Contrary to long-held marketing beliefs, fashion advertisements perpetuating a white Western ideal of beauty may be missing out on the bottom line. In May of 2012, Elle Canada published a piece entitled “Can Using Different Types of Models Benefit Brands?” by Ben Barry, who is the founder and CEO of his namesake modeling agency in Toronto as well as an assistant professor of equality, diversity and inclusion at Ryerson University‘s School of Fashion. Barry conducted one of the first studies on how size, age and race of models affects purchasing decisions in the category of fashion.
In short, he found that Canadian and American women increased purchase intentions for fashion products advertised by models who mirrored their own demographics: age, size and — for participants of color — race. Additionally, Barry’s study revealed two conditions in which multicultural marketing resonated with consumers. First, the brand had to show a commitment to diversity — that means not just in advertisements but also on the runway. And second, the advertisement’s art direction needed to be just as stylized and beautiful as it would have been if it featured a young, size zero white model. The underlying message in Barry’s study is clear: Advertisements don’t need to sell aspiration through age, race or size. They need to do so by reflecting the consumer through glamour and artistry.
But who’s really paying attention? We crunched the numbers for women’s fashion print ads for Fall 2015 to find out.
After examining 460 fashion print ads, we can report that it’s unfortunately business as usual. *84.7 percent of the models cast were white, which is roughly the same calculation we’ve reported in previous seasons. **Asian models trailed at 6.2 percent, followed by black models at 4.4 percent and Latina models at 1.7 percent. Both black and Latina models were cast in fewer campaigns than in Spring 2015 while Asian models saw a slight increase from 5.7 percent.
The Fall 2015 list of whitewashed campaigns is chock-full of names we’ve called out before. Chloé, for example, is a repeat offender. The French brand has not cast a model of color in a ready-to-wear campaign since 2001 when former creative director Stella McCartney was at the helm. The same goes for Saint Laurent — a label that used to be a champion for diversity as far back as the 1960s. This season, the brand cast five models in a total of four campaigns: Saint Laurent, Saint Laurent Couture Rue de l’Université, Saint Laurent Paris Sessions and Saint Lauren Surf Sound. True to form, every model was white. In fact, Naomi Campbell was the last model of color to represent the brand back in 2008.
Additionally, Gucci, Burberry Prorsum, Moncler Gamme Rouge, Versace and Valentino all cast four or more women in their campaigns with nary a model of color in sight. As you might recall, this is a stark contrast from Burberry’s Spring 2015 campaign featuring Naomi Campbell and Jourdan Dunn.
On a positive note, a handful of brands lead the charge on diversity. Roberto Cavalli, Sandro, Dior Secret Garden, Sam Edelman, Lucky Brand Denim***, Kimora Lee Simmons and Alexis Bittar exclusively cast models of color.
The top 10 most booked models for the Fall 2015 print campaigns were 90 percent white. Chicago native and resident bad girl Lexi Boling topped the list with eight ad campaigns, including Alexander Wang, Coach and Versace. Camille Rowe, Grace Hartzel, Caroline Trentini and Karlie Kloss shared second place with six ads each. The rest of the top 10 each scored five campaigns. This set includes Florence Kosky, Isabeli Fontana, Josephine Le Tutour, Maartje Verhoef and Mica Arganaraz, the only model of color in the lineup. The shaggy-haired Argentinean beauty, best known as Miuccia Prada’s muse, was the breakout star of 2014.
Plus-size models were few and far between. Out of the 707 model appearances, plus-size women were only cast 11 times. In other words, 1.5 percent. The only plus-size model of color was Swedish stunner Sabina Karlsson Candice, who posed for Lane Bryant. In 9 out of the 11 total appearances, plus-size models were cast for mass-market plus-size labels. The outlier was Target, which carries plus lines along with sizes 0 to 10. Oddly, a number of companies that offer plus-size lines, like Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren, as well as Forever 21 and H&M, did not hire any plus-size models to represent that portion of their demographic.
The tide may be starting to turn for the 50-and-over crowd. This season, Baby Boomers turned up 22 times in ad campaigns. About half of the models were well-known, like 57-year-old actress Sharon Stone for Airfield or 60-year-old designer Donatella Versace for Givenchy. Brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Kate Spade New York continued to feature at least one model over the age of 50. So did Marc Jacobs, who chose 51-year-old actress Debi Mazar and 69-year-old singer Cher for Fall 2015.
Although some analysts believe casting older models is a trend that will level off, others are forecasting a shift in the marketplace. According to A.T. Kearney, people over 60 make up the fastest growing group of consumers in the world. Currently, the senior set accounts for 80 percent of all consumer spending. That’s not a figure the luxury market can afford to ignore. But it’s important to note here that not one of the 22 appearances were older models of color.
Transgender models were the least represented group for Fall 2015. Only three transgender models made the cut, and all three women were white. Although this number is small, it’s a step up from Spring 2015 when there was a marked absence of transgender models.
This season, Andreja Pejic posed for Kenneth Cole, while Valentijn De Hingh and Hari Nef fronted an ad for & Other Stories. The H&M-owned label also hired a creative team of transgender professionals to produce the shoot, including stylist Love Bailey and makeup artist Nina Poon. This isn’t the first time the two-year-old brand has made bold choices; in honor of Valentine’s Day, the company shot a campaign with same-sex couple Eden Clark and Lizzie Tovell.
Despite these incremental changes, our full Fall 2015 ad diversity report mirrors our analysis for Spring 2015, Fall 2014 and Spring 2014. In a step to address the lack of diversity in the industry, the CFDA held a panel discussion on the topic earlier this year. Designer Prabal Gurung, a longtime champion of diversity, offered up his perspective: “I’ve been fortunate enough to work with stylists or casting directors where I’m able to voice my diversity, being an ethnic person myself,” said Gurung. “I’ve never looked at beauty as black, white, Asian — beauty is beauty. As a designer, I want the best girl. Sometimes an agent will say, if you want this black girl, you need to [also] use this white girl, who I don’t like, and then I’m like, all right, I’m not doing that. I’m not just saying agents [are at fault.] I think, collectively, all of us are responsible for it.”
With additional reporting by Elena Drogaytseva.
*The term model in this case also includes celebrities featured in campaigns.
**Models of color were categorized as those who appear to be non-white or of mixed backgrounds. Models included in the Latina category are classified as non-white Latinas that do not appear to be strongly Afro-Latin.
***UPDATE: An earlier version of this report referenced Lucky Brand rather than Lucky Brand Denim.