“Some casting sheets actually said ‘No Blacks,”’ the 19-year-old model Shawn Sutton was saying on Friday, backstage at the Duckie Brown show in the Bryant Park tent. He was referring to the model castings at the recent men’s wear shows in Milan.
“It was pretty brutal and, yeah, it was racist,” he added. “But things opened up a lot by Paris, so I paid it no mind.”
Mr. Sutton was one of 24 models in a show whose casting, for once, reflected some ethnic diversity. It is early days in New York’s Fashion Week, but already there are signs that the recent industry habits of exclusion may be undergoing a shift. Call it the Obama effect, if you will.
“Oh, it’s totally about Obama,” said Marcus Lloyd, a 22-year-old African American model from Dallas. “I remember my agent was like, ‘If Obama does become president, there’s going to be a lot more work for you guys.”’
Duckie Brown may not be the most representative of the 200 shows scheduled for the next week, since the label’s designers, Steven Cox and Daniel Silver, have always taken pleasure in showcasing what the writer Grace Paley once termed New York’s “gorgeous chromatic dispersion.” But why not take this as a signal of change?
One welcome effect — should that change occur and should fashion magazines and advertising agencies and designers suddenly decide to remove the Whites Only sign — would be a boost in employment for all sorts of homegrown talent.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg likes to point out that the fashion business supports more than 175,000 jobs in the city and generates some $10 billion in wages. Presumably some of those jobs go to people from the Mysterious Outer Boroughs, although you’d never guess it based on the stuff that sometimes emerges from the mouths of fashion folk.
Was the designer who recently told me she could never quite figure out where Queens is kidding? She was not. “I know it’s out there somewhere,” she said. It must be, she added. It says Queens right there on the taxi map.
Mr. Sutton grew up in a neighborhood on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, a place where the prospect of finding work in the modeling business — where a successful 19-year-old can pull down more in a good year than most mid-career doctors do— never even came up. And it never would have if an agent hadn’t spotted the handsome young man, who is half African American and half Portuguese, hauling bags of ice on his catering job.
The same is true of Courtney Taylor, 20, who recently starred in a Dior Homme campaign, and of Dominique Hollington, a 19-year-old from the Grant Houses housing projects in Harlem, who was scouted while buying a pair of Nike Sharks at a store on 125th Street.
“I never ever thought I’d be in Milan and Paris,” remarked Mr. Taylor, who had previously had in mind a basketball career that “didn’t work out.”
Growing up in the Grant Houses, Mr. Hollington said, “I didn’t think much about modeling.” He had never heard of Versace or Jean Paul Gaultier or Giuliano Fujiwara, to name three runway shows for which he was recently in Europe. For that matter, it had not seemed to him very likely that his work life would include regular trips to Italy and France.
“Fashion shows have basically been Caucasian for a while,” Mr. Sutton said. “I feel like that’s going to change now.” He added: “I’m not really a black model, I’m a model. I just love putting on the clothes and jumping into the character.”
As Mr. Sutton spoke, a producer called, “First looks” and then herded all the models toward the backstage catwalk entrance. Setting down his plastic glass of Prosecco — Shhhh! Under-age drinking backstage at a fashion show? Shock-horror!— Mr. Sutton looked around at a lineup that was black and Asian and white and Latino and Native American in something like the proportions one sees every day on the subway, yet almost never at fashion shows.
“Maybe having a black president will make the fashion industry be a little bit more about reality” he said.