No black model has appeared individually on the cover of British Vogue for over a decade. Is this due to racism?
October 29, 2014
Naomi Campbell's 2002 cover was the last time a black model appeared
individually on the cover of British Vogue
It is a well-known fact that the fashion industry is blighted by institutional racism, on multiple levels, but is it racism that accounts for the absence of a black model individually gracing the cover of British Vogue for the past twelve years?
Most models would probably agree that making it onto the cover of Vogue – in particular a solo cover – marks the pinnacle of their career. Appearing on the cover of Vogue, which many consider the ‘fashion Bible,’ is widely considered the official affirmation of a model’s success in their career.
Not only does a Vogue cover recognise a model’s fashion achievements, but it generates even greater success through promoting the model to those who may then want to hire them in the future for campaigns and catwalk shows. Thus, the noticeable lack of black models on the cover of British Vogue in recent years is not an issue that should be dismissed as trivial or meaningless.
The last time a black model appeared alone on the cover of British Vogue was way back in August 2002, when veteran model Naomi Campbell featured on the front of the highly-esteemed magazine. Since then, a staggering 146 covers have appeared without a single one featuring an individual black model.
The issue of a lack of diversity is by no means a problem limited to Vogue, or even single design labels.
Last year Naomi Campbell spoke out about racism in the world of fashion and how it has actually grown worse since the 1980s, when she started her modelling career and "there was a great balance of models and colour."
Campbell has not just but is part of a group of ethnic minority models who are actively seeking to change the current racial homogeneity of the fashion world. Along with fellow models Iman and Bethann Hardison, Campbell started a campaign last year, called Balance Diversity, to promote the need for greater diversity in fashion. The campaign was headed by The Diversity Coalition, who this year, ahead of the month-long international shows which started with New York Fashion Week, sent out four letters to the governing bodies of the Paris, Milan, London and New York shows. The letters condemned the “racist act” of using only one or no models of colour and listed the designers who failed on the diversity front – Chanel, Balenciaga and Victoria Beckham being just a few famous labels to make the list.
Campbell, however, has made it very clear that The Coalition is not calling the listed labels themselves racist, rather, that “the act of not choosing models of colour is racist.” Ms Campbell clarified: “We are not calling them racist, we are saying the act is racist."
Campbell’s fellow coalition member Bethann Hardison has echoed Ms Campbell, distinguishing between a label itself (and its founder) and the decisions not to have more non-white models. Using Parisian brand Céline as an example, Hardison said, "Phoebe Philo [creative director at Céline] - she's a cool girl. But Céline has never had a coloured person showing in their collection. Ever. And yet they have the best accessories; every black woman who has money buys her accessories."
The three women also wrote an open letter calling on designers to diversify their catwalks arguing that, "No matter the intention, the result is racism. Not accepting another based on the colour of their skin is clearly beyond aesthetic."
Carole White, founder of Premier Model Management, has previously publicly criticised the fashion industry’s lack of diversity. White said, "I'm surprised that there has not been a black model on the cover of British Vogue for this amount of time as we are such a diverse country, but perhaps British Vogue think the calibre of black models are not out there?" She continued, "Back when Premier Model Management looked after Naomi Campbell, she was the first and only black model to front the Prada campaign in 1994 then went onto do the British Vogue cover in 2002. Our Premier Model Malaika is the first girl since Naomi to front a Prada campaign (the 2014 campaign), so logic would dictate that Malaika would be the next black model to appear on the cover soon."
Jody Furlong, founder of The Eye Casting, does not buy into arguments that it is just a coincidence that black models have been so absent from British Vogue and believes that their exclusion is the result of a conscious decision regarding who is appropriate for the cover. "Let's talk about British models for a start, because that would be one excuse – 'oh there's no British girls'. There is Naomi Campbell, probably the biggest British model of all time other than Kate Moss; Malaika Firth a really massive model at the moment; Betty Adewole a Tom Ford model; and of course Jourdan Dunn – one of the biggest models in the world," reasoned Furlong.
Many are surprised that Jourdan Dunn in particular has not been given her own cover. Dunn, who has been nominated for the prestigious Model of the Year Award this year, along with fellow British model Cara Delevigne, was in a group cover of British Vogue six years ago and has had her own cover on Vogue’s ‘little sister’ magazine Miss Vogue. Jody Furlong has spoken about how seemingly illogical it is that Ms Dunn is yet to have her own cover on British Vogue. "Jourdan Dunn is a Burberry girl, a Givenchy girl, a Prada girl. There is no debate about whether she is beautiful enough or elegant enough or the right kind of person to be on Vogue – she ticks every single box," said Furlong.
Dunn herself has spoken out about racist attitudes within the fashion industry. She has previously told of going to castings where she was told that the client “didn’t want any more black girls” and sent away. Dunn has also spoken about the damaging effects upon non-white young girls and women who do not see images of black beauty. “Younger girls who read magazines need someone they can identify themselves with, so it shouldn’t just be skinny blondes,” said Dunn.
Anna Wintour's US edition of Vogue has done slightly better in promoting beauty that is racially diverse, with Lupita Nyong’o, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Jennifer Hudson and Halle Berry all having enjoyed their own covers in recent years. Yet, some critics have pointed out that whilst US Vogue has included a number of black celebrities it has not done enough to promote professional black models. This distinction is important because featured celebrities do not achieve cover space purely because of their beauty but also other non-fashion and beauty related achievements.
As for what Furlong has referred to as “this fallacy that 'black covers don't sell,'" it is a tired and wholly unjustified argument since, as Furlong points out: "But how do you know? There hasn't been one for twelve years! You can't say people don't buy it when they're not given the chance to buy it."
Once upon a time British Vogue seemed to be a leader in promoting beauty that is racially diverse. It was the British edition of Vogue that was the first to ever give a black model a solo cover in March 1966, when Donyale Luna covered the magazine. Hopefully in the future black and ethnic minority models on the cover of Vogue will not be headline worthy news – it will be normal.