Is Michelle Obama Diversifying Model Portfolios? Not So Much

We're nearly halfway through New York's Mercedes Benz Fashion Week. And so far, the most constant theme is the fashion world's continual obsession with Michelle Obama. Questions abound: Will she show up? (No.) But is that the White House social secretary sitting next to Vogue's Anna Wintour? (Yes.) Which of these dresses might the first lady wear? (Probably few.) And which colorful sheaths were directly inspired by her? (Unclear, but it's safe to say several.)

The claim is that Mrs. Obama has changed the fashion world with her carefully choreographed wardrobe choices, and it doesn't just translate to the clothes. Already this week, journalists have speculated whether the ethnic makeup of models on the runway might shift from favoring Caucasians to include more black models in an attempt to reflect America's newest fashion icon. In the New York Times, Guy Trebay wrote, "Already there are signs that the recent industry habits of exclusion may be undergoing a shift," citing an increase in the number of black men and women getting work in fashion in New York City. Over at New York Magazine, James Lim lauded Jason Wu's choice of a black model to open his show: "Does this mean the days of whitewashed runways are behind us?" he asks.

The answer to that question: absolutely not. Not to be a downer in these exciting times, but if anything, Michelle Obama has merely drawn attention to the current crop of black models, while designers don't appear to have done anything to change their casting preferences. The shows this year still look overwhelmingly, almost unbelievably, white. Impressions can be deceiving, so in a quest for hard, empirical evidence, we visited and perused the site's slideshows of runway shows from Spring/Summer Fashion Week last September to figure out the differences in the number of black models between then and now when it comes to both America's most well-known designers and our first lady's personal favorites. Here's a look:

Marc Jacobs

Notable for: being Marc Jacobs
This Week: 4 black models
September: 3 black models

Diane von Furstenberg
Notable for: Wrap dresses, fabulousness
This Week: 4 black models
September: 4 black models

Caroline Herrera
Notable for: dressing Hilary Clinton
This Week: 1 black model
September: 2 black models (ouch!)


Notable for: dressing Michelle Obama at the DNC
This Week: 1 black model
September: 1 black model (the same one, too!)

Zero + Maria Cornejo
Notable for: dressing Michelle Obama on the train to D.C.
This Week: 2 black models
September: 2 black models

Jason Wu
Notable for: Michelle Obama's inaugural gown
This Week: 4 black models
September: 1 black model

Narciso Rodriguez
Notable for: Election night controversy
This Week: 2 black models
September: 2 black models

Lest we be accused of tokenism, it's worth noting that these numbers don't tell a whole story and that runway diversity also includes the growing number of Asian, Latina and Indian women, as well as models of other varying ethnicities. But the informal survey above does suggest that designers both young and established haven't made much of the fact that one of the most inspiring women in these dour economic times happens to be African-American, and that there are likely many customers who would like to see greater black representation on the runway. To be fair, some small steps have been made to address the current moment in fashion: Maria Cornejo chose the black model Jeniel Williams to open her show and Thakoon had Jourdan Dunn close his show. Jason Wu should be lauded for using more women of color, but then again, he's the designer who has perhaps benefited the most from Obama's gown choices.

And even in Wu's case, his choices likely have had little to do with inclusion. Instead, it's probably about good timing: for the last few years, younger black models have risen through the ranks, receiving attention from designers and fashion photographers alike. So when Jason Wu, Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg chose four black women for their shows, they picked from the same pool of experienced and expensive models: Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, Arlenis Sosa, Sessilee Lopez and the former Miss Africa, Georgia Baddiel. These are the go-to girls of color, if you will. Their inclusion on more runways is great for their personal careers, but hiring pros like them signals little in the way of a renewed focus on diversity in fashion.

Because this isn't just about Michelle Obama—even if it may be veiled in conversations about her. For years, fashion, like the country as a whole, has been accused of expressing latent racism by not including a broad spectrum of minorities (beyond the black/white paradigm) and remaining largely white. The designers can't be solely blamed for this, of course, as advertisers, fashion magazines and the modeling agencies themselves are the tastemakers for an entire industry.

When it came to America, the November election showed that we've become at least somewhat more progressive. But when it comes to fashion? White remains the new black, which is too bad.