"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Sunday, July 13, 2008,2:47 AM
Beauty and Soul
By Cathy Horyn

As some of you may have heard through the grape vine, the July issue of Italian Vogue will have only black models, and all the features are related to black women in the arts and entertainment. Considering the displays of tokenism on the runways last season—Jourdan Dunn at Prada, and in only one look—an entire issue devoted to black models could be seen as making hay of a controversy. I’ll let you be the judge. The issue will be on newsstands in Europe next Thursday, and after in the States. Steven Meisel did the fashion pictures, about 100 in all, and I think they are some of the best he’s done. They are crazily, softly beautiful, plainly the work of someone who knows women and fashion, has looked at both a long time, and when I spoke to Meisel the other day—for a piece in the Times tomorrow—I admitted I didn’t recognize Tyra Banks in one of the portraits. She’s wearing a soft head wrap, and her head is tilted back.

Meisel laughed and, describing the session, said, “That was, like, 10 minutes. She sat at the window. Guido”—Guido Palau, the hairstylist—“wrapped her hair. I’m exaggerating, it took an hour. But, no, that’s Tyra.”

Among the other models in the issue are Iman, Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek, Liya Kebede, Pat Cleveland, Jourdan Dunn, Sessilee Lopez, Chanel Iman, Veronica Webb, and Karen Alexander. Meisel, I think, has worked with all of them before. When you see how he has photographed Lopez, for instance—in a neat brocade turban, in a veiled hat evocative of chic Saint Laurent—you are forced to ask yourself why this beautiful woman isn’t working more than she is. Meisel suggests that the reason, and the answer to the problem of diversity on the runway, is simple: “Because nobody gives her a chance.” Of course, it helps if you can see the potential in Lopez in the first place.

I talked to a number of people for the piece, including Franca Sozzani (a Q & A with her follows), Campbell, Webb, Bethann Hardison, and the casting agent Ashley Brokaw, who had a lot of interesting things to say. Part of the problem, as Brokaw sees it, is that the agencies aren’t taking the time and trouble to develop models, white and nonwhite. And, then, the cycle of new models, especially from Eastern Europe, is cycling faster and faster. Brokaw says she sees 15 new girls every season, compared with maybe two in the past. That automatically makes it difficult for a model to build a career. Hardison, who is a kind of advocate for integration on the runway and in magazines, puts a lot of the blame with the agencies. They are simply not making the effort to find and develop young models. I tried to reach Chanel Iman through Ford, to speak to her about the Italian Vogue shoot, and another model through IMG. But no one at either agency returned my calls.

Last season there were a couple more black models on the runway than usual, which was so wonderful to see. But, then again, I don’t know if this will continue or if it will die as soon as the media stops dedicating attention to this issue. I really hope that we are turning a chapter here.

I also got a wonderful email from Edward Enniful, the stylist, who worked with Campbell and Meisel on the shoot—and with Pat McGrath, who did all the makeup for the issue, and Palau. Enniful is in Milan for the men’s shows. I had asked him what the session, in Los Angeles, was like.

Naomi Campbell is one of my best friends. She is from Streatham in South London. Pat McGrath is also one of my best friends. She comes from Northampton in England. I am from Ladbroke Grove, in London. Put three very vocal black Brits together, add a North London hairdresser, Guido Palau, and stir with New Yorker Steven Meisel, and what do you get? A very, very loud shoot. We laughed, ribbed each other, and talked about the old days, but most of all we created a story that reflected black dreams and aspirations. There was no hip-hop gangsterism, no ghetto fabulousness, no bling-bling clichés. Meisel simply shot a beautiful story with one of the most important icons of this century. His testimony to Naomi, who he first photographed at the age of 15, is both a love story and an ode to creativity, excellence and longevity.
Sozzani herself makes some points about the armies of bland, blond Eastern Europeans. It’s funny, thinking about it now, that they don’t, as a group, inspire dreams. So much of fashion, as we know, is determined by groups. The tribes of fashion. The supermodels—Naomi, Linda, Christy, Cindy, Stephanie—were, after all, a group. They helped set the tone for the period, as did the waifs and the Goths, and their success was not an accident. They fed peoples’ imaginations.

