It's not exactly news that the public faces of the fashion industry are often white. But New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan took on the issue Tuesday after a relaunched version of T, the paper's fashion magazine, debuted with what Sullivan calls an "overwhelmingly white" group of article subjects and models. She asked Deborah Needleman, the new T editor (and wife of Slate Group chairman and editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg), to explain.
It was something I noticed and regretted as we were putting the issue together. We are a global magazine and so would like the content, subjects and geography of stories to reflect that. In coming issues, we cover the people and places of Seoul, São Paulo, Kenya, Bollywood actors, Nigeria, etc. A majority of fashion models are still unfortunately mostly white, but it is our aim to celebrate quality and beauty in all its diverse forms. We can and will aim to do better, but our goal is first and foremost to deliver the best stories we find, and it is my belief that quality and good journalism appeal to all of us regardless of our specific ethnic origins.
While I'm glad Needleman regrets the imbalance, her response doesn't give much of a sense of how the magazine might change its editorial assumptions to avoid it in the future. If Needleman really believes that "quality and good journalism appeal to all of us regardless of our specific ethnic origins," then she will start casting models of color in scenarios where they're executives, socialites, or superheroines and trust that T's white readers are just as capable of appreciating the work of models who don't share their skin color as readers of color are expected to be when confronted with all-white editorials.
And while I'm excited to see T's jet-setting fashion spreads, it's not as if international travel is what's required in order to up the magazine's diversity. There are many gorgeous and accomplished models of color in the United States. (A quick browse through New York's model index turns up plenty of them, from Chanel Iman to Josilyn Williams.) I agree with Needleman that it's unfortunate that most fashion models are white, but she is one of the very few in the unique position to be able to help create demand for models of color and bolster the reputations of newcomers in the pages of her magazine. Let's hope she uses her power and commitment to good journalism to do so.