Fact or Fiction?: Racism in the fashion industry

research and words by Iva Mirbach
scientific assistance by Reimund Homann
source: loveFMD

Accusations of racism in the fashion industry are not a phenomenon of recent times, but have been an enduring problem for over the past fifteen years, with this lack of diversity allegedly due in large part to racist stereotypes. The following research-based article looks at factual data and offers some insight into whether or whether not racism is an empirical fact in the business of beauty. This research differs from other studies as we are the first ones who investigate if the racial structure of a brand’s customers bonds directly with that of the models they book. Therefore, we collected different data of the fashion industry and used scientifically accepted statistical methods, such as the chi-squared test, to figure out if the target group is in due proportion with the diversity of booked models. We found out that the rise of Asian models in the last several years is directly driven by the consumer power in China and Asia in general, but that the percentage of booked Asian models is still a far cry from the proportion of sales that brands enjoy in Asian countries. As a result, we can claim that Asian models are definitely underrepresented in the fashion industry, but then again, it is directly related to the Asian buying behaviours. The research shows us why executives in the fashion industry should have the freedom to book the kind of models they want to have representing their company without fearing accusations of racism.

The fashion industry is an international and highly globalized business which plays a significant role in the media when it comes to presenting the latest designer collections. For this reason, during every fashion week, skin colour continues to be a big deal in that many people focus more on the race of the model showcasing the clothing rather than the clothing itself and are quick to accuse the fashion industry of racial discrimination when designers book few black models for their runway shows. Individual black models have expressed their belief of having lost jobs as soon as designers filled their “black quota.”

Nearly ninety percent of models booked to walk on the runway shows at the “Big Four” Fashion Weeks (New York, London, Milan and Paris) are white. Consequently, it is no surprise that many articles have been published where the fashion executives were accused of being racist. Regardless if racism in the world of fashion seems to be a frequent topic, there is just one notable study by Jezbel.com, where real data has been collected to highlight the racial diversity within New York Fashion Week by calculating the number of white, black, Latino and Asian models that were casted in each show. While the research focuses on the diversity of the models appearing at the fashion shows, little attention has been given to what the decisive factors are for the choice of models and, more specifically, if the booked models can be associated with the structure of the customers or the turnover by destinations of the brand. Another difficulty that appeared during our study and which has to be questioned, is that Asian models were not just underrepresented by western brands but also by particular Asian fashion brands, magazines and agencies. It is also important to mention that this study prevalently focused on countries from Asia with a strong spending power, like Japan, Korea, China and India.

The study’s goal is to answer the following core research questions: Is the fashion industry really so racist? What is the factual truth behind their choice of models? Why are Asian models underrepresented in their own countries and what is the aim for that?

Furthermore, we want to determine after which scheme the models are booked. When a brand is casting for a fashion show or an upcoming advertising campaign, what are the decisive factors for their choice of models?

First, we need to define racism. There are various definitions of racism that exist, but for the purpose of this article, we act on the assumption that designers, magazine editors, and other executives in the fashion industry have the freedom to adjust the amount of diverse models to the race structure of their target group without fearing accusations of racism. On the contrary, racist behaviour is defined as the divergence of the racial structure of the models from that of the customers, and accordingly, we try to establish whether their choice of race when booking models is consistent with the proportions of race in their consumers.

To do this, we collected data ample enough to paint a picture of a substantial portion of the fashion industry. We analysed data from various fashion shows (Christian Dior, Burberry, Prada, Ralph Lauren), advertising campaigns (Christian Dior, Burberry, Prada, Ralph Lauren), magazines (Vogue USA, Vogue Germany, Vogue Italy, Vogue China, Vogue Japan), and modelling agencies (IMG New York, Modelwerk, Why Not, Bravo Tokyo, Esee China). To get an overview of the racial structure of their customers, we looked at public business reports of fashion companies and combined those numbers with real data provided by EDAQS Alpha Research and its partners.

After collecting and sorting the data, we used scientifically accepted statistical methods, such as the chi-squared test and the linear regression, to test whether our definition of racism is met or not. In the oncoming graphics we allegorize “real”, “expected” and “difference” numbers. The “real” statistics present the effective number of models by ethnic origin, the “expected” numbers illustrate the number of models by race if bookers would match the numbers of the customers by origin or the geographical facts of races, and the “difference” numbers demonstrate the discrepancy between “real” and “expected” numbers. To sum it up, nearly all of the examined data showed us that with a probability of nearly one-hundred percent, the racial structure of the booked models does not meet that of the customers.
More precisely, the study aimed to achieve the following specific research objectives:

  • To analyse the past retail/wholesale revenue by destination with the number of models by race appearing at fashion shows.

