The front of the Star’s fashion section this morning has a feature pointing out that while fashion models are for the most part unhealthily thin, they’re also more or less uniformly white:
PARIS–Skinny models are still dominating the runways of Europe, despite a furor in the media. But with all this attention on who is wearing the clothes, rather than on the clothes themselves, another troubling matter has come into focus: the lack of ethnic diversity on the runways.
With 86 shows on the Milan schedule and each show with an average cast of 25 models, the odds are there would be more than a handful of blacks, Asians and other visible minorities. But in the few shows that did have ethnically diverse models on the catwalk, the non-white faces were ridiculously easy to count – perhaps one black and rarely more than two Asians.
The main art with the article shows a group of resolutely Aryan models on a runway somewhere who do in fact look as if they all came from the same village in Iceland.
This issue came up with the Abercrombie and Fitch civil rights lawsuit a couple of years ago – it turned out to be easily proven that Abercrombie was running an old-fashioned colour bar for public retail positions, while relegating non-white hires to the stock room. They’re still paying out from the class-action settlement, which is fine – the company isn’t run by very nice people. Not that that should be a basis for court decisions.
I suspect the reality is that Abercrombie was just more naïve and overt about racial discrimination than a lot of other companies, but that’s no reason to let them off the hook – hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and all that.
(Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike) Jeffries alternates his grumpy defensiveness with moments of surprising candor, making him at times oddly endearing. He admitted things out loud that some youth-focused retailers wouldn’t (which may be why he panicked and pulled his cooperation from this story two days after I left A&F headquarters, offering no explanation).
For example, when I ask him how important sex and sexual attraction are in what he calls the “emotional experience” he creates for his customers, he says, “It’s almost everything. That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”As far as Jeffries is concerned, America’s unattractive, overweight or otherwise undesirable teens can shop elsewhere. “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says.
“Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”
Around the time the lawsuit was filed, the New York Times wrote:
Abercrombie’s aggressive approach to building a pretty and handsome sales force, an effort that company officials proudly acknowledge, is a leading example of what many industry experts and sociologists describe as a steadily growing trend in American retailing.
From Abercrombie to the cosmetics giant L’Oreal, from the sleek W hotel chain to the Gap, businesses are openly seeking workers who are sexy, sleek or simply good-looking. Hiring for looks is old news in some industries, as cocktail waitresses, strippers and previous generations of flight attendants know all too well. But many companies have taken that approach to sophisticated new heights in recent years, hiring workers to project an image.
In doing so, some of those companies have been skirting the edges of antidiscrimination laws and provoking a wave of private and government lawsuits. Hiring attractive people is not necessarily illegal, but discriminating on the basis of age, sex or ethnicity is. That is where things can get confusing and contentious.
The problem, essentially, is making a decision to treat people as aesthetic objects, hiring human beings in the same way that you’d buy a sofa. Once you’ve crossed that barrier, why does it matter ethically what characteristic you choose?