Hannah Assebe's picture
Submitted by Hannah Assebe on September 4, 2014 @ 7:17 pm

In June, London hosted Men’s Fashion Week. Now on its fifth season, the three-day mens' showcase finally seems to have asserted itself. With Men's Fashion Week models filling up the pages of the Metro section and "Things We Learned ... " lists filling the home-screens of most major blogs, we were all subject to the wink-and-nudge novelty of boys playing dress-up. The audience window-shops new gear and new faces from big names. Burberry Prorsum, Xander Zhou, Agi & Sam, Christopher Kane, Christopher Shannon, Dunhill, James Long, Craig Green, Gieves & Hawkes, Joseph, Lou Dalton, Katie Eary, Lee Roach, and COMMON all offered us a new type of man to get in to.

But all of their offerings were white.

To draw attention to the designers and artists who neglect to include people of color in their runway shows, campaigns, and work, we introduced the hashtag #allwhitecast. Coined by Nafisa Kaptownwala, co-founder and director of casting agency Lorde Inc, the hashtag is a callout, both a "we are here" and a "we see you.”

The #allwhitecast is our workplace. The #allwhitecast is the Central line to Tottenham Court. The #allwhitecast is the queue for the Sainsburys self-checkout. Sly in its ubiquity, we almost don't see it coming. Until we do. 

The majority of designers at Men’s did send one, sometimes two, models of color down the runway. Some even got multiple looks. But as all people of color well know, the experience of being the only dark face in a crowd is neither comforting nor liberating.

As fashion reaches past the front row, reproduced in the barrage of images we face daily, responsibilities shift.  As more people of color are invited into the industry, they are implicated in both the conception and reception of product, and their aesthetic cultural legacies find themselves ushered down the catwalk. But the catwalk is not a two way street. As more and more brown faces walk the runway, "we see you" becomes a "we see only you," and representation is sidelined in favor of tokenization. Designers employ black and brown bodies to enact their urban streetwear fantasies rather than express true diversity, using models of color to perpetuate racial stereotypes.

Model: Adam

Lorde Inc

A picture: You look cute, you hit your stride, FKA Twigs's music is rumbling in your ears as the white light of flashbulbs paints your face, you exit backstage cameras popping and ... a photographer reaches out to feel your hair.

We see designers checking their boxes. Despite the casting of models such as Jamaican-born Abiah Hostvedt, who walked this season for Alexander McQueen and Paul Smith, among others, the larger disparity between the experiences, representations, and opportunities afforded to models based on their having lighter or darker skin is left unaddressed. As designers and casting directors indulge models with lighter skin, #allwhitecast is transformed, and the #allLightcast slips quietly under the radar.

Still from designer Cottweiler's LCM SS15 Presentation at the ICA. London, United Kingdom

FKA twigs


I mentioned FKA Twigs. In collaboration with a group of other musicians of color, the London-based artist provided the soundtrack for Cottweiler's seasonal offering. As the models took their places on the stage of London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, this time the #allwhitecast took the form of a swim team. Looking like David Hockney's rendition of an East Croydon tram stop, the models squared up to the crowd, kitted out in sleek whites, the darkest among them dirtied with bronzer and hair grease. Meanwhile, Twigs and her band held to the side, contributing a soundscape that was both enigmatic and deep, but voiceless, noticeably lacking the delicate vocals of the acclaimed singer. Though the British design duo have outfitted Twigs's live shows in the past, the schism between who was wearing the clothes and who was watching them was clear. As Twigs set the mood from the sidelines, her name headlining on the program, a display of whiteness accessorised and legitimised itself with black cultural production. We saw this repeated multiple times, at multiple shows, with black artist of excellence Benjamin Clementine serenading the #allwhitecast barefoot at Burberry Prorsum.

Model: Richard

Lorde Inc

Sankuanz, presented by GQ China 

Vogue UK

Some newcomers bucked the trend. In a show presented by GQ China, Shanghai native Shangguan Zhe's label Sankuanz sent a diverse crowd down his runway. There, the #allwhitecast was overwhelmed and conquered by a diverse band of superheroes that took their influence from manga, video games, and professional boxing. As the frenetic pace of the playful spectacle found its climax, an audience that was significantly populated with young people of color was faced with a band of models doing a final walkthrough who were beautiful in the same way that they were beautiful, valid in the same way that they were valid. They applauded.

A week ago, I found myself descending into the passenger lounge of Heathrow airport, terminal two. Poised above the escalator was a white woman in front of a billboard that asked us to buy cosmetics, its message exclusively in Mandarin. This blonde woman, her blue gaze fixed on the slow escalator, was a member of the #allwhitecast. I imagined what it must be like, to feel my language used coercively, to meet a face that didn't mirror my own, that didn't respect my own beauty. Not such a stretch.

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