Demna Gvasalia's FW16 Balenciaga debut was deemed a triumph by most fashion publications; even the most notoriously curmudgeonly critics had something nice to say about the brand's refreshed vision. Despite that, many were still left unsatisfied by the exclusively white cast of models. Gvasalia's ultra-hyped Vetements presentation also featured no models of color, as has been the tradition since 2014.
Casting director James Scully, who frequently works with Jason Wu and Caroline Herrera, was one of the many voices who took to social media to vent their disappointment.
“So if you’re the designer the whole world is looking to right now, how great that your message is one of exclusion which is never in fashion. It must feel like a slap to all of the people of color who line up to buy your clothes that your message to them [is that] you don’t see them in your world," he captioned an Instagram post.
Scully's observation was echoed by industry peers, many of whom took issue with Balenciaga specifically. With Vetements, Gvasalia's own brand, there is debatably more room to execute and defend his personal vision, even if it is very homogenous and very Caucasian. Balenciaga, however, is a nearly 100-year-old international luxury brand that should, in theory, be pandering to anyone who can afford it. In an op-ed for 'Business of Fashion' stylist and trend forecaster, Jason Campbell, was quick to point out how exclusionary casting could potentially harm business in the long run, especially when faced with competition from labels that have taken the pressure to diversify seriously.
"In campaigns, Gucci’s quirky, decadent model squad is multi-culturally representative and looks particularly on point. Céline arguably ushered in the ubiquitous natural hair trend by way of campaign star Karly Loyce. Dominican Republic sensation Lineisy Montero’s racially non-specific beauty is the current face of Chanel (Prada before that)," wrote Campbell of Balenciaga's other luxury-branded competitors.
Representation in the fashion industry has been a hotly-discussed topic in recent years. Heavyweights like Naomi Campbell, Edward Enninful and Bethann Hardison, who leads the Diversity Coalition, have been vocal about the glaring statistical differences in opportunities for white versus non-white models. Nearly five years ago, Hardison even drafted a set of guidelines to encourage more diverse casting. However, it wasn't until this latest fashion week the CFDA took an official stand by sending a letter to industry participants with the below guidelines included.
-ENCOURAGE THE INDUSTRY TO BE INCLUSIVE OF RACIAL DIVERSITY WHEN PREPARING CASTING OF MODELS FOR THEIR COMPANY NEEDS.
-ASK MODEL AGENCIES TO INCLUDE AND SEND MODELS OF COLOR WHEN CASTING. DO NOT ASSUME AGENTS WILL AUTOMATICALLY DO SO. IT’S GOOD FOR THEM TO HEAR THE INTEREST AND IMPORTANT TO SEE WHAT MODELS OF COLOR ARE AVAILABLE.
-REQUEST MODELS OF COLOR EVERY SEASON AND NOT BE LIMITED TO SPRING/SUMMER COLLECTIONS AND HESITATE WHEN IT COMES TO FALL/WINTER COLLECTIONS.
-WHEN SPEAKING TO MODEL AGENCIES SUGGEST TO THEM TO SCOUT FOR MORE MODELS OF COLOR ENCOURAGING A BETTER SELECTION.
-BE OPEN-MINDED TO MODELS OF COLOR. MAKE AN EFFORT TO ADD DIVERSITY TO YOUR LINEUP. IT AFFECTS HOW WE SEE THINGS GLOBALLY AND HOW WE ARE SEEN AS AN INDUSTRY.
-OUR OBJECTIVE IS TO MAKE A SHIFT ON HOW THE MODEL OF COLOR IS VIEWED SO IT BECOMES NATURAL TO SEE THEM PARTICIPATING EACH SEASON IN A GREATER NUMBER THAN SEASONS PAST.
New York in particular has seen the largest increase in diversity of all of the major fashion week shows. According to 'The Fashion Spot''s annual diversity review, NYFW FW16 boasted 31.9% models of color while Paris lagged behind with 21.9%. In fact, last season while Gvasalia showed only white models in Paris, in New York, Zac Posen was declaring "Black Models Matter," and Chromat was casting both trans and curvy models.
Though Gvasalia was reluctant to directly respond to the backlash it seems the criticism may have hit home. This season Balenciaga's lineup was noticeably (if not by much), more diverse. The designer tapped recognizable faces like '90s it-model Alek Wek, photographer Radhika Nair, Achok Majak, Mei Mei Lapres, Naki Depass and more. Still, with a grand total of 46 looks and only a handful of non-white models, minorities remained the minority on Balenciaga's runway.
See highlights from Balenciaga's latest Paris Fashion Week show here.