Opinion: Fashion Remains So Very White And Still Not Very Representative

Rohaizatul Azhar is calling for a more racially diverse fashion industry.

BY ROHAIZATUL AZHAR | Mar 10, 2016 | Fashion


It may seem like the fashion industry, in general, is on the brink of major change, with black models fronting ad campaigns and Asian models walking international runway shows, but despite these recent milestones, fashion is still plagued by one thing: it remains so very white. And still not very representative.

The recent Spring/Summer 2016 women’s ready-to-wear shows were an excellent example. Of the 3,875 models booked to walk in New York, London, Milan and Paris, white models still made up the majority—about 80 percent—of those appearing on the catwalk. The data, presented by fashion news site, The Business of Fashion, further revealed that out of the 20 percent that represented minority races, black models made up slightly more than 10 percent, while Asians covered about 6.5 percent. 

This is despite the fact that there have been persistent calls for a more racially diverse fashion industry since 2007, when Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford joined forces with former model and black activist Berthann Hardison to call out the industry’s lack of diversity. 

Don’t get me wrong; this is not to say that nothing is being done, and that fashion has not tackled the issue at all. But being better than before doesn’t actually equate to being good per se. There are issues that still need to be addressed. 

For instance, on the subject of Asian representation in fashion, it is not much of a stretch to say that the industry defines “Asian” as those of East Asian descent. It barely covers the other ethnic minorities that make up a large percentage of the Asian continent. In a recent editorial, explained that one of the primary criticisms of fashion’s treatment of minority models centres on the concept of tokenism. 

I mean, seriously, never mind that there are many South Asian or Indian models who have made a name for themselves in the fashion world; but apart from a handful of recognisable black and East Asian models (read: Naomi Campbell, Liu Wen, Philip Huang, Tao Okamoto, Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman and Godfrey Gao), can anyone outside the industry really identify more?

You see, what this tells me is that unless you are white, black or East Asian, the chances of you being recognised as a fashion model is close to zero. And the situation isn’t any better in Singapore. 

Now, before anyone gets their bow ties in a twist, consider this: head over to your local newsstand and try to pick out a local fashion magazine that has a cover model who is neither white nor of East Asian descent. Trust me, you’d be hard-pressed to find one. 

The issue of race is a touchy topic, but even more so in Singapore, where the importance of racial harmony and equal representation has been drilled into us since the day we were born.

A close friend of mine has worked in the fashion industry for slightly more than a decade, and I decided to pick his brains on the issue over a nasi lemak breakfast the other day. “It’s very simple: every magazine wants to have international appeal, while still retaining some of its Asian- or Singaporean-ness. Plus, there aren’t many working models who are non-Chinese,” he said.

His reply made sense. After all, the Singapore population is predominantly Chinese. And, while I have worked with non-Chinese models during my time as a fashion journalist and a stylist for Singapore’s national broadsheet, the majority have always been Chinese, or East Asian, models. 

But as a Malay, and someone who unashamedly loves fashion, I’ve always found it curious that there is little to no representation of my ethnic group, or people who look like me, hawking luxury goods in the pages of our local fashion magazines. 

At the very best, there are brown-skinned models, or what the industry terms as “pan-Asian models”. Oftentimes though, they are actually Brazilian—I reckon the tanned/olive skin and dark hair make it easy for them to pass off as someone of mixed parentage. After all, Eurasians are very much a part of the Singaporean social fabric. 

But do these models really represent Singaporeans, and, in the larger scheme of things, where are the Nora Ariffins, the Huda Alis and the Hanis Husseys of today? 

I posed this question to another Malay industry insider. “The problem is, there aren’t many out there who are model material,” he responded. But surely there are model-esque Singaporeans from other ethnic groups? “Hello, simply being tall does not make you a model. I mean, giraffes are tall, but you don’t see them on the cover of fashion magazines, do you?” he added. Erm, ouch? 

So it’s always refreshing when designers use models of other ethnic groups in their campaigns or lookbooks. Take, for example, Singapore contemporary womenswear label, Ong Shunmugam. The label, known for its modern take on traditional dress, recently featured Malay model Atikah Karim in campaign visuals for its Cruise 2016 collection. 

It is, as designer Priscilla Shunmugam described in a Facebook post, the label’s “stand against racism, riots and reductivism”. It is a small step, but a step in the right direction, nonetheless. 

But there’s still much to be done, especially since Singapore has progressed to the level of other first-world nations (even if we still consider ourselves second-world) in such a short amount of time. 

The point is, this conversation on race and diversity in our small but growing fashion industry has to continue. To truly evolve, we must recognise that we have a problem when it comes to racial representation and own it.

There needs to be an alternative understanding and definition of “model beauty”, and consumers (i.e. you and I) should insist that the preoccupation with Western ideals of beauty stop. Otherwise, we’ll never truly move forward.

So, maybe, it is time for a giraffe to be on the cover of a fashion magazine. Any takers? 

From: Esquire Singapore's March 2016 issue.