On November 28, 1973 America found itself officially placed on fashion’s map after the legendary Battle of Versailles runway show. This walk-off pitted American designers against French designers in an elaborately designed show that catapulted the U.S. to design prominence. The 5 American designers who showcased their work to an international crowd featured 10 black models- an unprecedented move in fashion.
To put the significance of this in context, 10 years prior Spanish designer Paco Rabanne attempted to feature a black woman in his “futuristic” runway show in 1964 and he was not only critically panned but he was blacklisted by fashion’s elite for the next 10 years.
While the success of the Battle of Versailles cracked open the door of opportunity for black models, unfortunately the future of fashion was not as diverse as many hoped it would be. Fast forward 40 years and we are in a surprisingly similar state. With the exception of 2-3 supermodels that dominate each generation of mega models, we continue to see a dearth of black models on magazine covers or runways.
One emerging artist decided to create a statement about this. Five months ago, Ashley Chew turned her black leather tote into a protest piece after painting “Black Models Matter” across the front of the bag. The accessory was an immediate hit in her hometown of Indianapolis and the statement quickly spread like wildfire last fall when a photographer captured an image of the purse during New York Fashion Week.
Chew’s message continues resonate during NYFW this week with the bag gaining the support of designers, stylists and legendary models and becoming a media sensation. Coming full circle, I even spotted a picture of Bethann Hardison, one of the original Versailles models, sporting the bag during fashion week. Hardison continues advocacy to champion diversity in fashion today I hope that this reinforced message prompts some overdue progress in diversity within the fashion industry.
The “Artist a Day Challenge” celebrates Black History Month by highlighting Black artists and diverse forms of cultural expression across the African diaspora.