurred by the crisis, Michael Kors sought a more novel approach. “We decided that it would be exciting to bring the energy and electricity of our backstage show environment to our campaign and the consumer,” he said. His fall 2020 campaign, featuring sought-after Nigerian model Mayowa Nicholas, and Annibelis Baez, who is Dominican, stars in what Kors, echoing a popular new marketing phrase, calls “a United Nations of Beauty.”

Top agencies have been no less aggressive in pushing for inclusion. “We are actually making calls, talking to clients and giving them direction,” said Ivan Bart, president of IMG Models. “We’re telling them, ‘We understand what you want, but if you want to stay relevant, this is what you need.’ ”

Brands are heeding the call, even if their motives are sometimes open to question. We may well see a substantial rise in Black models’ visibility, said David Lipman, a veteran creative director whose clients include jeweler John Hardy and Naked Cashmere. “But I hope it’s not a temporary cover-our-base uptick,” he said.

Some brands may be thinking defensively, their reactions to Black Lives Matter often based on fear, Lipman noted. “They’re afraid of Diet Prada outing them,” he said, referring to the influential Instagram account and industry watchdog that has called out Dolce & Gabbana and other industry players for racism.

And for some, casting Black models has clearly been an afterthought, Richard said. “When you see a narrative that was clearly built around a white couple, and you suddenly see a third person hanging around, that seems forced.”

Diversity in casting has, not incidentally, spawned a roster of newcomers being actively groomed for the kind of celebrity once enjoyed almost exclusively by Tyra Banks, Campbell, Tyson Beckford and their high-profile ilk. Maty Fall, a 19-year-old Senegalese Italian university student, caught marketers’ attention after appearing on the cover of Vogue Italia last year. But Fall, who has since starred in campaigns for Pat McGrath Labs, Etro and Dior, views her success with a gimlet eye.

“I can’t honestly say that the casting of more people of color is an act or if it’s genuine,” she said. “I don’t want this to be just a trend. But we all know that the fashion industry is very unpredictable.”

The industry’s track record has hardly been unblemished. “Until a few years ago, advertising was very conservative,” said Trey Laird, founder and chief executive of Laird+ Partners, whose clients include Tom Ford, Tiffany and Co., Topshop and Jimmy Choo. “People were making safe choices, relying on the bourgeois appeal of a beautiful blond woman with glossy red lips.

“We were going by old rules that have little to do with the way the world works. It was like fashion was talking only to itself.”

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