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Uh, yes, Franca Sozzani, racism is a problem in fashion

The cover of “Vogue Italia” has an important face on it this month: Chinese model Fei Fei Sun, who is the first Asian model to appear on the cover of the magazine. I’d note that US and British editions have yet to feature an Asian woman on their covers, although US “Vogue” did do a spread featuring Asian models in 2010.

Fei Fei Sun on the cover of Vogue Italia

Writing on the “Asia Major” spread that ran in the US, Samantha V. Chang said: “How I wish I could have seen the Asian models of today staring back at me from magazine pages or television screens when I was a Korean-American teenager in the Midwest, wrestling with foundation shades of ‘bisque,’ ‘honey,’ and ‘sand’ in my local Walgreens.” Diverse representation in fashion is important, folks.

2013 is high-past time for putting an Asian woman’s face front and center on the cover of a major fashion publication outside of Asia, and I hope we see a lot more. The more, the better; because Asian ethnicities are incredibly varied, and the more Westerners are exposed to, the better. The fact that we aren’t seeing Asian faces in Western mags is a serious problem, and it’s a problem rooted in, wait for it…racism.

This editorial, titled simply “Fei Fei,” features the model in an assortment of delicious retro outfits, complete with lavish cat-eye, dramatic hairstyles, and elegant hats. Some of them are, as a commenter points out, somewhat dangerously evocative of the “Dragon Lady” stereotype, particularly the photograph of Fei Fei Sun looking fierce with a cigarette, illustrating that simply including a Chinese model doesn’t mean your race problem is solved, but it is a step in the right direction.

Fei Fei Sun wearing a large hat.

“Vogue Italia” has been a bit of a trendsetter in the sense of pushing back against the endless tide of white faces on the covers of fashion magazines in the West. The magazine’s editrix, Franca Sozzani, has pushed hard for the inclusion of Black models, for example, and it’s featured Black models on the cover before in addition to having an entire issue dedicated to Black women. Of course, it’s also run features mocking low-income Black and Latina women. So. There’s that. And that’s not the first time the publication has shown its ass when it comes to grossly racist content.

So I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that Sozzani doesn’t think that racism is the problem with the lack of representation of women of color in fashion, or a problem at all, really. She’s spoken on numerous occasions about the underrepresentation of models of color in fashion, and her conclusions on the subject are, frankly, utterly weird.

In a peculiar entry on the Vogue blog, she namechecked a handful of Black folks in power as though this was somehow proof that racism isn’t a problem, and she said that:

There isn’t a problem and it’s not a problem in fashion either. There is no discrimination.

Well, there you have it, folks, racism and discrimination don’t exist, so really, who knows why fashion is dominated by white models with a very narrow range of body types! Let’s all throw our hands up in the air in a state of confusion, and no one bring up racism, since it doesn’t exist. And we don’t want to scare the horses.

Because, no, really, she doesn’t think racism is the problem: “This has nothing to do with racism. I am positive about that.”

She’s really doubling down on this one. Which is kind of a serious issue when we’re talking about the Editor in Chief of one of the most powerful fashion magazines in the world. Her word matters, a lot, and what she says is taken extremely seriously in the fashion community; just as her pushes for more models of color were considered, so too are her comments on race and racism. And it’s a bit much to hear a white woman informing us that discrimination and racism aren’t issues in fashion.

This is an industry where looks mean everything and you’re trying to tell me race doesn’t matter and fashion directors use “colorblind” casting? (A concept which is in and of itself highly dubious.) Uh-uh, lady, I wasn’t born yesterday.

Fei Fei Sun wearing a dramatic jacket.

It’s a kind of bizarre situation; here’s Sozzani, changing the face of Vogue with covers, editorials, spreads, and entire issues that challenge the tide of very specific bodies and identities that dominates fashion, yet she doesn’t think racism is an issue. She seems to believe discrimination doesn’t play a role in the development of modeling careers, in who is sent to which auditions, in who is ultimately cast, in what kinds of publications models run in.

She also doesn’t seem to see a problem with isolating people in special-interest publications or features, a problem blogger Joy sums up very well in her piece about the “Fei Fei” editorial (which is, by the way, a totally great read):

As much as I love seeing mah home gurlz get represented in the big fashion glossies, I really hope magazines would stop doing Asia model issues, but rather treat these models as just models on their own right. Except that their ethnicity just so happens to be Asian, the same the way I hope plus size models will lose their plus size label and just be normal models themselves, even if there is a clear physical difference between the two. The reason why I dislike such labels is that it turns everything into a kind of a gimmick.

Sorry, Franca, but fashion has a long way to go on its race problem.

Nice cover, though.


But let’s talk about these amazing images, shot by Steven Meisel, because, holy moly. They’re important just on their own and also as part of this larger conversation about race, women, bodies, and fashion.

Fei Fei Sun wearing a elaborate top, with honeycomb cutouts across her upper torso and a huge pouf sleeve.

Everything about this. Look. Look at it. This, okay? Look, I’m not a fashion person, as we know, so I’m not even going to try. But I love the cuff detail, the poufy sleeve, the honeycomb cutout. This would look totally ridiculous on me but she completely rocks it, especially with those giant earrings and that fierce, but even, expression.

We are definitely experiencing a solid 60s revival, so obviously this editorial is speaking to that, but there’s so much delicious stuff going on here for us to talk about. The textures and colors and styling are just amazing, and I particularly love the confrontational nature of a Chinese woman in clothes many Westerners associate with a very specific vision of 60s perfection, where beehives and dramatic frocks belonged on white women.

These are great clothes and great images, but they’re also radical images. These are challenging images, and they are shot in a quiet, matter-of-fact way that really drives that fact home.

Fei Fei Sun looks amazing, and she knows what Franca Sozzani refuses to accept: Race is absolutely an issue.


  1. K wrote:

    I have no broader point here, but damned if “illustrating that simply [X] doesn’t mean your [privilege] problem is solved, but it is a step in the right direction” isn’t, like, more or less the one sentence I would pick to sum up the experience of working on discrimination issues, and the debates that arise. :\

    Anyway, awesome pictures, and I thought the point about sixties style vs. Asian model was interesting. I wonder if they were thinking about that specifically or if it just happened because retro is in and she had the face/body for it?

    Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Permalink
  2. Joy wrote:

    Thanks for linking me! This was a great read. Loved your thoughts that you’ve added towards it. I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

    Friday, January 25, 2013 at 12:51 am | Permalink
  3. Oz wrote:

    I agree, Fei Fei Sun looks absolutely beautiful in these pics. However, one issue of Vogue does not a change make. There is still a huge problem with diversity in the fashion/modelling industry that is rarely addressed. Surely if a designer’s clothing can only be shown to effect on ONE body type, it is not really demonstrating the extent of his/her talents? I would like to see not only a diversity of race on the catwalk, but also of shape. Where are the taller than average women, the petite women, the curvy women, etc.? Tyra Banks has spoken openly about difficulties she has had modelling with designers complaining about the size of her bust, hips, and even her shoe size. Perhaps we should be asking, “Who, exactly, are these designers designing for?” I’m not sure that the answer would be entirely racially driven, but rather would reveal to us, finally, the mythical Ultimate Female Shape that is unattainable by any woman from any place. Let us stop designing for Unicorns and start designing for Humans.

    Monday, February 4, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink