At Top Magazines, black representation remains a work in progress

On the last Friday morning in August, the Harper’s Bazaar magazine website featured an image of a black model smiling broadly in a Hermes dress, her hair in dreadlocks. Underneath was a portrait of Lil Nas X and, just below, an assemblage of stories about Aaliyah’s personal style.

The magazine’s most recent print cover featured Beyoncé, photographed by black photographer Campbell Addy, and styled in part by Samira Nasr, who in 2020 became the first person of color to lead the publication in her 154 years. of history. (It was also Beyoncé’s first Harper’s Bazaar cover in a decade; it was last photographed and styled for the magazine by two white men known for selling images that look like soft-core pornography.)

None of this is lost for Nikki Ogunnaike, who was appointed digital director at Harper’s Bazaar in November. Almost 15 years ago, when she started interning at fashion magazines, she got used to being one of two black people on staff, she said.

Now, she hosts panels on initiatives such as Hearst Magazines recent three-day series highlighting black talent in fashion. (Did she have access to similar programs early in her career? “Absolutely not.”) Now, when looking to fill entry-level positions, she recruits graduates from historically black colleges and universities far from New York. York. (“I don’t think 10 years ago people were running to the HBCUs,” she said. “They weren’t running to U. Va., Where I went.”)

But the question remains: When it comes to magazines, will the change Ms. Ogunnaike witnessed, accelerated in 2020 by the murder of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed, be lasting? Will fashion, with its history of prejudice and exclusion, fall back into old patterns of treating racial progress as a trend, or will it truly embrace systemic reinvention?

The conversation around the issue of magazine diversity is alive and well. In September 2018, for example, black women covered the majority of the headlines. But in 2019, the models on those covers were less racially diverse, according to The Fashion Spot’s annual report.

Even now, there are signs that the imperative has diminished. Earlier this year, The New York Times examined whether the representation of blacks had improved in the fashion industry, including magazines, and encountered widespread reluctance on the part of businesses to answer questions about the staff. Still, an analysis of nine major magazines – four international editions of Vogue, the US and UK editions of Elle and Harper’s Bazaar and InStyle – showed an increase in black representation at the time.

This surge has become slow. The majority of those nine posts used fewer black talent for their covers during the six-month period from March to September this year compared to the previous six-month period following the summer of the Black Lives protests. Matter. (Two exceptions were Vogue Italia and Harper’s Bazaar, which used more black talent over time.)

Diverse coverage does not always reflect a diverse workforce. The people who create magazine covers – the models, photographers, and hairdressers and makeup artists – are typically freelancers and contractors, hired quickly and employed on a temporary basis. Long-term staff changes take more time and effort.

Even as black leaders rose to high-level positions and turned content into a new, more inclusive direction, they generally weren’t able to recruit new employees or eliminate the staff they had inherited and start over. And due to the long-standing exclusion of voices marginalized by fashion, the pipeline of black talent has remained underdeveloped for years.

“When it comes to black leaders taking on these roles, a lot of people expect change overnight,” Ms. Ogunnaike said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. “

Chioma Nnadi, the digital director and highest ranked black editor at Vogue, called it “kind of slow, steady journey.”

“Radical change is actually gradual, and changing the culture of a company or changing the culture of an industry – it takes a long time,” Ms. Nnadi, who took office last September after six years as a director of fashion news for the website, mentioned. “To make lasting change, it cannot be a box checked and forgotten until there is another crisis, or there is another flashpoint in the cycle of current events. “

While Ms Ogunnaike and Ms Nnadi work for different publishing houses – each with their own diversity baggage – they sometimes feel a similar pressure, operating within traditionally white institutions.

Lindsay Peoples Wagner, who was appointed editor-in-chief of The Cut in January, described in an essay published Monday “the specific type of pressure to get it right at all times, at all costs, that comes with being the one of the very few black leaders in a publication, and the wire can seem like it is hanging over a pool of piranhas. “

And that’s the problem, as companies continue to grapple with their internal cultures more than a year after being challenged for their shortcomings: Only black leaders are expected to be the engine of change. “I don’t think it should be for people of color to take responsibility for finding answers and solutions,” said Ms. Nnadi.

New organizations like the Black in Fashion Council (of which Ms. Peoples Wagner is one of the founders) and the 15 Percent Pledge demand accountability from well-known brands and strive to uplift black industry professionals. But, say black leaders, it is white institutions that must deliver on commitments to change.

“I would like to be asked of the white allies, ‘What are your efforts for diversity, equity and inclusion like in your space, as a white person?’ ”Ms. Ogunnaike said. “The responsibility cannot lie solely with the people who did not even create these racist systems to begin with. “

The top echelons of magazine banners – titles with “chef,” “executive” or “director” attached – have remained predominantly white, with a few exceptions. For example, under Edward Enninful, the editor of British Vogue, more than half of the last 17 cover models were black; under her predecessor, Alexandra Shulman, only two black women have been soloed in 25 years.

But there have been major black editor appointments outside of these mainstream fashion titles. The influential British independent magazine Dazed hired Ib Kamara as editor in January. Beauty magazine Allure named Jessica Cruel her number one spot in August.

This year also saw the major rise of the Black models. In the last 12 months of covers, one of the most requested models, regardless of their racial background, was Precious Lee, who appeared in the all-important September issue of American Vogue.

This year also saw “the first cover I had with my real name on it,” Ms. Lee said, referring to the May issue of Harper’s Bazaar, a magazine which, growing up, she associated with “all of these. old photos of skinny white women.

Ms. Lee is a black model from Atlanta whose clothing size ranges from 14-16. This range is about average for an American woman, but generally classified as plus size in fashion.

While the relevance of magazines has been questioned over the past decade, Ms. Lee believes cover images still matter. They document history, reflect societal changes and define the public’s perception of beauty.

“It’s something I’ve been fighting for ever since I started modeling,” she said. “For me, it was always about transforming the imagery we see around black bodies, especially African American women to a non-traditional size.”

Ms Lee also fought for more black talent in photoshoots: people who know how to light up, make up and style black women’s hair. On some occasions, she would arrive on a set without “POC people on the glam team,” she said.

“I never want to be involved in something that doesn’t have a large crew,” Ms. Lee continued. “It just doesn’t make sense. I actually think that’s why I’ve been a model for years and people might think I’m a new face. Maybe if I had been a little more concerned with “doing it” back then, not “doing it” in a way that I felt was true to myself – if I didn’t hold on to. which I thought was right – maybe could have happened sooner.

Lacy Redway, a longtime hairstylist, said she has had black clients who similarly fought to get her hired on a cover shoot because they felt comfortable in her hands . Prior to 2019, she said, the only magazine where she regularly worked with an all-black crew on a cover shoot was Essence, the black women’s magazine. When working for other publications, she was sometimes the only person of color on set.

“It may sound lonely,” she said. “Someone might not understand your point or understand the challenges you might present. A photographer who does not know box braids may not know that it will take more than two hours to style them, for example.

Recently, she was hired to do braids for W’s September cover, and “because it was also an all-black team, the photographer gave me no problem on how long it would take,” a- she declared.

Like other black talent, Ms Redway said she had seen an increase in work over the past year, which she attributed to magazines or advertisers responding to being called out or fearing to be canceled. But jobs haven’t gone down over time, she said, which is a promising sign that the change is here to stay.

“I just wish it didn’t come from a place of strength,” she said. “I want it to end up feeling more authentic, that the reason these opportunities are showing up for black and colored artists is because they deserve this opportunity.

“The hour had come. “

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