Today is the final day of Mercedes-Benz Australian Fashion Week (MBFWA), and, while we're all busying ourselves with taking backstage photos and writing reviews of the summer 2015-16 collections, and with snapping the totally fabulous attire of celebrities few people have heard of (although last year I did sit opposite Ronan Keating at Maticevski's show, which was very exciting), and with keeping Instagram accounts updated with blurry photos of the runway shows as they happen, there's one thing we're over-looking: the fact that almost every model in every show was white, thin, young and female.
Look through Vogue Australia's runway galleries, or our backstage photos, or any photos from MBFWA 2015 at all, and you'll find less than a handful of models, across all of the shows, from ethnic minorities. Aboriginal-German-English model, Samantha Harris, and Singaporean-English model, Rachel Rutt, are two exceptions to the week's rule of using European models, and they're about the only ones. I haven't seen one model from a gender minority, and Emma Balfour is the only model I've spotted who sits outside the standard age (teenage and very early twenties) of runway models in the industry.
Australian fashion week isn't the only event guilty of this. US website Jezebel undertakes the painstaking task of breaking down every look at New York Fashion Week by ethnicity. In 2014, they found that 4,621 looks were presented, 985 of which were worn by models of color, meaning 78.68% of the outfits were worn by white models.Here's a handy, terrifying infographic:
The lack of diversity at MBFWA this year is particularly problematic for several reasons.
Firstly, the lack of diversity at last year's event courted a bunch of media attention, and it's surprising, and perhaps telling of the entrenched nature of the industry's paradigms, that no-one – MBFWA, the modelling agencies, or the designers – learned from this. This time last year, The Daily Life interviewed supermodel Ajak Deng, who argued that Australia is one of the least diverse markets around. "I haven't worked in Australia for the past five years and I'm guessing this is because of the skin colour thing. The Australian fashion industry is not very diverse. Out here in New York, it's not very diverse either, but it's more diverse than in Australia," Deng explained.
There have been some models from ethnic minorities at this year's fashion week. Singaporean-English model, Rachel Rutt, has walked in many shows, as has Aboriginal-German-English model, Samantha Harris. But these exceptions are hardly representative of Australian ethnography, when we consider that in the 2011 Australian Census, 60.2% declared themselves of European origin, which means 39.8% of the Australian population declared themselves as having other ethnic origins. Furthermore, where last year Desert Designs staged a presentation that celebrated diversity and indigenous heritage, this year there has been no such highlight (although there are still a few shows this afternoon). This is particularly problematic considering this year is the 20th Anniversary of Australian Fashion Week, and that initiatives like Australian Indigenous Fashion Week over the years have done nothing to raise awareness and change the narrow paradigms of Australia's major fashion event.
The fashion industry is currently under governmental and media pressure to sort out body size standards, something that is becoming increasingly urgent as fashion weeks turn from being industry-only events to popular events covered by mainstream media, which, in turn, set the body size ideals of the day. France is likely to institute legislation to restrict unhealthily-thin models from working, and Denmark has updated its Ethical Fashion Charter to further regulate the size and well-being of working models in the country. Australia has no such legislative or institutional regulations, and while industry insiders, including long-time model Ollie Henderson, acknowledge Australian models are healthier than European models (who are described are Paris Slim), there is local pressure to diversity our body image standards, too. Australian model Stefania Ferrario recently launched a campaign to encourage the industry to drop the Plus Size tag, via the hashtag #DropThePlus. There have been exceptions to the industry standard at MBFWA 2015, or at least one exception that I can pinpoint: Kym Ellery opened her show with Gemma Ward, who has returned to modelling after a six year hiatus during which time she had a child. Sure, she's one of Australia's most successful supermodels, but we'll take any form of diversity when we can get it. Kym Ellery also used Emma Balfour, who is in her early forties, in her presentation although this fact, a relative feat for diversity at MBFWA, has been largely overlooked in favour of Ward's return to the catwalk.
Internationally, designers like Hood By Air and Eckhaus Latta, and department stores, like Selfridges, are disposing of redundant gender boundaries, and creating gender-neutral collections and gender neutral shopping experiences. There have been no presentations that subvert traditional gender roles at MBFWA this year, and the closest any designer has come is Kate Sylvester, who enlisted a female model cast to portray both the male and female characters in her homage to Romeo and Juliet. This probably reflects several other factors of MBFWA, most significantly that most of the designers adhere to the similar aesthetic, the Sydney Look so-to-speak, which is feminine and also reflects the outdoor, body-conscious nature of this city. But that doesn't excuse this lack of diversity, it simply means MBFWA should recruit a more diverse array of designers. The Melbourne aesthetic, and designers like Pageant, Verner, Kuwaii and Limedrop to name a few, are all more androgynous in nature, as are New Zealand designers like Zambesi and NOM*d.
The problem of diversity at fashion weeks is multifaceted, and all parties involved in the industry, from modelling agencies, to designers, to fashion weeks, to fashion media, have a responsibility to, well, be more responsible. As fashion weeks become increasingly more public facing, it's urgently important that they become more representative of Real Society, too. While many groups are stepping up to the plate overseas, it's a shame that no-one at MBFWA 2015 did the same.
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