  • To investigate why Asian models are underrepresented.

  • To determine how many models by race are represented by fashion model agencies

  • To review how many models by race appearing on international Vogue covers

  • To compare economic and geographical aggregated data

We have chosen the brands Christian Dior, Burberry, Prada, and Ralph Lauren as brands that trade at the stock exchange and are obliged to release their annual reports to the public. If we would directly compare the past retail/wholesale revenue by destination with the number of models by race appearing at fashion shows, we see that the rise of Asian models correlates with the rise of consumer power in China, and Asia in general. We performed linear regressions for each designer on the connection between the percentage of sales in Asia-Pacific in a given year and the number of booked Asian models in the following year. For three of the designers (Burberry, Christian Dior, Prada), we found a positive relationship between the two variables, meaning that the higher the percentage of sales was in Asia-Pacific, the more Asian models were booked the next year. Two of them (Burberry and Christian Dior) were significant, meaning that the probability that this connection is due to pure chance, is low. Ralph Lauren showed a negative relation, meaning that the higher the percentage of sales was in Asia-Pacific, the fewer Asian models were booked the next year, but this may be a coincidence. Nevertheless, the percentage of Asian models that appear in fashion shows, is far away from the percentage of sales that brands like Burberry have in Asian countries.

fashion shows

If we take a closer look at the annual reports of Burberry, we see that the revenues in Asian countries, which in 2013 were thirty-nine percent, rose by fifteen percent from 2003 to 2013. Besides the strong demand from China and other Asian countries for foreign brands, Japan has always been a large luxury consumer due to their obsession with Western pop culture. Nowadays, the cast of models of a brand is affected by the brand’s revenues by destination and not by the race quota of a country where the brand is based or holding their fashion show.

If we would still believe that the cast of models is matched to the revenues by destination, why did Burberry book only two Asian models, one Korean and the other Chinese, for their Autumn/Winter 2014 fashion show? The reason for that is not a racist-based one, but can be attributed to the buying behaviour of Asian countries. Even if we look back at former fashion shows by Burberry, it is evident that they never booked as many Asian models, but their revenues increased in Asian countries nevertheless. This is given to the fact that with their phenomenal economic growth, the number of wealthy people in China rose rapidly and the perception of Western culture stimulated the Chinese people’s desire for a luxurious lifestyle. Sales of luxury goods have jumped in emerging markets and Asian tourists make up a large proportion of European sales. Accordingly, they enthusiastically seek foreign fashion brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Prada. Major shopping streets, such as the Bond Street in London and Fifth Avenue in New York, are already heavily dependent on Chinese tourists spending habits. Even Vogue France launched a semi-annual lifestyle magazine in mid-August 2012 called “Vogue Travel in France” in Chinese language, since there is a big income potential through tourism from that East Asian nation in France.

Furthermore, models of Caucasian descent are very famous in Asia. A great example of this is a shopping mall situated in Mianyang, a middling city in the province of Sichuan, where a billboard featuring Australian supermodel Miranda Kerr draped in Swarovski crystals welcomed shoppers to the Parkson shopping mall. It is one of half a dozen high-end malls in that city after luxury sales exploded.
Luxury brands like Dior, Burberry, Prada, Hermes and Gucci, make more than forty percent of their revenue in Asia, despite the fact that those brands never changed their marketing strategies by casting more Asian models for their fashion shows and advertising campaigns. One reason for this may be that foreign models attract more Chinese people since they are seen as a quintessential representation of a “Western brand.” The Chinese perceive Western brands as being high quality and high fashion, and successful Western brands design their message in China to be “global”, as opposed to “foreign.” Another reason could be that in an increasingly globalizing economy, the world is becoming a common marketplace in which people – no matter where they live – desire the same products and lifestyle. The economic environment of Western countries serves as a significant contributing factor to luxury consumption and therefore, buying behaviours can hold up in a different culture. This kind of belief caused by globalism results in a loss of culture and local meanings. As such, it seems to be a fact that Asians do not just want to buy a Western brand’s product, but also moreover adapt the “Western lifestyle.”

