Friday, June 20, 2008

Brava!!! Italian Vogue - All Black Model Feature, July 2008

Note: I've shifted updates to the bottom.

Brava! (Okay, I know Steven Meisel is a man so it ought to be "bravo", but it's a magazine targeting women.)

Conspicuous by Their Presence

RACIAL prejudice in the fashion industry has long persisted because of tokenism and lookism. “We already have our black girl,” says a designer to a fashion-show casting agent, declining to see others. Or: “She doesn’t have the right look.” Laziness, paranoia and pedantry may also have something to do with the failure to hire black models for shows and magazine features in any meaningful number, but, hey, that’s just a guess.

A decade ago the thing to deplore was the stereotyping of black models by dressing them in African-inspired clothes (or the Asian girls in kimonos). This at least gave work to minority models, but it also encouraged a Western view of African culture of the many-bangles-many-beads variety.

O.K., so fashion ain’t deep. It looks into a mirror and sees ... itself. The irony in fashion is that it loves change but it can’t actually change anything. It can only reflect a change in the air. But what changes fashion? What would finally move American designers to include more black models on their runways? That 30 percent of the country is nonwhite? That black women spend $20 billion a year on clothes? That an African-American is the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic Party?

The answer is the individual eye.

In fashion, one of the most influential eyes belongs to the photographer Steven Meisel. His pictures have caught an America basking in the earnest, self-reflected glow of celebrity and money. He has taken innumerable risks, especially with “Sex,” the 1992 volume he did with Madonna, that have paid off with a career that allows him to do whatever he wants.

And he has almost lovingly photographed some of the world’s beautiful women, tapping into their psyches, connecting with them on a human level, while transforming them into fashion deities.

As the model Veronica Webb, who first worked with Mr. Meisel 20 years ago, said: “Steven knows every single tic, every talent that every girl has. He just pulls it out of them.”

For the July issue of Italian Vogue, Mr. Meisel has photographed only black models. In a reverse of the general pattern of fashion magazines, all the faces are black, and all the feature topics are related to black women in the arts and entertainment. Mr. Meisel was given roughly 100 pages for his pictures. The issue will be on European newsstands next Thursday and in the United States soon after.

Under its editor, Franca Sozzani, Italian Vogue has gained a reputation for being more about art and ideas than commerce. Ms. Sozzani also doesn’t mind controversy.

She said that, as an Italian, she has been intrigued by the American presidential race and Mr. Obama, which was one source of inspiration when she and Mr. Meisel began discussing, in February, the idea of an all-black issue. Also, she was aware of the lack of diversity on the runways in recent years and the debate it fueled last fall in New York, where Bethann Hardison, a former model who ran a successful agency, held two panel discussions on the topic.

Ms. Sozzani said the issue was not a response to criticism that she, too, has under-represented blacks or portrayed them as stereotypes.

“Mine is not a magazine that can be accused of not using black girls,” said Ms. Sozzani, noting that Naomi Campbell has had several covers, and that Liya Kebede and Alek Wek have also had covers.

Having worked at one time with nearly all the models he chose for the black issue — Iman, Ms. Campbell, Tyra Banks, Jourdan Dunn, Ms. Kebede, Ms. Wek, Pat Cleveland, Karen Alexander — Mr. Meisel had his own feelings. “I thought, it’s ridiculous, this discrimination,” said Mr. Meisel, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s so crazy to live in such a narrow, narrow place. Age, weight, sexuality, race — every kind of prejudice.”

He began casting in March. “I love the history of fashion, obviously, and I love old, and I tried to get as many of the older girls as I could,” he said. Over Ms. Sozzani’s initial objections, he also hired Toccara Jones, a full-figure model, who became known from “America’s Next Top Model.” “I wanted to say something about weight, and I’m never allowed to do that,” he said. “I met Toccara and thought, she’s beautiful. What’s the deal with her? She’s great and she’s sexy.”

