18/06/2024 1:53 AM


The Queen Of Beauty

On being ‘brown’ in the fashion industry

Photo credit: Alice Cowling
Photo credit: Alice Cowling

From Cosmopolitan

It started with a pair of Primark tights. I’d just hit my teens: black tights had become seriously uncool, and ‘skin coloured’ tights were now a thing. So, I headed to the high street in pursuit of the newly coveted nude tights trend.

After foraging forlornly through box after box of nude tights in the depths of Primarni, I realised that they were all for lighter skin tones. Thinking the brown gal shades must have sold out, I remember asking the store assistant if she could help. I wasn’t expecting her reply: “Sorry – we don’t do them in your colour”.

Cue years of shimmying into tights too light for my deeper olive skin tone and praying I pulled it off (I didn’t), followed by an uneasy awakening of colour favouritism in the fashion and beauty industry. Nude heels for nights out were a hard ‘no’, and you can forget about borrowing your mate’s Velvet Teddy lippy.

I’d flick through pages of stunning Caucasian models in glossy mags at the hairdressers; staring at the same gorgeous, glamorous white faces and peachy pouts that I saw in every window of every high street shop. As a mixed Indian girl growing up in a small village in the Peak District, I was used to being the odd one out – but it still shocked me how whitewashed the fashion industry actually was.

In my twenties

Fast forward to a world where Nubian Skin and Fenty Beauty now exist; I’m in my early twenties, having just finished an English Lit degree with thousands of pounds worth of debt, crippling anxiety and zero clue what to do with my life (but at least I’d found a nude bra and foundation that matched my skin tone – thanks, RiRi).

With nothing to lose, I quit my casual bar job and applied for my first ever graduate role in fashion marketing. One disastrous interview later (I didn’t know who Anna Wintour was), and a year of questionable outfit building in MS Paint (I somehow still got the job), I fell in love with the fashion industry and began my freelance journey in styling and art direction shortly after.

I soon realised that the inner workings of the fashion industry were still as white-centric as the magazines I read in my teens. Sure, a Mediterranean-looking model would crop up in the odd high street campaign, and your more ‘woke’ fast-fashion brands would pop a pic of Naomi Campbell on the ‘gram every now and then – but, for the most part, it fell nothing short of performative.

I can count the times I’ve been on a client shoot with another brown girl on only one hand. Nor have I ever worked on a commercial campaign with a black or brown photographer shooting – and I’m fully aware that the ratio of white women to women of colour in senior fashion roles is always, always heavily weighted towards the former. It’s always felt uncomfortable – it still feels uncomfortable – and it’s not just me.

“I look around to find that women like me – women of colour and hijab wearing women – are hardly to be seen in the fashion industry.” explains Mehek, a freelance makeup artist from Leicester. “Because of the #BlackLivesMatters uproar, we [brown/black creatives] have been given our moment to shine. I’ve had some offers of work since – but I’m feeling skeptical of how long it will last. ”

Fashion and race now

Following the momentum of the #BLM movement, many fashion brands began to face backlash on poor representation across the board. Their response: frantically posting black squares and flowery quotes of solidarity, seemingly oblivious to the casual whitewashing of their feeds – dating years back – that we can, um, all still see.

Trying not to keyboard-mash angry responses to these posts was hard, especially when you’ve heard the phrase “black models don’t sell” thrown around oh-so-casually behind the scenes. Worse, still, when you’ve witnessed brown and black models being dropped from jobs last minute in favour of a more ‘familiar’ Caucasian model (yes, really).

I remember reading an article in The Guardian’s The Fashion magazine featuring model Jourdan Dunn who asserted “[the] stylists, the designers, the casting directors – they’re the ones with the power to change this” – and she’s totally right. There have been times where I’ve pushed for more diverse casting and won; and I’m proud to say that many of my non-brown industry connections call out whitewashing in casting meetings with more intensity than myself at times. But it takes a lot more than a few heated discussions to get brands to understand that it’s not about ticking boxes – and a lot of the time, that remains fashion’s default method of diversifying.

Even when black or brown models are cast, it’s not necessarily a seamless experience: “Being a fashion photographer, there are a few things you take notice of on and off set – like hair and makeup artists that aren’t prepared – kit or knowledge wise – for models of colour” – adds Narita, a Manchester photographer.

And it’s true – I’ve seen afro hair styled so badly (like you wouldn’t even believe) or straightened into oblivion by stylists with years and years in the game, and studio walls papered with makeup references only suitable for lighter skin and Caucasian features. Models of colour shouldn’t have to bring their own foundation, or style their own hair on a professional set – yet this still seems to happen frequently.

So what can we do?

Cancel culture isn’t the way forward. Instead, fashion’s race problem can be curbed by brands opening a dialogue about their own internal structures: is their workforce diverse enough? Who is involved in their creative booking and casting process – are they actively considering representation of all colours?

These questions need answering, and we’re all responsible for asking them. Thankfully, post-BLM, things are definitely getting better – but we can still do better. And, as it stands, there’s still a long way to go.

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