Race and the Runway: Does Houston Have a Problem?

Usually the publication of the Fashion Houston designer line up is met with unanimous excitement, but this year there were a few jeers along with the cheers. A blog post by Sunny B. James of Illusion Model Management brought to light one big question, "in a city as diverse as Houston, where is the diversity at Houston's premier fashion event?" Hmmmm.

Though the point was well received by many, some in the industry took offense to the implication that Fashion Houston was deliberately shutting out minorities and even took offense to the idea of race being an topic at all. One Facebook commenter quoted in the blog post went so far as to say, "...I thought this was a designer thing, not a skin color thing...Sebastian, you are always free to start a 'skin color fashion week' if skin color is your priority.'" Ouch.

We as Houstonians continually tout how Houston is an international city. We have a flourishing food scene, an active art community and our festivals increase in number and diversity each year. Is it outrageous for citizens to ask the same from the burgeoning fashion community, especially as it asserts itself on the national stage?

Lack of diversity is by no means a Fashion Houston specific matter at all, but industry wide. In the last few months the international fashion weeks have come under fire thanks to a pull no punches letter by Bethann Hardison, a former model turned activist. Sent to every major international fashion council, Hardison's letter goes to great detail describing the industry's glaring diversity issues and how it reflects on the fashion community as a whole.

"Whether it's the decision of the designer, stylist or casting director, that decision to use basically all white models, reveals a trait that is unbecoming to modern society."

She goes on to name over 100 designers across the world guilty of the most egregious "racist acts," as she calls it. The letter, originally published by Hardison on her blog Balance Diversity, has caused quite a stir prompting responses from Robin Givhan of The Washington Post, Supermodels Naomi Campbell and Iman, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and Gemma Ebelis of The British Fashion Council. The impact of Hardison's letter has already been seen with Hardison herself applauding the number of multi-cultural models during the recent Spring/Summer 2014 shows.

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Many in the industry say the lack of diversity is just a representation of economics of fashion. As of 2013, ethnic minorities make up less than 1 percent of Forbes "Richest People in America" list. At a net worth of $2.7 billion, Oprah Winfrey is the wealthiest African American in the country, but she falls to number 151 on the main list. So, are designers just casting girls that look like their clients and investors investing in designers that look like their target consumer? If that is the case, then Fashion Houston isn't really doing anything shocking or unthinkable in their choices, but instead reflecting the preferences of a Eurocentric society we live in. One could say Fashion Houston is just giving the people what they want. Jay Marroquin, international photographer, house photographer for Fashion Houston 2012 and Founder of Jay Marroquin Photography makes a point to that effect, "Fashion Houston is a fashion show, not really a fashion week per say. Most designers aren't showcasing a new collection, but one that's already been shown. In the end they're [Fashion Houston] trying to sell tickets so they're looking for big names that people can relate to."

So if there is to be a change in Houston, where to start? No one ethnicity, gender, class or organization should have the monopoly on fashion expression in Houston, but no one event should bear the full burden of representing everyone. But how does every voice get heard?

Veteran Houston designer and founder of the Houston Fashion Incubator, Toni Whitaker believes it begins with a dedication to showcasing emerging designers, a sentiment recently adopted by Fashion Houston with the addition of an Emerging Designers category. But, Whitaker suggests going a step further, "Instead of pre-selecting individuals to present during Fashion Houston, have an open call to emerging designers for submissions and employ a qualified panel of judges to determine who be added to the roster of big names. That way it is not about race or background, just inclusion."

James sees it as a call for more pioneers willing to step up and do the work to make change happen. "I've come to the conclusion that if they don't want you, then you must create your own..." he says, but adds, "If we learn to work together, we can change the way the industry works."

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