If these pictures have a heightened sense of glamour, it probably has something to do with the atmosphere of a Meisel shoot. According to Ms. Webb, “it’s the darkest studio, like a studio at MGM.”

There are fans and reflectors; many assistants. An area is marked “Hair” and another “Makeup.” (Pat McGrath did all the makeup for the issue, and Guido Palau did the hair.) A mirror is placed behind Mr. Meisel, so the model can see herself.

“It’s a dark world,” Ms. Webb said, “and you’re in the spotlight.”

The four pictures that Ms. Campbell was supposed to make turned into 20. She also appears on the fold-out cover, along with Ms. Kebede, Sessilee Lopez and Ms. Dunn. “Franca doesn’t realize what she’s done for people of color,” Ms. Campbell said the other day. “It reminds me of Yves using all the black models.” She was referring to Yves Saint Laurent, who, like Gianni Versace and a handful of other designers, routinely cast minorities.

Mr. Meisel has his own theories about why black models, save for the token few, have disappeared from runways. “Perhaps the designers, perhaps the magazine editors,” he said. “They are the powerful people. And the advertisers. I have asked my advertising clients so many times, ‘Can we use a black girl?’ They say no.” The concern is that consumers will resist the product, he said. “It all comes down to money.”

Ashley Brokaw, an independent casting agent in New York, believes that designers want more diversity in their casts but, she said, “what they want and what the reality is are two different things.” She thinks that agencies don’t spend enough time to groom new models for the catwalk, making it easy for designers to reject them, and then the cycle of new faces is spinning faster and faster.

But it’s also true that designers, in spite of their creative powers, yearn for the approval of insiders. “They are looking around, over their shoulders, asking, ‘Is that cool?’ ” Mr. Meisel said. He agreed that it’s a crazy kind of paranoia. Whether it’s a new model or hip style, he said with a laugh, “It can only be stated by a certain five people and then they go with it.”

What is striking about Mr. Meisel’s pictures, especially a portrait of Ms. Banks in a soft head-wrap and one of Ms. Lopez in a neat brocade turban, is how much beauty and life he was able to extract from them, so that you almost feel you are seeing these women for the first time.

Ms. Hardison hopes that the Italian Vogue issue (to which she contributed) will open people’s eyes in the industry. “They need to see what they’re missing out there,” she said. This week, in its July issue, American Vogue will have an article about the dearth of black models.

Perhaps no individual, though, will know what it means to be included more than Ms. Lopez. Last year, she barely worked. Ms. Brokaw predicts that after insiders see Mr. Meisel’s pictures, she will have a terrific season.

This kind of perplexes and delights Mr. Meisel.

“Here’s this exquisite girl,” he said, addressing no one in particular. “What don’t you get? She’s a beautiful woman. There was no trick to it.”


Update 1: July 16, 2008 @ 8:42pm

Well, the Italian Vogue finally made it to my favorite bookstore here, Kyobo Bookstore. And, being VERY happy about this issue I bought every different cover ;) However, the cover with Naomi Campbell was MIA. I have a feeling that those got bought up or given away before they made it to the magazine rack. I'll keep searching though.

Here is a wonderful byline from the NYTimes:
Beautiful Is Beautiful (click the link for a great pictorial)

For the July issue of Italian Vogue, Steven Meisel, one of the most influential photographers in fashion, has photographed only black models.
I will be getting an over priced copy of this edition for sure (maybe two). Foreign mags are sold at bookstores in Seoul wrapped so tightly in plastic that you wonder if they ever want you to read the magazine and the foreign mags are so grossly over-priced it's shocking. However, for this edition, I'm giving up the cash. It's worth it just to show my support for Italian Vogue doing that.

Update 2: August 28, 2008 @ 10:20am

For all the haters that read much more into this Italian Vogue issue than I think was necessary, I learned about a magazine called Trace Magazine that does a "Black Girls Rule" edition once a year.