Even local brands hide their origins by using Western names and models to project a more international image. The Chinese market is responding to the concept of “international,” as opposed to just “foreign” or “white.” Especially cosmetic brands use white models due to the general preference of Asians for whitening their skin. This commercial trend is not just a Chinese phenomenon, but also rather an Asian attitude that includes India and Japan serving as outstanding examples for using a mix of locals and foreigners on their billboards. This strategy of advertising is merely about internationalism and not about a better-looking “type.”

As a first result, we can determine that Asian models are also underrepresented in their own countries. One reason for that is the Asian obsession with white models which can be best seen by the way divisions of Asian agencies are built up. Can you believe that certain Asian agencies split their divisions into Women, Men and Asian? Imagine if an American or European agency would divide their books into Black, Asian and White. Nonetheless, it seems to be standard in Asia to split divisions by ethnic origins. A curious example is Model One from Hong Kong, which even offers a Caucasian, Eurasian, and Asian division. Because of such an exact separation of the ethnic groups, it is surprising to see model Antoinette Ataro, who is of Kenyan origin, listed in the Caucasian division. Being the only black model represented by that agency might be part of the explanation for this rather strange type of classification but on the other hand, it might just be a mistake.


Since Vogue has been the longest-lasting and most successful of the hundreds of fashion magazines that have come and gone, we evaluate the appearance of models by skin colour on covers of the American, Chinese, Japanese, German and Italian editions of the publication from the past years and compared them with the race percentage of each country. Here we see that the USA, Germany and Italy have a vanishingly small percentage of Asians in their countries, which results in a rather limited representation of Asian models in their Vogue editions. Once again, the highest underrepresentation of Asian models can be seen in China and Japan. One reason why we include Vogue Italy is because Milan Fashion Week, as well as the Italian fashion magazines have been especially accused of being racist. Although Italian Vogue released a special “Black Issue” back in 2008, featuring four outstanding black beauties such as Naomi Campbell, Liya Kebede, Sessilee Lopez and Jourdan Dunn, it is very surprising that instead of being praised for such an edition, the magazine actually got criticized for publishing an “offensive, misguided and racially insensitive section.” Many mentions recalled an article that features a photograph of British model Jourdan Dunn titled “Christmas beauty for blacks.” The title may be out of place, but isn’t the art of fashion known to provoke and call attention to topics in an ironical and unmoral way?

By generally analysing global women’s high fashion magazines in Asia, we revealed that Western models were more often used than Asian models, since Western models are often associated with a sensual and sexy image, while Asian models are merely linked to the cute girl-next-door. International magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and Cosmopolitan were among the leading fashion magazines in China in 2012. Since the launch of Vogue China in 2005, the magazine has featured 82 Caucasian, 1 Black and 83 Asian models, while in Japan the trend for Caucasians is more in demand than in any other Asian country, as they have had 184 Caucasian, 5 Black and 7 Asian models since 1999.

Therefore, it is no surprise that fashion brands are following the success of some of the biggest fashion magazines by using the same type of “bestseller” models to represent their company in Asian countries. Consequently, it does not matter which of the brands or magazines we focus on nor the number of models of a certain race they cast or do not cast for their fashion shows, advertisements or covers. We can conclude here that none of them has ever been punished by their consumers for their choice of models.

vogue covers

To avoid getting lost in too many graphics by highlighting each of our calculations individually, which is not the purpose of this article, we will look at the results of combined data. We did two kinds of aggregations: The first graphic chart (first diagram below) shows data aggregated according to economic categories, while the second one (second diagram below) shows geographical categories. The first diagram makes it visible that each subsumption shows more white models than we would expect if they were booked according to the consumer structure. While the picture is mixed for black models (sometimes they get booked more than expected, sometimes less), the state of affairs for Asian models is quite clear, as they are booked less than expected in every economic field. It is distinguishable that it doesn’t matter which type of economic field we explore. We will spot that they all have a comparable booking behaviour.

As mentioned above, with virtually one-hundred percent certainty models are not booked according to the racial structure of their customers and therefore, our definition of racism, meaning that racial portions of booked models diverge from the racial portions of their consumers, is met. Our analysis also shows that while white models have a strong advantage, Asian models have a strong disadvantage, while the picture for black models remains mixed.



