Race to the Top

A year and a half after designer Sophie Theallet made news by casting only models of African descent in her debut runway show, Project Runway alum Daniel Vosovic has drawn similar attention this week with an all-Asian lineup

While the new focus on diversity --  not to mention a global customer base -- is a welcome change from the presumptively pale beauty standards of decades past, a question remains:  Is such specific model selection legal? 

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Under U.S. law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.  There are limited exceptions, however, for circumstances in which the relevant characteristic is a "bona fide occupational qualification" (BFOQ) necessary for the job.  It would be very unlikely that anyone could successfully challenge the decision to use only female models to show women's clothing, for example.  Interestingly, though, the BFOQ exceptions in the statute mention only religion, sex, or national origin, and NOT race or color.  Disability and age discrimination are covered under different laws but raise similar questions.

 And that's only federal law.  Washington, D.C., for instance, specifically prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of "personal appearance."  Of course, my hometown isn't exactly known for high fashion, the current First Lady notwithstanding, but just imagine the potential effect of a such a law on New York Fashion Week. 

As a practical matter, however, neither Sophie nor Daniel nor even a designer who resists modern norms and aesthetics and hires only white models is particularly likely to risk legal challenge.  The working lifetime of the average model (a small handful of supermodels aside) is similar to that of a laboratory fruitfly -- here today, gone tomorrow.  It's unlikely that any particular model would wish to spend much of that time suing a designer who didn't hire her for a particular show, nor would she wish to risk alienating other designers.  And even if she did bring an action, it would be exceptionally difficult in most cases to show that it was her race and not her walk or some other characteristic that led to the designer's decision.    

So congratulations to Daniel V. on an auspicious debut and on reminding the fashion world of an issue that's far from merely black and white. 

P.S.  Happy Valentine's Day / Chinese New Year / Presidents' Day / Mardi Gras!