Commentary: Fashion Mavens Still Like Light Skin

In a tidy piece of cultural synchronicity, last month saw both the arrival of the latest issue of Italian Vogue, which exclusively features black models, and the debut in earnest of Barack Obama's presidential campaign as the Democratic nominee. Race has been a singularly polarizing, and thus creatively compelling, issue for centuries, but Obama's emergence onto the national and international stage has brought the topic out from the shadows. Sadly, in the modelling industry, attitudes about race aren't nearly as progressive as they appear to be in the political world. Italian Vogue's initiative has prompted some industry dialogue about why black models remain marginalized, but the issue runs across the entire color spectrum, affecting more than just black people. In the fashion circuit of cities like New York, Paris and Milan, or extended to a more international network of major cities like Sao Paulo, Tokyo and Bombay, racism is alive and well. Despite vastly different cultural and geographic contexts, and the unique physical characteristics of each country's citizens, in most places, light is still right.

In India, Indrani Dasgupta is one of the most successful supermodels, and it comes as no surprise that she's also fair-skinned. Hailing from Bengal, she's a beauty in a classically North Indian mould: high cheekbones, wide eyes and pale skin. India has some 'dusky' models (as they are called there) who have found success, but the prevailing standard of beauty remains defined by a genetic characteristic that leaves out the vast majority of the population. Whitening creams are best-selling cosmetic products, and many women, especially in the upper end of the socioeconomic bracket, take pains to stay out of the sun, opting instead for SPF 50. Dasgupta observes, "India is a media-obsessed country and the images that are beamed into millions of homes are those of lighter [skinned] actors and actresses. Everybody wants to look like a movie star, so it really feeds off each other, where art is imitating life, or vice versa."

On the far Eastern end of Asia sits Japan, home to one of the most respected international editions of Vogue, and a voracious consumer culture that is constantly on the prowl for the latest trends. One current that hasn't changed much since the post WWII years, when American culture began to infiltrate Japan, is the veneration of a Western ideal of beauty. Bizzarely, most Japanese anime characters are drawn with blond hair, and the pages of fashion magazines routinely feature Russian and Eastern European models gazing at the reader with blindingly blue eyes. Fashion journalist Akiko Ichikawa observes, "In Japan, white people are the beauty ideal. There aren't many immigrants and the culture is very hierarchical so there are very specific ideas that 'the eye should be like this, the mouth like this, etc'. Fashion has always come to us from Western countries, so from the beginning we've gotten used to seeing those images from Western magazines." Perhaps more than any other culture on Earth, Japan is driven by trends, and the prevailing beauty tastes perpetually skew towards the West.

Even in Brazil, a country that epitomizes the multi-ethnic melting pot ideal and churns out some of the most beautiful models in the world, European features remain the ideal. Supermodel Caroline Ribeiro, who is half-Amazonian Indian and half-Portugese, had a difficult time at the beginning of her career. "I always had problems, especially here, because we always want something that we don't have," she says, "blonds and blue eyes, something we can't get, something we believe is better." She found international success after being chosen for a Gucci campaign by designer Tom Ford, but certain doors remained closed. "I learned when I first started that [the modeling world] is really separated. If you're Latin, you can't be on the cover of certain magazines because it won't sell. I got [the] Revlon [contract] partially because I could work for the Asian market and the Latin market, and it's always been that way, divided into markets." While money is the primary motivator behind casting decisions, Ribeiro also notices a correlation with the Brazillian tendency to prioritize imported Western values. "Whatever happens in the States or in Paris, we copy. In the fashion world, it's not a question of country really—it's one group of people who control things and everybody else follows" regardless of geographical location.

Anita Bitton, a leading casting director based out of New York, works with a host of high-profile clients worldwide. Her experience confirms the consensus that emerges when speaking with fashion industry members in foreign markets: that it all boils down to economics, to the images that are being marketed to consumers, to the faces that are bought and sold. "It has been my education that advertising creates a need. While Steven Miesel, [the photographer who shot the Italian Vogue issue], is extremely important, where are the [executives] who are making these decisions? So far the voices we hear are not the powerful movers and shakers, but the facilitators: the photographers, casting agents, stylists, etc. Where are the voices of the individuals that are feeding these images to our society?"

One would think that as emerging markets become more important to meeting luxury conglomerates' growth targets, the suits would insist on increasingly diverse ethnic representations, if only as a marketing strategy. The industry has seen some gestures of tokenism, as the occasional Korean, Japanese or Indian model lands a big campaign, but still, the problem remains deep-seated because so many countries have internalized racist ideas about beauty, discounting their own unique appeal. Until these post-colonial attitudes evolve and 'ethnic' consumers demand more balanced representation, the occasional non-white face in a Hermes ad or collector's edition issue of Italian Vogue will remain novelty acts, ways for the fashion establishment to appease critics and appear progressive, without posing a real threat to the dominant paradigm—more proof that, in fashion, everything changes, yet still remains the same.