As mentioned above, in the second diagram we combined the data according to geographical categories. We compared these aggregations with the ethnical percentage of the USA, Germany and Asia. The trend seen here is similar to the results of the first diagram: With the exception of Germany, white models are always booked more than expected. As for the black models, the picture is mixed with two geographical regions overrepresenting blacks by a few models and one region underrepresenting them by many. Germany is also an exception by booking Asian models quite exactly as one would expect while the other regions book less Asian models than assumed. One should note though that our data for the model bookings in Germany are based on only two sources and therefore, carefulness is necessary by interpreting the results. It is also worth mentioning that the biggest amount of discrimination against Asians comes from Asians themselves, which makes allegations of racism against US-American or European parts of the fashion industry debatable.

Besides the fact that the fashion industry books less models of colour for their fashion shows, it is controversial that most of the articles question the number of black models appearing at fashion shows, while there are more races than just blacks. What about Bi-Racial, East Asians, South Asians, Middle Eastern, South East Asians, Indians, Mestizas, Amerindians, etc.?

Another interesting point to consider is why the fashion industry is always associated with the question of diversity. Take a look at other industries like cars, food, traveling, etc. Have you ever seen a black model advertising German beer? Probably not, since this would not relate to their target audience. Would we say that a brand that strives to attract their customers by booking the respective type of model is racist? Of course none of the other industries are so much represented in the media and press as the fashion industry, and this may be the reason why this lack of diversity is more evident here than in other less prominent areas of commerce.

Anyway, people should not see the fashion industry as inclusive when it comes to diversity. In the end, the question is who really is racist? Is it the fashion industry itself or the people it appeals to? Interestingly, an organisation called “Diversity Coalition,” which was formed by Bethann Hardison, Chanel Iman and Naomi Campbell, called out the fashion industry for their inattention and inaction when it came to racial matters at fashion shows, but the strange part of their letter is that they set Asian models apart from other models of colour. Do Asian models not count as racially diverse enough? The belief that Asians are not actually people of colour, or are a “sort of white” is racism because it denies anti-Asian racism, which has a long and continuing history in fashion. Asian models are grossly underrepresented and this is not only visible in our study, but is also indicated by the fashion history.

If you think back to the 80’s and 90’s, how many Asian models come to mind? At that time, black models like Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Tyra Banks were born supermodels and started to press for a more diverse representation on the runway, but nobody was asking about the appearance of Asian models at that time.

To mention a few very successful moments for black models: during the 80’s and 90’s there was a high demand for black models like Mounia, muse of Yves Saint Laurent, Billie Blaire who was one of the top paid runway models during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Iman, Katoucha Niane known as “The Black Princess”, Rebecca Ayoka, Tyra Banks and many more. They walked the catwalks for big names such as Yves Saint Lauren, Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix, Thierry Mugler, Geoffrey Beene, Oscar de la Renta, and Calvin Klein.

Donyale Luna was one of the first black models to appear on the cover of British Vogue even before Naomi Campbell. Beverly Johnson was the first African-American model to grace the cover of American Vogue back in August of 1974. Waris Direi appeared in ads for Chanel, Levi’s, L’Oreal, and Revlon, while Kiara Kabukuro, an American fashion model of Ugandan descent, appeared in ads for Gucci, and Cover Girl cosmetics. She also graced the cover of American Vogue in 1997. The French biracial model Noémie Lenoir featured in ads for L’Oreal, Gap, and other well-known companies; she also did covers for many fashion magazines worldwide. Nigerian model Oluchi Onweagba graced multiple ad campaigns, including Gianfranco Ferré, Victoria’s Secret, Express, Banana Republic, and Ann Taylor.

Liu Wen just signed as the new Estee Lauder face , being the first Asian model ever. Now in the 21st century, we can say that the trend for Asian models has officially begun. People are realizing that there are more racial facets than just black and white. This is where we should ask ourselves who is racist, what is racist, and why we actually think it is racist. Nowadays, the number of Asian models has increased, and hopefully this is not simply a trend, but an advancement for more diversity in the world of fashion.

The conclusion of this study shows us that Asian models are in large part, ironically enough, underrepresented in the Asian fashion industry more than in others. This leads us to question if Western companies could really be considered racist for the percentage of Asian models they book not representing their revenues in Asian countries. The demand for Caucasian models is in fact higher than for Asian models in Asia itself, yet the Asian market is seemingly free of criticism despite their substantially low number of autochthonous models. We could say that the fashion industry is not racist if we consider the obvious fact of the relationship between Asia and white models. In the end, fashion companies are also entitled to have freedom of choice to enlist whomever they believe represents their brands best, regardless of race.