On Culture

Time to Wear More Than One Hat

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

This week, as the fashion industry unveils its pretty frocks for fall 2008, there's a less glamorous conversation going on behind the scenes. It's a nuanced debate on the volatile issue of race and the prosaic details of copyright protection. And the fact that either topic is being discussed at all is a sign that Seventh Avenue is coming to grips with both its influence and importance.

The fashion industry has always been quick to raise funds for AIDS patients, breast cancer research and the victims of Hurricane Katrina. But it has too often reverted to the stereotypical "dumb blonde" mode when the conversation turns to its responsibility in shaping our culture.

No one wants designers to start talking about their wares as if they are the equivalent of life-saving meds, but it's not helpful for them to be dismissive of their $47 billion industry by repeating the disclaimer: It's just fashion. (You won't hear an automaker noting with a shrug: They're just cars.) It would also be fair to say that it's disingenuous for designers to imply that promoting underweight models is no big deal. And it's disheartening to see a designer define beauty in homogeneous terms. It's not evidence of prejudice, but it most certainly is proof of disinterest.

Seventh Avenue has been under pressure from outside observers and internal agitators to increase the diversity of its runway models -- and to avoid those with emaciated physiques. The argument for diversity grows out of the recognition that the industry plays a crucial role in the way in which beauty is defined and the way in which women -- and increasingly men -- view their own bodies.

As designers were casting their fall 2008 shows, Diane von Furstenberg, who is the president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, sent out letters asking members to be mindful of both diversity and body image.

At the same time, the industry is struggling to raise awareness about its most valuable contribution: creativity. It continues to lobby Congress to pass legislation protecting the ideas presented on the runway from being knocked off before designers have time to recoup their investment. In championing the Design Piracy Prohibition Act, the industry has been willing to engage in mind-numbing policy work -- sorting through minutiae and red tape, and trying to appease the concerns of retailers and manufacturers.

The two projects -- one that recognizes fashion's role in our culture and one that seeks to position frocks as valuable and unique work products rather than commodities -- are evidence of an industry that has begun to take itself more seriously.

Conversations about the appearance of models on the runway began last year. The deaths of two underweight South American models in 2006 raised hackles about the industry's preference for cadaverous-looking young women. Last January, the CFDA issued guidelines setting minimum age recommendations for models and giving designers a list of warning signs for eating disorders.

Former model agent Bethann Hardison has held three industry gatherings to discuss the decline in the number of black models on the runway. Hardison emphasizes that she wants quality black models, not merely quantity: "I'd rather someone not use any than use someone bad."

Neither Hardison nor von Furstenberg wants to infringe on any designer's creative freedom. The subtext of their messages is the same: Creative license comes with responsibilities.

The industry has struggled with that realization. Designers and editors regularly collaborate on provocative advertising campaigns or editorial shoots and then respond in wide-eyed dismay when consumers are provoked. Remember heroin chic? Scrawny models with hollowed-out faces slumped in the corners of dismal public restrooms while wearing overpriced clothes. All that was missing were the piles of used needles. Calvin Klein featured crotch shots of seemingly underage models in advertisements that called to mind kiddie porn. A fashion shoot in Spin magazine used the sweaty, fatal aftermath of autoerotic asphyxiation as a stylistic statement. The instrument of the model's faux death was his own belt.

In each case, the fashion industry embraced its right -- perhaps even its responsibility -- to reflect the contradictions and cruelties of contemporary culture. But it came across as naive or willfully unconcerned about the ramifications of those images.

In ways both financial and cultural, the industry has an opportunity to behave like a grown-up and to finally receive the respect it will have earned.

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