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culture

Fashion Magazine Is Doin’ It for Itself

Fashion magazines aren't often touted for exemplifying diversity. Worn Fashion Journal is trying to change all that, one panel discussion at a time.

From left to right: blogger Anita Clarke, journalist Elizabeth St. Philip, buyer and stylist Iris Simpson.

When Serah-Marie McMahon started Worn Fashion Journal, she put out an open call for photo spreads. The magazine was reaching out to anyone and could feature anything, but priority would be given to any shoot that didn’t star a young skinny white girl. It was two years before McMahon was pitched anything but.

Twelve issues later, Worn is putting out the same call.

Since Worn‘s inception the magazine has been cutting against the grain of the traditional fashion media fabric and providing a space to discuss clothes and how we wear them, not just feature trends and runways. But as McMahon points out in the photo spread example, it hasn’t always been easy being different. So when Worn had a chance to take their brand of cerebral fashion coverage from the pages of the magazine to a panel at Sunday’s Word on the Street festival, it’s no surprise they took up a difficult topic, in a discussion titled “Diversity in Fashion Magazines.”

Their working definition of diversity: “a commitment to showing equal representations across culture, subculture, gender identification, sexuality, size, race, and age.” That’s a tall order for a 45-minute panel discussion, but the crowd, moderator, and panellists all eagerly took on the challenge to at least get the conversation started.

Using panellist Elizabeth St. Philip’s National Film Board Documentary The Colour of Beauty as a jumping off point, the conversation included vivid examples from the panellists’ own experiences being women of colour in the fashion industry. Stylist and buyer Iris Simpson recounted a time she had to reshoot an entire spread because when the higher ups saw the photos of “the totally white-looking black model with blue eyes” they decided they wanted something else. Simpson later told Torontoist about her first buying trip to Paris in 1983 where she was mistaken for a model by the fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue—the idea of a black woman working on the business side of things apparently being a novelty.

But as blogger and panellist Anita Clarke said, these types of stories are symptoms, not the disease. All three panellists agree the lack of diversity portrayed in magazines and on runways most often stems from a lack of exposure to other forms of beauty. Though all three panellists say they’ve been having the same conversations about black models or black fashion executives inside the industry and out for decades, they refuse to stop having these discussions. It’s the only way to cure the disease.

As the sun was setting on the festival, chin-stroking crowds came out to hear what Worn and friends had to say.

“You have to keep talking about [discrimination] or it’s just going to go by the wayside,” says Clarke. She also credits street style photo blogs and fashion blogs in general for opening up the discussion. “If you don’t get your eyes used to differences and learn to appreciate them, then it’s never going to happen.” And now, she argues, blogs allow “more voices talking about different aspects of the industry,” unlike pre-internet days when fashion could seem like the purview of only the very rich and very powerful.

In an industry driven by materialism, it’s not a bad idea to follow the money. St. Philips says there’s been an uptick in the number of Asian models recently because of the growing global awareness of China as a buying power. And Simpson credits celebrity culture, which is so often maligned for producing pap, with at least raising the profile of women of colour like Beyoncé and Queen Latifah, who have promotional contracts with Armani and Cover Girl, respectively.

But despite working in the industry, the panellists were not afraid to criticize its more sinister aspects. Clarke admits there’s an underlying message from the fashion and beauty industry that says “Don’t feel good about yourself, because you need us to feel better about yourself.” It’s how they can keep selling lipstick and skirts. And St. Philips believes those feelings of inadequacy some women feel when they see models who are “ridiculously thin being airbrushed to be even thinner,” are intentionally drummed up to create insecure consumers. “I think they’re deliberately wanting us to feel that way so that we buy the clothing, so we’ll feel better. We’ll have this product. And it will make us closer to that image in the magazine.”

So how can we fix collective low self-esteem and generations of racial bias? Well McMahon hopes this sort of discussion will help. And that Worn will too. But remember, it took two years to get a photo spread that didn’t star a young skinny white girl in a Toronto-based publication. Toronto, the city whose motto reads: diversity our strength.

And while the panellists agree the Toronto fashion industry is slightly more diverse than what they’ve seen in New York, “there’s still a lot that’s not represented,” says Clarke. “It’s hard to get everybody.”

But Worn’s never been afraid of a little hard work.

Photos by Adam Goldhamer for Worn Fashion Journal.

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