Diversity Is Finally On The Runways At New York Fashion Week (And It Started With Kanye)

Kanye West’s NYFW fashion show wasn’t just notable for its star-studded FROW. And it wasn’t even the clothes; it was the models.


by Zing Tsjeng |

Kanye West’s NYFW show saw 50 assembled men and women - standing in solemn rows and dressed in Yeezy Boost footwear - but looking like no other catwalk seen at New York.

There were your standard leggy white girl models, sure. But there were also wide-hipped, curvy short girls; black models with teased-out afros and bleached dreads; Asian and Latino and mixed race girls and boys of all shapes and colours… Turns out Yeezy’s vision of a dystopian army also looks a lot like a Benetton ad.

Fashion’s long-running problem with diversity has been well documented by campaigners like Bethann Hardison, who runs the Balance Diversity campaign. According to a Fashion Spot report, 83% of the models on the spring/summer 2015 runways were white. But this season, it feels like things are changing – and Kanye’s show was just the start.

Becca McCharen might not be a household name, but everyone from Beyonce to Nicki Minaj and FKA Twigs has worn designs from her label Chromat. Her runway show on Saturday featured plus-size models, trans women and girls from all ethnicities. ‘I’m so against all white, straight, skinny girl runways,’ she told Fashionista. ‘That just doesn’t reflect my reality and who I am and who the Chromat woman is.’ The whole collection, she said, was inspired by Martine Rothblatt, a trans woman who is America’s highest paid female CEO.

Earlier this week, designer Carrie Hammer made NYFW history by casting American Horror Story actress and disability advocate Jamie Brewer for her show. Brewer, dressed in a cinched black skirt dress, raised her arms in triumph as she went down the runway. She had good reason to: she is now in the record books as the first woman with Down Syndrome to walk in NYFW.

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It feels like change is in the air. Labels like Hood By Air and Balmain have long emphasised runway diversity. Balmain designer (and Rihanna’s BFF) Olivier Rousteing has choice words to say to any designer who doesn’t do the same: ‘What the fuck, you put just one black girl in to make sure you’ve ticked a box? Like, do you go to London, to Paris, to New York? I think you see as many black and Asian people there as white people. Fashion wants to be modern and reflect the street and talk to people but at the end of the day they just talk to themselves. They don’t realise that the world is changing.’

There’s a tendency for the ‘diversity question’ in fashion to be reduced down to simplifiers. Do you cast plus size models? Do you cast black girls? But this season, those issues are all part of the same equation. Sure, there are designers who still insist on an all-white catwalk; but there are also those who have realised that the runway shouldn’t resemble an Aryan fantasy training camp. And that it also shouldn’t even be limited to those who were born biologically female – Chromat, Hood By Air and Carrie Hammer have all made huge strides by casting genderqueer and trans women in their collections.

It’s telling that many of these designers aren’t straight or white themselves – Hood By Air designer Shayne Oliver is a black gay man, while Chromat’s Becca McCharen identifies as queer. And, well, Kanye made a song called ‘Black Skinhead’, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know. These people are pushing for change because so that fashion reflects their own reality and lived experience. It’s tempting to celebrate this as ‘radical’ or ‘boundary-pushing’, when it’s really not – because telling the truth about the world around you should really be the simplest, and most natural, thing of all.

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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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