This article was originally published by WireTap.

Anika Brown

August 22, 2008

Black. Is there anything more iconic, more essential to fashion? More than just a color, it is an aspiration–sexy, classic, provocative, demure, slimming. It’s Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and punk pioneer Sid Vicious. Black is never out of style–except when it comes to skin color.

Outrage and concern over the fashion industry’s obsession with super-skinny models and exotic furs, but little thought is given to its underlying racism.

Last year, only three black models were cast in New York’s fashion week. Across the pond in London, a whopping one model of color was used. Things were even worse in Milan percentage-wise where of the 1,084 times an outfit was sent down the catwalk, it was worn by a black model a mere fourteen times.

The numbers for Asian and Latina women were just as anemic and disturbing, but the representation of both ethnicities was still better than blacks.

The print industry is no better. A couple of months ago a writer for the Times of London scoured through 25kgs (about 55lbs) of the top fashion magazines from the United States, Europe, Japan, and India. Wading through thousands of pages of editorials and advertisements, the journalist found paltry 163 photos of non-white models. Fourteen of this already laughable statistic were of Africa descent. In an industry where exposure is such a vital part of success, the absence spoke volumes.

Not to be left out, the beauty world is doing its part to promote a less colorful society. “Tanorexia ” may be on the rise amongst our porcelain-skinned peers, but the aversion to dark skin that began on plantation fields 400 years ago is not only present, it is thriving in the 21st century.

Case in point, a new ad featuring celebrity powerhouse Beyonce Knowles. Naturally light-skinned and named annually to every “Most Beautiful“/ “Sexiest” list in existence, cosmetic company L’Oreal Paris still felt the need to perform a few not so subtle touch ups. In the latest Feria haircolor spread, the caramel-toned African-American star has been Photoshopped into something eerily similar to the Wayans brothers in White Chicks.

L’Oreal, of course, denied altering the image, but I strongly doubt it. Just last year, the company was found guilty of racism. Old habits and prejudices die hard, especially when all it takes is a few skilled strokes of the mouse.

If someone as talented, stunning and light-skinned as Beyonce “Independent” Knowles isn’t good enough, where does that leave the rest of us?

Knowles has refused to comment, but as ardent fashionista she is no doubt aware that the biggest trend in fashion has nothing to do with hemlines or fabrication.

There is reason for optimism, though. In July, Italian Vogue (in a direct challenge to the excuse that the public isn’t interested) released a groundbreaking all-black issue.

The issue was far from all-inclusive. Despite their darker complexion, most of the models had more European features. With the exception of Alek Wek, the shoot was void of flat noses and kinky hair… characteristics that (with the exception of the north and northeastern regions) are consistent among people of African descent.

Nevertheless, the magazine was beautiful, progressive and (most importantly) popular. In three days, the “risky” edition sold out in both the US and the UK. In this instance, the trendsetting designers and editors are the ones lagging behind.

As a fashion major I have always felt a little conflicted about my love of an art form that treats me more like an exotic fetish than an actual person. I can only hope that this precedent is a new standard and not a flavor of the month fad.

Anika Brown, 22, studies fashion at Academy of Art University in San Francisco and spends her spare time designing T-shirts. Her interests include pop culture, politics, music, art and, of course, fashion.