So, now I want you all to click over, read the post: Trace Magazine - Black Girls Rule and then subscribe to Trace Magazine. If you don't, you're just a negative "can't see anything positive" hypocrite.

Yes, I said it. And have I contacted them to start my subscription? Yes, I have...


Update 3: September 5, 2008 @ 7:12am

I have no idea but, for some reason, people are searching for information on the All Black Model Italian Vogue issue. Maybe some TV show talked about it.

Anyway, I doubled back to the Google link leading people to me and found another good blog post on it at Make Fetch Happen. So, I'm sharing the love.

Here is a great slideshow of some of the photos from the issue I saw at that blog: Vogue Italia July 2008. However, I'm really hoping that issue sold out and most who wanted to see it, bought it.

Sphere: Related Content


  1. I say Well Played Italian Vogue!! I live in San Francisco which is RIDICULOUSLY diverse and it always boggles my mind to see magazine and runways dominated by the same old look. It may be a reflection of a small part of the world, but it's not a reflection of my world. Listen up designers and magazines. D-I-V-E-R-S-I-F-Y!!

  2. Yeah, I think of San Francisco as home, so I know what you're saying.

    If you support it, make sure you get your copy because ultimately it's a business so they want to see results. I'll be getting two over-priced, plastic wrapped copies here in Seoul when it comes out ;)

  3. I love the idea of an all black model edition but I will reserve comment until I see how the women are presented. Having all WOC is meaningless if they are presented in a "noble savage" kind of way. Lets hope that they are presented with respect.

  4. Agreed Expat Jane and his name is Steven Meisel and he is a fantastic photographer, one of the best. Also I give Italian Vogue a lot more credit and a lot more common sense to portray black models as Queens not as noble savages.They are not that damn stupid.

  5. whoa! I just stumbled upon your blog from another blog, and there you are, with the first entry talking about those oh-so-tightly wrapped foreign magazines at those bookstores! I was in Seoul for 8 months and I remember!

  6. [I hate grammar errors so much that I took down a comment I made on June 22, 2008 around 3pm because well, it had a bad error. That messes up the flow of the comments, but eh. Here it is again. (It's the first one addressed to Renee).]

    To Renee:

    I've got all the faith in the world that Stuart Meisel who has been in the biz for a while (and was the photographer who shot Madonna's Sex book way back when) knows the ropes well enough. But, yeah, he could mess it up...I just doubt it.

    He's shot A-list models who can and do speak up if they're shot in ways they don't like.

    After the mess American Vogue got for the contrast shots they had with LeBron James and Gisele Bundchen, I really doubt they weren't aware of the backlash from a hyper-sensitized black diaspora.

    Did you not look at the picture? They're not noble savages there. Also, the first shot in the NYTimes pictorial is from the magazine spread. There is nothing unsophisticated or stereotypical at all.

    To Small -

    Yeah, neither Meisel nor Italian Vogue is going to mess this up I think. I'm sure they've combed every detail to make sure this issue is flawless.

    To Meg -

    Foreign mags are still wrapped in tight plastic. I get it in one way, they want to be able to return unread copies and that must be one hell of a trip. Also, it's nice for me that I get a nice and new copy. Plus, for American magazines I go to the USO anyway. I can't see paying all that money for an American magazine I can get with a short trip to the USO.

    I know the troops love them, but I do too.

  7. Had this debate with someone yesterday, and quite frankly I'm not supporting a magazine that systematically sidelines black people and then throws us a bone so they can tick their diversity box. I'll be buying a magazine that targets us for us about us.

    Lets support black models who work for people who actually promote black beauty and black esteem.

  8. Your choice but unless you actually read Italian Vogue regularly how do you know who they use on a regular basis? Does Italian Vogue "systematically sideline[s] black people"? I don't read it regularly and, to be honest, I doubt you do either. I can't say whether or not Italian Vogue has made an effort to feature more or less minority models than other magazines.

    I'll be buying it because, Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue seems to have more of a clue than other big mag editors.

