For its Pre-Fall 2017 campaign, Gucci opted to cast only models of color. The Italian design house’s advertising campaign comes after a marked increase in the diversity of the Spring/Summer 2017 runways, as highlighted in the Fashion Spot’s bi-annual runway diversity report. As indicated by the site’s study, for the first time in history, more than 25 percent of models that walked that season were non-white.
In fact, of all of the S/S 2017 shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris, 74.6 percent of the models were white and 25.4 percent were women of color, a small increase on last season where 75.3 percent of the models were white. While these stats seem to back up the argument that the fashion industry is increasingly accepting a more diverse standard of beauty – a positive thing given how long it has taken to get to this point – the question remains: Will it last or is this the fashion banking on what it views as a timely trend?
There are unfortunately at least a couple of arguments that do not support a positive answer to that question. The first: The fact that fashion is inherently cyclical and that casting is not exempt from that. Just as garments and accessories are dominated by trends, models – and standards of beauty – come in waves, as well. The original supers – the Cindy Crawfords, Linda Evangelistas, Naomi Campbells, Christy Turlingtons, etc. – were once the holy grail of models. At another point in time, the runway was dominated by what was referred to as “Eastern European Drones.”
Not too long ago, the “it” thing to do was to have “older” models in ad campaigns and on the runway, hence, Lauren Hutton walking in Bottega Veneta's S/S 2017 show and appearing in the corresponding campaign, Stephanie Seymour and Christy Turlington appearing in Jason Wu’s S/S 2013 ad campaign, and who could forget, Naomi, Cindy and Claudia fronting Balmain’s S/S 2016 advertising?
More recently, there is a wave of Asian models. According to John Pfeiffer, who casts for Michael Kors, Bottega Veneta, Donna Karan, Diane von Furstenberg and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, "Right now, Asian models are very trendy. Maybe that’s all attributed to the amount of money being spent in Asia. This past season alone, there were so many great Asian models out there, and they weren’t competing for those one or two slots."
And the latest iteration of the “it” model is, of course, the Insta-girl/celebrity spawn a la Gigi and Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, and the like, which allow brands to trade on their ultra-famous faces, social media followings, and valuable endorsements to sell products. Just as wide leg jeans and deconstructed denim are trending, the models wearing them on the runway are the product of trends all on their own.
This is something that Jennifer Starr, casting director for Ralph Lauren, Gap, and the Pirelli Calendar, has noticed. She told BuzzFeed in 2013, "Things seemed to have changed [and were more diverse] after the Italian Vogue all-black issue and the season right after Obama got elected, but then I feel the next season things kind of went back to the way it was."
Secondly, fashion loves a good one-off. You may remember Vogue Italia's "All Black" issue, which was released in 2008 and never reintroduced - despite the fact that it was a best-seller on the newsstand. According to Time magazine's Jeff Israely, "After the original run of the July issue sold out in the U.S. and U.K. in 72 hours, Vogue Italia has just rushed to reprint 30,000 extra copies for American newsstands, another 10,000 for Britain and 20,000 more in Italy."
This may also take the form of token casting, the use of one or two models of color during any given season to ward off critics and avoid claims of racism. According to famed casting director James Scully, "Tokenism does exist on the runways, that’s why Calvin Klein will put one black girl in their show every odd season. They do it to not get in trouble, they don’t do it because they believe black women should be on that runway."
This brings us back to Gucci and its Pre-Fall 2017 "Soul Scene” campaign, which stars models Nicole Atieno, Elibeidy, Bakay Diaby, and Keiron Berton Caynes. This campaign follows an array of advertising put forth by current creative director, Alessandro Michele, who took the helm Gucci in early 2015, all of which have been known for embodying a certain “sleepy sexy” aesthetic. In nearly all of the campaigns to date, the models have been almost exclusively white, as is the case with most ad campaigns across the board in the fashion industry, to be frank. As for Gucci, its Pre-Fall 2015, Fall/Winter 2016 and Cruise 2017 campaigns, as well as an array of lookbooks, were exclusively white. While Gucci’s runways have done a bit of a better at incorporating non-white models than its ads, even there, white models tend to uniformly dominate.
Gucci's history of using almost exclusively white models in lieu of embracing diversity does not mean the brand cannot undergo a meaningful, lasting change in terms of its casting preferences. However, such a history – paired with the cyclical, trend-driven nature of casting, as well as fashion's tendency for one-off diversity ploys – makes it a little less likely that that is the case. Nonetheless, the campaign warrants attention not only for what the next steps need to be for the industry at large.
Like with the political causes that fashion has been pioneering, particularly during the Fall/Winter 2017 season – whether they be Planned Parenthood or immigration reform – any pushes for diversity simply cannot be utilized as trends and put forth as one-off efforts. Just as showing feminist-inspired t-shirts on the runway or circulating token accessories devoted to a cause for a season does little to make a substantive change in the long run without continued attention AND action, embracing diversity for a season is not only not enough, it stands to look opportunistic and trendy if not carried out any further.
Fashion has an opportunity to expand not only its observation of beauty but to impact the standards of beauty of the population at large – fashion is nothing if not influential, after all. As Pfeiffer noted not too long ago, "You have to make an effort to have diversity in your casting. You really have to work at it; push yourself and push the designers to be diverse and more inclusive."
Hopefully the industry’s biggest brands (and publications) and casting directors (and stylists) rise to the challenge and do not treat diversity as this season's selling point.