Chanel Iman, Racism, and the Fashion Industry

Nobody wants to lay claim to consciously constructing these images that perpetuate white supremacy, racism, etc […] and the ironic thing is that I can sit in classrooms and universities, and my students dont want to accept that someone consciously creates that representation.

-bell hooks in Cultural Criticism and Transformation, Part 2

Hitting headlines today around the fashion world are supermodel Chanel Iman’s comments about her experience with racism in the fashion industry. Unsurprisingly, she’s had to deal with her fair share of it. In a Huffington Post article she stated that she has often been told that there is often room for only one black model in any given fashion show who sends models down the catwalk for fashion week.

Racism itself is alarming and highly offensive no matter the situation, but it seems important to note a few things especially when it comes to models, runways, and racism including:

1. Designers and their teams very purposely choose who they want to be wearing their creations for fashion shows. The lack of racial diversity and plus-sized models is a choice that couture houses make over and over and over again.

2. By showing models of one consistent size, shape, and colour, what are designers saying about who they envision as the perfect person to be wearing their creations?

3. Let’s just come out and say it: designers who prefer a roster of mostly whit,e or entirely white models for their shows are a perfect example of white supremacy in the fashion world. The use of “white supremacy” here is a nuanced one, borrowed from the one and only bell hooks*.

It’s also worth nothing that this is not the first time Chanel Iman has commented on the racism she has encountered while being a model. In November 2009, she and Jourdan Dunn graced the cover of Teen Vogue magazine, and  both of them were frank and open to reporter Jane Keltner, noting

“It’s competition,” Jourdan says. “There aren’t a lot of us [models of colour], but instead of sticking together, we’re pitted against each other. People will say things in Chanel’s ear like, ‘Jourdan is taking your spot,’ and then they’ll say to me, ‘Don’t trust Chanel.'”


A large part of the problem stems from the ridiculous idea that there’s only room for one. Chanel says, “You’re being told, ‘So and so is only booking one black girl. It’s either you or Jourdan,’ So we’ll be sitting in the lobby looking at each other like, ‘Okay, I want this job, and she wants it too. Which one of us is going to get it?'”


“I remember last season,” says Jourdan, “I was about to go into a casting, and my agent phoned and said, ‘Turn back. They decided they don’t want any black models.’ I was like, ‘They’re actually telling you that’s the reason? Are you serious?!'”


It’s such a dated and appalling concept, it begs the question of what century some people are living in. “They did the same thing in my day,” recalls Beverly Johnson, who in 1974 became the first black model to grace the cover of Vogue. “They tried to make us feel that there was only room for one of us and that we don’t live in an abundant universe where there’s enough for everyone. We’re consumers too,” she adds, pointedly. “We read magazines, and we should be able to open one and see ourselves in it.”

-Chanel Iman and Jourdan Dunn to Jane Keltner in “Double Whammy” in Teen Vogue November 2009


Returning to Chanel Iman’s latest comments, it also might  be interesting to point out that designers and fashion houses who say they don’t need want another black model erase or overlook the fact that Chanel Iman is actually mixed-race, being both African-American and Korean. Of course, we’re not sure how Chanel Iman personally self-identifies, so it could be that what we perceive as an inaccuracy (i.e.,not recognizing her Korean background as well) is in fact her preferred self-identification.

Bottom line is, it’s 2013. Instead of seeing more diversity, we are seeing less. We know that Chanel Iman was dealing with racism in her job in 2009, and things today are very unfortunately still the same.

BONUS: *To learn more about hooks’ use of the term white supremacy, check out this series of YouTube videos in which she discusses pop culture, privilege, oppression, and many other important things: Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4, and more, just follow the links.

Garconniere did a post on tumblr a while back quoting hooks’ discussion, read part of the transcript here.


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