This article titled “Don’t tell me black cover models don’t sell – editors have the power to change cultural perceptions” was written by Nosheen Iqbal, for The Guardian on Tuesday 14th November 2017 20.04 UTC
Is the British fashion industry racist? Well, it’s a bit like asking whether a British sky is blue – in theory, yes, although in reality, it’s often a dismal grey. Brief bursts of translucent pink and cloudy lemon drift through and for longer, more reliable periods, it’s a deep ink. But then, sometimes, as The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly might lecture, it is undeniably cerulean blue. How blue? Ask Alexandra Shulman.
Formerly the most powerful woman in the industry as editor of Vogue UK, Shulman gave an eye-watering interview to the Guardian last week on the publication of Edward Enninful’s first issue heading the magazine. It was an excruciating unintended trashing of her 25-year legacy in which she appeared to confirm the worst of her blinkered privilege.
For the “why does it matter?! Who cares?!” brigade, go hrrrmph in a corner. For everyone else, Priestly already did a decent job of explaining why the fashion industry is relevant even to those who think they’re above it, so let’s crack on with why it’s not OK for Shulman to perpetuate such cliches as: Naomi Campbell just can’t help being an aggressive black woman; some black cover models don’t sell; and despite what Shulman’s proud exit picture with 54 staff members showed, non-white candidates almost always got jobs at Shulman’s Vogue when they applied – but that just didn’t happen very often. Still, she is upset by accusations of racism because “my son’s grandfather was a civil rights activist”. This could be seen as a pretty posh twist on “some of my best friends are black”, but it doesn’t explain why Shulman has her head so deeply, stubbornly in the sand.
In more than 300 issues of Shulman’s editorship, only a dozen covers featured a black person. Two were Beyoncé and Rihanna, who had to become the most famous women on the planet before they were deemed worthy of British Vogue. Campbell – permanently in the world’s top 5 most famous models throughout her 30-year career – featured on five.
It’s disingenuous that any editor in a similar position would feign to underestimate the power they have in making stars and shifting cultural perceptions of who and what is considered worthy, beautiful and talented. It’s worse that a magazine editor whose purpose it is to deliver aspirational fantasy in a fashion magazine, to have readers accept that £10,000 shoes and bags and coats are worthwhile, would not have the vision or imagination to convince readers that black, east and south Asian faces are consistent with the mainstream fashion aesthetic.
Over 25 years in which Vogue’s average circulation was 200,000 an issue – the vast majority of sales being in London, where there is a more than 40% non-white population – 12 magazines is not a yardstick by which you can measure who and what sells. It is an offensive myth used to justify a lack of editorial creativity; it is a lack of willingness to consider that narrowing the diversity of your team will result in a stale, dreary, niche concern.
It’s something the media in the US cottoned on to far faster than in Britain. Here, rows rumble on for Grazia and ES magazines, which have had to apologise for covers that photoshopped the hair of Lupita Nyong’o and Solange Knowles. In the US, Anna Wintour’s Vogue has had five black cover stars in 2017 while NFL protest star Colin Kaepernick is GQ’s man of the year.
It’s worth emphasising that, of course, as Brits, we don’t like talking about race. It makes everyone – yes, including me – uncomfortable; having to keep acknowledging and gently pointing out the existence of racism is tedious. It helps that models are speaking out, that Neelam Gill, Leomie Anderson, Halima Aden and others aren’t shy about pointing out the double standards and hypocrisies in their industry. Fashion’s tectonic plates are slowly shifting – and that’s no bad thing.
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