The number of stories from Black models who are turned away from runway castings continues to grow, as do accounts of models who are confirmed for shows, but don't actually end up walking. That’s why we celebrate firsts — like Louis Vuitton having a Black model open its spring 2018 show for the first time in its 163-year history, or Comme des Garçons casting Black models for the first time ever, or the fact that last February’s Fashion Month saw the most models of color walk (as did this past couture season). It reminds us that, albeit slowly, the fashion industry is making a real effort to be more diverse and inclusive — it also makes us more conscious of when brands get (or don’t get) something right.
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On Monday, we saw the dark side of modeling, when Racked reported that Black models had been turned away from Miami Swim Week castings. Though the article did not explicitly name which brand was responsible, it did include first-hand accounts from multiple models, including Joia Talbott. “They told us they didn’t want any more Black models and that afros were a no-no,” one model said in a video posted to Facebook. “They was definitely not feeling my afro at all, so I didn’t stand a chance, right? Wow. We’re ready to go back to L.A., where we’re appreciated, and we book.”
After reaching out to several agencies and models who worked with Miami Fashion Week, Refinery29 confirmed that the brand in question was California-based label KYA Swim. Designed by Kylie Genesoto, the line is known for its reversible swimwear and has fans like celebrity hair stylist and OUAI founder Jen Atkin. Of her experience, Talbott recalls that its casting director pointed at her afro and said: “your hair — no!” At the time, she said she respected the decision on behalf of the brand. “Everyone hasn’t caught onto our natural beauty yet, and you can’t blame them,” Talbott tells Refinery29. “You want what you want, fine.” But it was when the casting director reportedly said “no more dark skin” that Talbott became upset. The model stresses that her anger isn’t because she didn’t get cast in the show; it’s because of how the casting director spoke to her. “People are saying on social media that this is the nature of the business and I’m just mad that I didn’t get chosen,” she explains. “That’s not it at all. You get told no every day in this industry.”
Talbott isn’t alone in her sentiments. Model Kate Citron tells Refinery29 that she has a great relationship with Miami Swim Week and its brands (excluding KYA Swim). “I want to defend Black models, but I am also going to protect my clients as well as myself,” she notes, adding that she believes this particular designer/brand deserves blame for having a narrow-minded view on equality. She continued: “Whether it was for our skin tone or because we genuinely 'didn’t fit the look,' what the designer was looking for remains a mystery."
Another Black model, who goes by Claire B, says that when she showed up at the casting, she was told KYA Swim was only looking for short white models with blonde hair. Like Talbott and Citron, she notes that she wasn’t offended by the casting choice (“It’s okay not to fit the client’s criteria”). “I don’t think Miami Swim Week is discriminating against anyone,” Claire B stresses. “I think it’s KYA Swim.”
Model Fig O’Reilly (who is a full-time coder for NASA when she isn't modeling) also attended the KYA Swim casting and says one thing she’s noticed since she started modeling five years ago is something of a blame game: agencies blame their clients, who then blame their customers. “I’m not particularly sure who started it, I just know that it has to end,” she says.
After speaking with multiple models, we reached out to KYA Swim for comment and were provided with the following statement: “Everyone at KYA Swim is deeply disturbed by the allegations brought by Joia Talbott and other models about the casting event at Miami Swim Week,” a spokesperson for the brand said. “KYA Swim is proud of its record of diversity and we are in the midst of looking into the events of last Thursday to review the actions of the production company in charge of the casting call.”
If KYA Swim really has a record of diversity, it isn’t reflected in its Miami Swim Week shows, nor is it reflected on its website or social media platforms. In 2018, a brand should consider its online presence, particularly its Instagram account, as a reflection of not just a company’s ethos, but its targeted demographic. At the time of publishing, KYA Swim’s Instagram feed shows no more than five Black women (including stars like Gabrielle Union and Simone Biles) since 2017.
It feels easy to pass the blame when these things happen, but the reality is: These things do happen and they’re still happening. But, at the same time, it should be acknowledged that most shows at Miami Swim Week featured a diverse lineup of models — and people should be talking about that, too. What happened at KYA Swim’s casting call should not be tolerated, but it also reminds us that a push for a more inclusive industry can only be successful when all designers are on board.