A Marc Jacobs show is always an event that sets the pace for New York fashion, but his Fall/Winter 2014 runway presentation proved to be the turning of an even larger tide—it was Kendall Jenner’s first major show. The fashion community at large had flirted with the kind of celebrity-status Jenner represented but never seemed to take someone of this nature all that seriously. This time, however, things were different. Jenner wasn’t being included as a gimmick the way other celebrities had been in the past (like Pamela Anderson in Vivienne Westwood shows); she was just another model on the catwalk and a particularly wealthy one at that. Over the last three years, Jenner has become one of fashion’s most in-demand faces with a following seeded by her family’s media success.
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Despite the required genetics and a good deal of luck, modeling was, at one point, fairly democratic: Cindy Crawford hails from suburban Illinois; Alek Wek was fleeing from violence in South Sudan when she was scouted in London; Gisele Bündchen was the daughter of a bank clerk and professor in southern Brazil. None of these women had prior connections to the business or elevated social-status, but they all managed to find an enormous amount of success. With fashion’s increasing focus on money, the shift to models born into extraordinary financial means and the ability to purchase their industry access has begun to monopolize the ranks, often overshadowing those with greater aptitude and more diverse backgrounds in the process. Yet, as the fashion industry claims to be embracing inclusivity both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, this dichotomy becomes evident.
It isn’t that fashion hasn’t had its aristocratic moments in the past—Stella Tennant being a prime example—but something about the focus on the Hadids of the moment appears like an attempt to procure relevancy. The business at large can no longer communicate with the we-speak-you-listen authority it once did, and these people ensure a wealth of media coverage for heritage outlets. Yes, these new models come packaged with impressive social media followings, but what percentage of that following is able to afford the goods being advertised? There are some general correlations between celebrity endorsement and increased revenue, but the validity of those connections diminishes when considering the fashion market specifically, particularly the luxury sector where label recognition does not necessarily reflect actual sales. In employing a particular type of model, the industry has appealed to digital media’s supposed meritocracy and ultimately masked its ingrained elitism.
As the fashion industry attempts to actively engage with models of color, it seems more than problematic that nearly all of the models given the most high-profile opportunities are white—not a single model on Forbes’ 2017 list of the 10 highest paid models is black (though there are Asian and Latina models represented). This disparity is something made more evident when they are thrust into important conversations, like Jenner’s ill-fated, protest-themed Pepsi commercial that briefly aired early last year. There’s no telling how that effort would have helped the beverage company had it not been so tone deaf, but it was unlikely to move the needle all on its own. In the beauty industry, advertising has gone through a meaningful, if underwhelming, makeover with Asian, Latino and black faces as companies seek out prosperous emerging markets and growing demographics, yet the runways remain stubbornly pale. It clearly isn’t for lack of selection, but instead a circuit of agents, photographers, and designers who simultaneously blame one another for a perceived shortage. Cherry picking models from homogenous wealthy families won't create a more accurate representation of the consumer—it only to highlights the industry's hypocrisy.
The real shame of the situation is that these hyper-famous models ultimately overshadow the less-prominent but equally-glorious individuals whose fame has not yet been realized. There are countless stories they can help tell, campaigns they can front, catwalks they can traverse and young people they can inspire, but fewer and fewer people are interested in developing those nascent talents into professionals. As fashion continues its slide into overt commercialism, making space for people of all backgrounds is paramount—there is simply so much more to fashion than money, and the same should be said of those with the privilege of embodying it.