Now we’re in the age of the wall-eyed blond. What is it that they represent to us? What experience? The point of being racially or ethnically representative on the runways or in pictures is, I suppose, to impart a unique experience or desire—something that goes beyond skin color or ethnic background but is not unrelated to it.

Well, I think that’s what you see in Meisel’s pictures of Campbell, Lopez, Kebede and the other models. They are a way of looking, yes—glamourous, cool, ultra-accessorized—but they are also a way of being.
Here’s some of the Sozzani interview:

Q: So how did the black issue come about?

A: I was in New York in early February for the shows. I always notice the black girls in the streets in New York, more than I would in Milan. And it was also the time of the primaries, Super Tuesday. I’m interested in Obama. In the beginning Steven and I were talking about three or four stories, and then it became the entire issue. Steven really tried to reach all the girls who were around—Pat Cleveland, Iman, Naomi, the young girls, like Liya and Alek Wek. We also went back to the pictures that were used in the past of the black models and performers, like Tina Turner.
Q: Diversity on the runways has been the subject of a lot of media attention.

A: We asked Robin Givhan [of The Washington Post] to write a piece. She did a good story. She said that what we were doing was great but—what will happen next month? Will everything go back to where it was before, with all-white models? I think she was right to ask that. I hope the issue will be something that can change things. Anyway, people will talk about it, for sure. Like or dislike, it will be a controversial issue. I think it’s good to keep that tension and focus on this subject.

Q: Everybody complains about the models today, the sameness, the blank faces.

A: Nowadays, at the shows, I turn to my editors and say, ‘What’s the name of the girl, what’s her name?’ I really cannot recognize one from the other. The models in the past, like Linda and Naomi, were immediately recognizable. They had a lot of personality. These new girls have nothing. You can paint everything on their faces in a way because they have no expression. And the girls we used to see on the runway were very elegant. Liya is elegant. To me, she walks like a princess. Now the girls all look the same—from the first to the last.

The problem is partly with the modeling agencies. They have a lot of white girls—it’s easier. To find black girls takes more time. It’s a problem of research and talent, to find the right girls. We’re a little bit back to a period in the 70s, when you didn’t remember the name of a single model. They were not girls making an interpretation of the clothes, the way Linda did. They were just models. In the beginning of the 90s, those models were really celebrities—Christy, Naomi, Cindy, Stephanie.

Q: It’s the follow-the-leader mentality. And it winds up being such a narrow view of the world.

A: When you see the black issue and all the pictures, you realize that these girls in a way have to work much harder than other models. They are more in touch with their own personalities—they’re not simply models in front of a camera. They really try to get the tension.

Q: Do you think the issue will have an impact?

A: Yes, I think it will. I noticed the June issue of French Vogue had a split cover with a black model and white model, though there’s nothing inside.

Q: It’s interesting that you mentioned Obama…

A: Here in Italy, everybody is crazy about Obama, even people who never talk about American politics. It’s the new way to see a country where something can always happen. It’s a young country and modern. The feeling is similar to the Kennedys, but 50 years later. Ultimately, it’s not about race.
Q: It’s strange to be talking about racial diversity today in fashion. We should be further along. Is there a risk the fashion world will just see it as something trendy?

A: It could happen, and it would be a pity. Because, you know, it’s easier to do a normal issue. Paolo Roversi does a story, Craig McDean does another, and Steven Meisel another… I would feel very disappointed if this is only a nice moment. We should go forward.

Q: I suppose an all-black issue is something an American magazine might naturally or logically have done, more so than an Italian magazine.

A: In a way, it’s one of those stupid ideas that when everyone sees it, they think, Oh, I should have done that. [Sozzani laughs] It was so easy.
Q: What the black issue a political gesture?

A: I didn’t feel it was a political gesture. Maybe it was political in that when I see all these girls who look alike in a fashion show, they really annoy me. We need to see beautiful clothes on beautiful women.

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