A Jolt Of Diversity At Haute Couture — & Why It Matters

Photo: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images.
If haute couture week isn't usually on your radar, we forgive you (this time). But you just missed a really, really good one.
For the last of the fall 2018 lineup, designers and their clients gathered in Paris for their annual offering of ultra-expensive, made-to-measure fashion. It depends who you ask, but akin to ready-to-wear collections, haute couture informs the fashion supply chain just as any other week of Fashion Month. The crowds may be smaller, but the fair is no less impactful or important to the industry at large. It's why fashion journalists look at it with the same eyes, and it's why something else stood out this past week that shouldn't go unnoticed: This season was the most diverse haute couture week in decades.
More on that in a second, but first: In the 1970s, it was the late designer Hubert de Givenchy who first brought diversity to the French couture runways. His decision to use models such as Billie Blair, Alva Chinn, China Machado, Jennifer Brice, Pat Cleveland, Bethann Hardison, and Ramona Saunders caught him flack with the press, including pushback from his own clients. But he continued to do so, with Clare Waight Keller carrying on that legacy today. And we can't forget what Yves Saint Laurent did for Black women in Paris on the ready-to-wear circuit (see: Iman, Katoucha Niane, and Dalma Callado, to name a few).
But as the rest of the industry works to make runways more diverse, the same hasn't been said about one fashion capital — Paris — especially during haute couture. The city has always trailed behind when it comes to diversity of all kinds. Where most French houses rely on agencies to supply them, per se, with a diverse lineup of models for their shows, agencies will tell you there isn't enough money in haute couture worth sending models to Paris for. And thus, the cycle continues. For haute couture, brands like Valentino, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dior, Schiaparelli, and Armani lead the charge with more models of color than you can count on two hands (including Asian and Middle Eastern models). Others, like Maison Martin Margiela, Guo Pei, and Alexis Mabille cast less than three Black models, each, for their shows.
Why this matters is more important now than ever: There's a longstanding assumption that haute couture clients are European, Russian, or Middle Eastern. That designers are choosing to use more Black models during haute couture than ever before is a feat in itself, that they're doing so when the portion of their couture customers remains comparatively small to the bulk of their (mostly white) business is, as the etiquette of couture goes, silent yet revolutionary.
And it's why, in the slideshow ahead, we're celebrating the Black models that ruled the fall 2018 season of haute couture — from Adesuwa Aighewi to Indira Scott (whose exclusive with Dior saw her close out the show, her second catwalk ever), Adut Akech as Chanel's 'Bride' (the second Black model in history to do so, following in the footsteps of Alek Wek) — and more and more and more.

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