For fall 2010 shows, fashion designers sent diverse models down the runways

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010; E01

Seventh Avenue has done something right. The fashion industry -- usually the whipping post for all that ails the culture, that cauldron of consumerism and the devil's spawn of narcissism -- sent a commendably eclectic array of models down the New York runways this month. The women were more diverse in ethnicity, age and size. And for that, the industry should be cheered.

At a wide range of fall 2010 shows, one could spot black, Latina and Asian models. There were enough of them coming down the runways that if one happened to blink, there would still be visual evidence that the fashion industry has modestly changed its ways. The runways did not look like a global melting pot; it was not a United Nations dressed in sample sizes. But designers have significantly broadened their definition of beauty, style and "It-ness."

The runways have virtually transformed since industry veteran Bethann Hardison launched her campaign three years ago to bring the lack of diversity to the attention of designers, stylists, model agents, casting directors and others who make decisions about who's best able to communicate fashion's aesthetic vision. Designers have come quite a distance since 2008, when Vogue Italia dedicated its July issue to black models as a rebuke to an industry that seemed to see the world only in shades of white. There is now room for more than a single woman of color per show. Better to applaud such a newfound reality rather than lament how absurdly parochial and Johnny-come-lately such progress sounds here in 2010.

Diane von Furstenberg had a long parade of models of color on her runway. She has typically boasted a wide mix of women in her shows, but for fall 2010, there was an abundance of brown faces -- some familiar, some not -- strutting along her U-shaped walkway. And Francisco Costa, the designer at Calvin Klein, embraced diversity in several notable ways. Costa had been specifically called to task in the media in recent years for an especially austere runway on which the models were so emphatically cut from the same mold that the result was an army of monochromatically clothed clones.

Mixing ages and races

This season, however, Costa not only offered up a more lively ethnic mix but a broader age range, too. In addition to the young women who dominate the runways today, he also included models Kristen McMenamy, Stella Tennant and Kirsty Hume -- women who are well into their 30s and 40s. Indeed, McMenamy had the audacity to walk the runway with a long, white ponytail.

What made Costa's casting particularly laudable is the way in which age was addressed, which is to say, it wasn't a big deal at all. There was no big ta-da announcing these veterans would be walking the runway. They neither opened nor closed the show -- honors typically given to the most high-profile model or one who is exclusive to the house. McMenamy, Tennant and Hume were merely part of the mix, bringing their unique personalities to Costa's elegant vision and imbuing it with a glow of sophistication and authority. Their presence delivered a powerful message about how a designer's collection is only enhanced by diversity, not weakened.

Marc Jacobs also mounted a show that skewed older, from the presence of longtime stylist Camille Bidault Waddington to a mix of professional models who, thankfully, didn't look so young as to make one wonder whether the 8 p.m. show was past their bedtime. The more mature faces fit the clothes in the collection, which were substantive and chic, not giddy.

All these developments suggest a New York fashion industry that is slowly maturing and coming to the realization that derring-do is not limited to teenagers and 20-somethings. There's also a simple financial fact: In hard times, it makes no sense to thoughtlessly alienate the women with the greatest resources to buy expensive frocks.

Weight still a problem

For all of its strides this season on the runway, however, the industry continues to wrestle with the issue of size. It may be that, until there are size-16 women sashaying down every runway, those who would turn obesity into a politically protected condition will not be satisfied. But for those whose main concern is just seeing healthier-looking models, rather than disturbingly gaunt ones, there's reason for optimism. At least a little.

Some of the hungriest-looking women, such as Sasha Pivovarova who rose to fame glaring from Prada advertisements, look as though they have put on a few pounds. (Or perhaps, in Pivovarova's case, it may be that she's just less distressing because she no longer seems so angry.)

And model Coco Rocha, who has been outspoken in discussing the stress placed on models, by designers and agents, to be ultra-thin -- and who has since refused to go into near-starvation mode in order to make weight -- walked on von Furstenberg's runway, as well as others. And the ubiquitous Karlie Kloss is reed-thin but not bony. Her grace also calls to mind the movements of dancers -- their strength, as well as, their control.

But Seventh Avenue also brought fresh faces onto the runway. And invariably, where there are teenagers, there is also gangly, gawkiness masquerading as womanliness.

For the past year and a half, the industry has been having an internal debate about balancing individual, creative desires with its collective culpability in reinforcing negative stereotypes and marginalizing entire populations. As a prelude to the New York collections, designers and others gathered to discuss the subject of weight. The conversation crystallized around sample sizes. These are the runway garments that magazines eventually photograph and that, quite often, celebrities borrow for public appearances. If the sample garment is a size 0, it's easy to see how that becomes the gold standard. The solution, of course, seems simple enough: Make the sample bigger.

But fashion is a curious industry. It's one that sells innovation but has a lemming complex. The designer who decides to turn his runway into a haven for size-12, 40-something models, would become an outcast, not a hero. His point-of-view dismissed as pure gimmick.

The best thing to happen on the New York runways was that designers weren't using diversity to attract publicity, to advance a leitmotif or to be flamboyantly subversive. They simply decided that diversity looks good.

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