Estee Lauder adding Joan Smalls to its beautiful roster in December helped end 2010 on a hopeful note for the beauty and fashion industry. It’s no secret that diversity has long been a challenge on the runways and within magazine pages. Although make-up campaigns became increasingly more diverse in the last decade, celebrity faces like Halle Berry and Beyonce dominated for black women. Black models, including Jessica White for Maybelline, were not nearly as prominent. On the other side of the counter, Caucasian models were not overwhelmingly outnumbered by celebrities.
The true exception, when it comes to prominently featuring models of color in a context in which the mainstream industry actually pays attention, has been Iman Cosmetics. In 1994, she launched Iman Cosmetics precisely because she spent so many years of her top model days mixing foundations to match her rich complexion. She has since featured a bevy of ethnic beauties that are still pleasantly arresting in the make-up aisles. I was quite excited to see the gorgeous face of my friend, model Nichole (Robinson) Galicia, in the early campaigns. Of course Fashion Fair, Flori Roberts and Posner, among others, were always ahead of the game but Iman’s impact was greater because she was an honorary member of the industry elite. For her to make such a statement turned heads and made headlines.
But, to its credit, Estee Lauder has long stood out from its mainstream peers precisely because it has always favored models over celebrities. And, in regards to its spokesmodels of color, Joan Smalls was very much preceded by Liya Kebede. Even still, the Joan Smalls addition is wonderful news, especially on the heels of Estee Lauder signing its first Asian model Liu Wen. The face of beauty has long been multicultural but the mainstream fashion and beauty industry just began waking up to this in the 21st century in a major way and they are still moving at a snail’s pace for too many.
This struck me quite strongly when I visited Dakar, Senegal over the holidays to attend the Africa Fashion Awards. Although cultivating the fashion industry on the Continent, particularly in regards to designers, was very much the topic, I could not help but notice the beautiful Senegalese women who represented all that the industry says they want everywhere I went. Tall and thin is the norm in Senegal for both women and men. Needless to say, flawless skin is also common.
Yes I know it takes more than height, proper weight and flawless skin to make a model. Personality is also a huge factor. Aerin Lauder, senior vice president and creative director of Estee Lauder, told Vogue.com “When we pick someone to represent the brand, it’s about her personality, too. It’s not just the face.”
But personality is very tricky because it’s very subjective as well. Like beauty, personality can also be in the eye of the beholder. Suppose someone makes a culturally insensitive statement or gesture and a model points it out, does she become less personable? Is she now difficult to work with?
Sometimes we really don’t know. This industry is so not an exact science but one thing is certain: diversifying the faces of beauty that we see will help bridge the gaps. The more we see reflections of the world and not just one idea of beauty, the more comfortable we all become with the world of hues that’s our reality.
As we nestle into 2011, the fall shows are just around the corner. Of course we never know if the message is getting across until we see the runways and the pages of our favorite magazines. In 2009, French Vogue disappointed greatly with its blackface spread with Dutch model Lara Stone and, last year, blackface photos of Claudia Schiffer shot by Karl Lagerfeld surfaced. And, of course, the runways were not nearly diverse enough. Hopefully 2011 will not unleash similar disappointments.
I know that I am not the only one ready to celebrate the beauty of all women and not just a European standard of beauty that hasn’t quite mastered its disappearing act. It’s a new year and we have plenty of reason to believe that, in 2011, we will continue to see the beauty and fashion industry move even closer to embracing us all.
Pop culture critic Ronda Racha Penrice is a veteran freelance writer and the author of African American History For Dummies. Her work about race, history and culture appears regularly on theGrio.com plus she serves as the Atlanta Editor for UPTOWN Magazine, which targets affluent African Americans.