‘Black Mirror’ project highlights lack of diversity in the fashion industry

Deddeh Howard has recreated fashion ads by putting herself in the place of white models to emphasize the lack of diversity in the fashion industry. Here, she recreates a Calvin Klein ad originally featuring Kendall Jenner. Raffael Dickreuter

When Deddeh Howard, an African-born, U.S.-based model was looking for an agency to sign with, she was perplexed by the responses she would get from potential agents.

“I would walk into various fashion model agencies and I would immediately be compared to the one or two black models that they had on the roster,” she writes on her website, “Even though I was told by those agencies that I had an amazing look and they wished they could represent me, they [would say they] already had a black model. It seemed as if one or two black models on the roster were enough to represent us all. When you are told that, trust me, it feels bizarre.”

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In response to this treatment, Howard, together with photographer Raffael Dickreuter, launched the “Black Mirror” project to highlight the lack of diversity in the modelling world. Together, the duo recreate fashion ads, replacing the white models with Howard.

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And the results are striking.

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While Howard calls successful models like Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks and Jasmine Tookes, who wore the coveted Fantasy Bra in the recent Victoria’s Secret fashion show, “inspiring,” she points to the fact that they are a rarity in an industry that’s vastly white.

“You can see at New York fashion week or any other famous fashion event: black girls are almost invisible,” she writes. “There is the odd one here and there, but it always feels like an afterthought.”

Howard’s observations on the industry are not new. Fashion designers like Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga, Veronique Branquinho and Junya Watanabe were criticized for not including any models of colour in their fall 2016 runway shows. And fashion magazines and beauty brands are repeatedly accused of lightening the skin tones of African-American models and actresses in editorials and ad campaigns.

Even the recent announcement that the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York is hosting an exhibit called “Black Fashion Designers” is received as bittersweet.

“I prefer to be classified as a designer,” Tracy Reese said to The Cut. “My race is not central to my design aesthetic and my goal is to dress women of all races.”

Despite the announcement of the exhibit, however, some say the whitewashing of the fashion industry is only getting worse.

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Nafisa Kaptownwala, founder of Lorde Inc., a modelling agency that represents people of colour and diverse ethnicities with offices in Toronto and New York, doesn’t see the fashion pendulum swinging in the direction of diversity.

“If anything, the industry is getting more regressive,” she says. “And I think a lot of it has to do with the political climate. Fashion often reflects what’s happening in politics and in the U.S., with Trump now in office, I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets even more segregated.”

Kaptownwala founded her agency in 2014 in response to what she was hearing from her friends who were models.

“My friends were expressing their frustrations about not being able to find work and the responses they were getting from agencies, like, ‘We already have a South Asian model,'” she recalls. “I just wanted to create a space where photographers could no longer have the excuse that they couldn’t find models of colour.”

Since launching her agency, models with Lorde Inc. have been cast in campaigns for companies like Nordstrom, Shiseido and Nike, proving that some brands appreciate diversity.

Although, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“The next generation can only get inspired and reach for the stars if they believe they can do it too,” Howard writes. “For that reason diversity in ad campaigns is, in my opinion, much more important than you might think. Let’s give the next generation something to believe in.”

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