There was an unmistakable increase in models of color on the New York Fashion Week runways this season. Designer houses leading trends in fashion and establishing the rules like Calvin Klein, Tory Burch, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, and Proenza Schouler employed more than the previously requisitioned (and left wanting) 1 or 2 models of color. The change in the runway make up this past spring season is considerable. Tommy Hilfiger featured more than 15 models of color, as well as opening the show with model Tami Williams. In full disclosure, the theme of the Tommy Hilfiger spring show was Caribbean island holiday. Bob Marley tunes filled the soundtrack for the spring show but consider that last season a little less than 10 models of color walked the runway compared to over 15 this season. Michael Kors featured well over 12 models of color which begs the question: Do the shows degrade in appeal as a result of featuring more models of color as some designers have claimed in the past? What is sparking the trend among designers?

Tami Williams opens for the Tommy Hilfiger spring 2016 show.

Tami Williams opens for Tommy Hilfiger spring 2016 show.

The most diverse runways projected a sense of the current global world – a true reflection of the effects of a world made smaller with social media, Oovoo or Telepresence technologies. It reflects the reality of a  global society that allows a young Phillipine boy to bust through the exclusive circles of the fashion industry as a blogger.

The diverse sense is not only in the number of black models on the runway, although the spectrum of complexions among black models allow a significant reveal of the intentions and the extent by which a specific house or label seeks to be inclusive. It is crucial that Asian models and Middle Eastern models are also represented because the idea of beauty is infinitely faceted. So while we applaud models like Issa Lish and Pooja Mor on the runway, their ethnic origins are still under represented.

Designers, while creatives, must also adhere to the business model and consider their market specifically consumers of the luxury market. Their target market and clients must find themselves in the house’s marketing strategies. The notion that designers need to appeal to their consumers and those consumers were not Black is due to an old sense that Blacks could not afford designer ready-to-wear which compelled designers to shy away from employing Black models. The general idea that Blacks cheapened the label ran rapid in the industry and strengthened designers behavior to overlook black models. While public outcry has taught designers to shun from such thinking, the lack of black models on the runway and in campaigns persisted. …And so does the representation of Indian, Korean, Chinese or Middle Eastern models which continued to be non existent.

There are so few models from the far east on the runway it is quite astounding considering that Asian and Middle Eastern consumers hold a significant share of the revenue in the luxury market.

“Middle Eastern [luxury goods] consumption [is] up by 11 percent, continuing on the positive path of recent years, fueled by increasing tourism flows.” Bain & Company’s 2014 annual global luxury study proclaims the rise of the consumer as luxury markets settle in for lower, but more sustainable long-term growth (Milan, October 14, 2014, Bain & Company)

Alice Metza

Alice Metza walks the Proenza Schouler spring 2016 runway.

In fact, trends show that the sales from the Middle Eastern and Asian markets will continue to increase. “By 2020, foreign spending of Asian-Pacific residents outside of their home countries will triple, totaling $600 billion. In the luxury goods segment, 75 percent of all sales will be from Chinese consumers, with more than half of that being spent outside of China.” Carsten Keller et al., Succeeding in tomorrow’s global fashion market (September 2014, McKinsey & Company) So why would luxury design houses not invest in models reflecting their growth segment? Because, while a business model should be followed, the trends in fashion influence design houses more deeply than following the business model. Eastern European models are currently the trend in fashion and have been for well over a decade. Even when Brazilian models spiked in popularity, Eastern European models were higher in demand.

But still, the gap between Asian or Middle Eastern models and Eastern European models, or white models in general, is overwhelming. If there are models of color on the runway, they are generally of mixed origin like Adriana Lima, Joan Smalls, or newcomer Alice Metza.


The role of models of color on the runway also has a rippling impact. Models who open the show, as well as close the show, have long held a significant role for design houses each season. Models who open set the tone of the show. She delivers the designers first impression and embodies the persona of that seasonal collection. The opening image of a show will represent

Balmain fall 2015 ad campaign featuring (clockwise from the right) Kayla Scott, Jourdan Dunn, Cara Delevingne, Binx Walton, Yssauny Brito, and Issa Lish. Photographed by Mario Sorrenti

Balmain fall 2015 ad campaign featuring (clockwise from the right) Kayla Scott, Jourdan Dunn, Cara Delevingne, Binx Walton, Yssauny Brito, and Issa Lish. Photographed by Mario Sorrenti

the collection across consumer and trade magazines, other media outlets as well as social media. It can also open opportunities for models depending on the significance of the show. Proenza Schouler opened with black model Selena Forrest while featuring 10 models of color. We can expect to see more of Forrest on the runway as well as snagging a top campaign contract next season.

Pooja Mor walks the Tory Burch spring 2016 runway.

Pooja Mor walks the Tory Burch spring 2016 runway.

The Marc Jacobs shows are consistently diverse but this season, the grunge designer nearly employed all active models of color as well as a full figured model further establishing the spike in New York. Diversity on runways brought a different element to shows like Calvin Klein whose runways previously came up short on diversity.

But still, the industry has much further to go. Design houses like BCBG Max Azria, Rodarte, Marchesa and Delpozo have yet to reflect the diversity of New York and our global world. Designers like Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne, of Public School, and Prabal Gurung, of his eponymous label, are men of color whose spring 2016 runway reflected a shocking lack of diversity. Perhaps the cause is attempting to adhere to an industry that, in still many cases, refrains from featuring too many models of color on the runway as rule. Major New York fashion houses are making a change to that rule.

The increase in models of color is not simply a trend. The tides are changing and we are seeing diversity finally reach the runways in New York. Europe has yet to catch on outside of gimmicks and themes like Rick Owen’s (an American designer) spring 2014 ready-to-wear show in Paris. But it must be stated that the Rick Owens runway is the least of the diversity offenders.

Do we see the same change in London, Milan and Paris? Milan is notorious for under employing black models but would have a great impact on the industry if this changed. Consider up-and-comer Lineisy Montero, recognized for her short natural hair on the runways. As a result of appearing in the Prada fall 2015 runway show in Milan, she has been cast in most major runways during fashion month this season. Montero opened for both the Jason Wu and Derek Lam’s spring 2016 shows.

Designers Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy and Olivier Rousteing for Balmain in Paris have been establishing a pattern of casting models of color for their runway shows and, most notably, for ad campaigns. Think Erika Badu for Givenchy and Rihanna for Balmain. One fall 2015 Balmain ad features 5 models of color including  Issa Lish, Binx Walton, Yssauny Brito, Jourdan Dunn, and Kayla Scott with British model Cara Delevingne – a resounding statement for one of the most exclusive labels in the world.

While these moments have been promising, according to Balance Diversity founder Bethann Hardison, progress is ongoing. “We know that racism is systemic, and we know that the racial divide is everywhere within our culture, but a creative industry like fashion should really reflect our society,” said Hardison, “Have we made a difference? Yes… Have things improved? I’m concerned about the runways because that’s where the ideas are introduced, from the silhouettes, the colors, the textiles, and the girls and the guys—it all happens there first.”

Still, New York is leading the way. The industry is looking to Europe to soon follow.