DUBAI: Only one model in 21 fashion shows received raucous applause at last week’s Fashion Forward in Dubai, when she emerged in an electric blue-and-green gown, threw her hand up into the air and strutted Charbel Zoe’s twinkling creation down the runway.
She was also the only black model at Fashion Forward.
In New York, the presence of only one black model in an entire fashion week would have raised hell. But if runway shows are supposed to reflect the diversity of their clientele, it’s actually Arab models who are conspicuously absent from regional runways.
Most of the activism calling for more diversity in runway shows stems out of New York. There, in one of the most diverse cities in the world, the absence of a nonwhite face in any particular show is starkly apparent, and the legacy of civil rights lends volume to critics outraged by it.
Their argument is that runway shows – which are the pinnacle events for both fashion and beauty trend setting – have a responsibility to reflect the diversity of the world.
In Lebanon and the rest of the region, Arab-looking girls are in high demand, but they are rarely actually Arabs. Instead modeling agencies provide Latin American or European models.
Saudi designer Aziz Humaid offered one of the most striking shows at Fashion Forward in terms of model casting, by deliberately excluding blonde models. In an interview after his show, Humaid said his choice was an artistic one to complement a collection in black-and-white color blocking. Had he had his way, Humaid would have painted all his models black.
“Luckily we had brunettes so it worked out. ... But you never know, models come in every kind,” said Humaid, who opted to paint a mask across their eyes instead. “The models were incredible and looked fierce.”
For Humaid, models with dark features represented strong women.
“This collection is for the empowered woman,” he said.
Fair-skinned European models certainly still abound in the region. When fashion shows are small, they are often entirely Eastern European: blonde Ukrainian and Russian models.
To supply the need for olive-complexioned models, Johnny Fadlallah, founder of Lebanon-based LIPS events and model management, said he brings models from Mexico, Brazil, Italy and France.
At Fashion Forward, Paris-based modeling agencies supplied more than half a dozen Chinese models, as well as models from North Africa and Europe.
Arab models are hard to find and sometimes hard to work with. Lebanese women, for example, tend to be too short for international standards, Fadlallah said. But the real issue comes down to conservatism.
“They won’t do bathing suits and lingerie. Sometimes, there is even transparency in couture gowns,” Fadlallah said. “Lebanese models won’t accept this of course.”
This year, Western publications have lauded the rise of Arab supermodels. For some of them, it has come at a cost. Arab-Israeli Huda Naccache posed in a bathing suit on the cover of Lilac magazine, which caused an uproar in her conservative community. At Western runway shows, Arab models might be present, but they are very scarce.
And as for big-name Arab designers, their decisions tend to reflect the modeling culture of the cities they work in.
For example, Reem Acra, who shows in New York, included several black models in her most recent runway shows and has avoided winding up on diversity watchdogs’ hit lists.
Before the activism centered in New York, the presence of nonwhite models came down to trends, said international designer Nanette Lepore, who attended Dubai’s Fashion Forward. When she started in the business, there was a broad ethnic mix, not because of activism, but because that was the trend, she told The Daily Star.
“Sometimes I think designers just don’t consider it, they just want what’s in,” she said.
Or, in the case of Humaid, designers prefer the consistency of one look.
Designers have also defended the lack of diversity by saying that agencies just don’t have much to choose from in the way of nonwhite models. Those agencies are starting to include more nonwhite models in response to pressure on the industry, Lepore said.
On the other hand, in Paris, enormous designers like Dior and Chanel are called out year after year for nearly all-white casting. And that resistance to forcing diverse casts can also be seen among Paris-based Arab designers. Both Elie Saab and Rabih Kayrouz have been called out by watchdog organizations pushing for better representation of nonwhite models.
Race is just not something he thinks about, Kayrouz said.
“When I do a casting, I don’t care where they are from. ... I look to see if she has nice shoulders, can she pull off the clothes,” he told The Daily Star. “Like in my design, I don’t make things because it has to be done.”
Rather than reflecting about the audience or the trends, the models should reflect the mood of the collection, Kayrouz said. For example, he might want models with a young, soft-looking face: “If that means Asian, black or Latin models, that’s fine, I don’t mind.”
As for the near nonexistent representation of Arab models, both in the region and on international runways, Kayrouz asked if that was really something worth fighting for:
“Here, we need to fight for lots of things before we fight for that. ... Isn’t it better to push more women to be doctors? ... After all, it’s just fashion.”