NEW YORK, October 28, 2009 – The election of America’s first black president was trumpeted by the world of fashion and media, but a year on, as the euphoria dims, white faces still dominate the catwalks and glossy magazines.
Just months before Barack Obama’s election triumph, top trend-setter Vogue loudly proclaimed that “Black is the new Black” as its Italian edition in July 2008 featured only black models on its fashion pages.
In March, First Lady Michelle Obama was featured as the Vogue cover girl wearing a sleeveless magenta dress as she reclined on a sofa, only the second first lady to make the cover after Hillary Clinton.
But the sea-changes, which marked a milestone for African Americans in the fashion and media industries, have failed to turn the tide.
“All the ads had white models” in that July 2008 issue, recalled expert Jamie Ambler, who contends that advertisers still prefer white models when designing their campaigns.
“There is nothing new. In general when we do the casting the client goes to ‘who buys their stuff,’ as it has always been the case,” said Ambler, creative director at a New York advertising agency.
And he told AFP: “On the set it is very rare to see blacks among the production people. Drivers are black, but not art directors, although 90 percent of the ad world voted Obama and consider themselves multicultural.
“The disposition towards using the cultural mixity is moving ahead, but it has not changed immensely. Race is still an explosive argument, especially in the US.”
Even among Ambler’s 60 plus staff, only four or five are African American.
The return of business as usual was pointedly highlighted during fashion week in New York last month when there was only one group of African designers.
And black models were hard to find among the sea of white faces on the catwalk.
In April, British supermodel Naomi Campbell lashed out at what she saw as latent racism in the fashion industry, which she said prefers “blond, blue-eyed models” over black women.
“You know, the American president may be black, but as a black woman, I am still an exception in this business. I always have to work harder to be treated equally,” she told Glamour magazine.
She added: “In the past, there were more opportunities for black models but the trend towards blond women has again become extreme. In magazines, on the catwalk, I see blond, blue-eyed models everywhere.”
Times are changing though. Latin America’s top fashion event, the Sao Paulo Fashion Week held in May, was forced to boost the number of black models on its catwalks after being targeted by anti-racism campaigners.
Under the terms of the deal, labels had to employ 10 percent of black and indigenous models or face fines.
But some working in the creative arts feel the issue is not whether you are black or white, but whether you work hard enough to achieve your goals, something Obama himself insists on.
“I do not believe that people look at me differently,” said African American graphic artist Douglas Davis about the post-Obama victory period.
“I never really felt that my race was a handicap. The only thing I had was my artistic ability, my talent. I can compete,” the 33-year-old said.