Chanel Iman Robinson, a 17-year-old model from Los Angeles, is celebrated enough in the industry to drop her last name, in the style of Naomi, Cindy and Tyra. But she still gets passed over for jobs. "I will fly to London for what is supposed to be 20 casting calls and won't get but 15 because the other five designers don't want black models," she says. "That's not going to happen to white models. It's upsetting and insulting and totally backwards.''
In a year when Donatella Versace dedicated her men's spring-summer collection to Barack Obama, others in the fashion world are lamenting the absence of black faces on runways. "This is not the conversation I thought I would have to have at this point,'' says model Naomi Campbell. "You think you've broken the barriers and then the game changes. So you have to fight all over again.'' Campbell, along with black supermodels Beverly Johnson, Iman and Tyra Banks, gained worldwide fame in the 1980s and 1990s. But after Banks left for TV and Campbell worked on her left jab, designers such as Miuccia Prada turned chiefly to Eastern European girls. Prada's spring show featured just one black model, Jourdan Dunn—and she was the first in 11 years for the label. (Prada New York declined to comment.) Pale skin, blue eyes and curve-free figures became the desired esthetic and, according to many in the fashion world, caused an industry that once led on racial diversity to slip backward. "Two years ago, I attended Fashion Week and saw girl after girl who looked exactly the same,'' says Bethann Hardison, an ex-model who discovered Campbell and Tyson Beckford. "I immediately phoned Iman and any other black model I knew and said, 'We have to do something'.''
The talk became so loud that Diane von Furstenburg, head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, sent out an e-mail prior to casting for this year's Fashion Week asking designers to be "mindful of diversity.'' July's Italian Vogue features only black models; the magazine's editor, Franca Sozzani, said she wanted to address the industry's lack of diversity. Models in the issue, including Alek Wek, say they're delighted with the message it will send to publications such as American Vogue, whose only recent black cover models have been NBA star LeBron James and actress Jennifer Hudson. But Hardison says more needs to be done. "We don't want to be separated in our own issue—we want to be included," she says. "A few articles and an all-black issue isn't enough to make this go away.''