    "We are using a lot of black models, like Iman, not only the models of today – a lot of different girls." As for why she is doing this, Sozzani continues: "Because nobody is using black girls. I see so many beautiful girls and they were complaining that they are not used enough." - from Style Dash

    Also, one big reason mags claim they don't use black models is sales. On that point Sozzani disagrees, so I'm supporting their decision to feature black models.

    Alarmed by the lack of ethnic models on the catwalk, Vogue Italia will feature black models almost exclusively in the July issue of what's often called the most influential fashion magazine in the world.

    "This idea came about as a reaction to the models of today," Franca Sozzani, Vogue Italia's editor, said. "I go to a fashion show and every girl is blond and blue-eyed and they all walk the same and look the same.

    "I thought we needed to break away from this type of thing," she said. "There are so many beautiful black women not being used."

    Sozzani said the time also seemed right for an all-black issue now that Barack Obama will soon become the first black nominee for president of the United States.

    The July issue, which comes out next week, will feature a wide range of women of all ages and will include actors, models and singers such as Naomi Campbell, Tina Turner, Jody Watley and Iman.

    Sozzani said the fashion industry was different in the 1980s and 1990s, when models had distinctive, individual looks.

    "Then models did their own interpretations of the fashions they were wearing, but now the girls all look alike," she said.

    Sozzani said that some editors might argue that black faces don't sell at the newsstand.

    "But we sell the same amount if we have Naomi Campbell on the cover," she said."
    - from Access Atlanta via Cox News Service

    What you're talking about you should already be doing. If you're so into supporting "black beauty and black esteem" you're already regularly buying black magazines, right? I buy American Legacy as well as others like Ebony and Essence even though I think the quality is lacking in those more mainstream magazines.

    You should already be buying the magazines you're talking about.

    I see no reason to be disdainful of Italian Vogue's decision. I'm not that jaded. And I'll be supporting Italian Vogue's move to feature black faces.

  9. I think this is one positive step, and if we can support it by buying them all off the stands, then all the better. It all boils down to racism shaping our perceptions of beauty.

    Now, if only we can get them to work on the size-ist issue next.

  10. Nice post at your blog ;) I just scanned it, but I'll go back and read it later.

    I agree. This is a positive step and the people looking down their noses at it are just short-sighted.

    I'll be supporting Italian Vogue. I've already cased out the local bookstore and the July edition should be there they said in three weeks. I don't believe them and I don't want to risk not getting the issue, so I'll check next week and the week after until it arrives. Then I'm buying a couple of copies ;)

    I do think the size issue is next. Finally, on America's Next Top Model we've got a "plus" size model as the winner. But the thing is she's plus-sized for a model but she's not fat.

    The fashion industry is truly twisted. But if she can gain some headway and if women like Queen Latifah keep getting Cover Girl promotion contracts, I think we're headed in the right direction. I just think it's supremely odd that if you're US-size 10 or 12 that those sizes are even considered plus-sized.

  11. Regarding the ONE off edition of Black Italia Vogue, let's see what happens 12 months from now

    We interviewed Kadiatu Kamara the face of the Mahogany campaign , "Black And Beautiful But Invisible". Speaking to about the lack of recognition for Models of color in the industry.

    watch video interview

  12. Interesting video, which is why it made it through my screening. However, let me punt it back to you. You've clearly got an attitude that Italian Vogue dared to feature black models, as if it's a crime.

    We all know that black models are underrepresented in fashion right now. I say "right now" because it seems black models were more prominent in the 80s and 90s. So why is it that so many take issue with a magazine that figures this out and tries to turn the tide?

    As for the "Black and Beautiful but Invisible" campaign, isn't this just asking for acceptance in an industry you're already hostile to? If you scoff at Italian Vogue but then pester Italian Vogue and its contemporaries to hire black models, I don't get having such a shitty and negative attitude about a magazine issue that has taken the issue you're pushing and presented black models in a great light.

  13. great article - thanks for this :)


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