Home | Australia | 'Just not blonde': how the diversity push is failing Australian fashion

'Just not blonde': how the diversity push is failing Australian fashion

IMG Models boss Danielle Ragenard has witnessed many things during her more than 20 years in the fashion industry, but a client’s recent comment shocked her.

The client briefed Ragenard’s agency about a new fashion campaign, saying this time, they wanted to feature more diverse talent. Ragenard won’t name the client but she says everyone at the agency was excited about it: “We were like, finally, we have maybe turned a corner. If this brand goes there, then maybe others will follow and we will see different ideas of beauty.”

The team put together a package of potential talent: models of different ages, races and body sizes. Then the phone rang.

“The email must have barely opened in their inbox before they were on the phone and just ‘Oh no. No. We just meant not blonde, says Ragenard. “Like a brunette.”

“We were like: ‘That is not diverse, that is a trip to the hairdresser.’”

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Bianca Spender’s resort wear show at fashion week


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The casting of Bianca Spender’s show including a range of diverse models.


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Model Akiima waits for a fitting.


There’s been a major push for more diversity in the fashion industry recently. Internationally that message appears to be getting through, with this year’s US runway diversity report finding that New York’s fall 2018 runways were the most race and transgender inclusive yet – although there was some way to go in terms of age and size inclusivity.

Locally Vogue Australia made a stand with its April cover featuring former South Sudanese refugee, now Australia-based model Akiima, Indigenous model Charlee Fraser, trans model Andreja Pejić and Australian-born Chinese model Fernanda Ly. And last month the industry was proclaiming that this year’s fashion week would be “a model of multiculturalism”.

Unfortunately that’s not quite true.

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Model Akiima


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The crowd watches the models during the Bianca Spender show.


  • Akiima is from South Sudan but her family lives in Adelaide. Although she’s relatively new to the industry, she has walked for Prada, Hermès and Valentino and has appeared on the cover of Vogue Australia.

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Akiima backstage before a show.


There were undoubtedly some fresh faces – as seen in these pictures – but not much has changed. Yes, Akiima was the toast of most shows; Emma Balfour, Australia’s longest serving supermodel, was in attendance at Camilla; and there were eclectic looking punks at the Akira, Client Liaison, Ten Pieces, Double Rainbouu and Roopa shows, but mostly the catwalks were filled with young, slim caucasian women.

Australian fashion week has never been good at diversity: the headline models are usually of a type – think Elle MacPherson, Sarah O’Hare, Kristy Hinze, Megan Gale, Miranda Kerr and Abbey Lee Kershaw. Glancing back through the fashion week galleries, the sheer whiteness of it all is apparent, with only the occasional nod to “exotic” diversity.

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The Client Liaison collection.


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The Client Liaison collection.


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The Client Liaison collection.


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The Client Liaison collection.


  • Music duo Client Liaison were inspired by 80s brassiness and opulence for their fashion week show

The models know it. Last week Akiima told the ABC’s Hack program Australia lagged behind the rest of the world. “Just more diversity in any shows or any shoots … have make-up artists who know how to do make-up [on non-caucasian models] as well,” she said. “Because it does make it hard if no one knows how to do your make-up.”

The New Zealand transgender model Manahou Mackay is relatively new to the industry but she can see it too. While some shows are more diverse than others, she says the casting can seem tokenistic. “When it comes to diversity, people can … just do it for the sake of being able to say it’s a diverse show, rather than picking girls that represent their brand. It kind of becomes blurry, I think, there.”

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Indira Tamas from Sweden.


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Indira Tamas starred in the Client Liaison fashion show.


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Model Indira Tamas backstage at Client Liaison.


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Indira Tamas from Sweden.


  • Swedish model Indira Tamas spends 10 months a year travelling the world

Ragenard says things are changing in Australia but it’s slow. And while she was encouraged by Australian fashion week, it has a very small audience. The diversity message has to move beyond the event: “I think what that then needs to translate to is obviously advertising and editorial, which is a lot more visible on stand or on the street for a lot longer.”

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The crowd at at the NextGen Fashion show.


One of IMG’s emerging stars is Indigenous model Charlee Fraser, who walked in 40 shows during her first fashion week, including Prada, Balenciaga, Chanel, Dior, Lanvin, Givenchy and Celine. But, says Ragenard, the general public still doesn’t know who she is. And when she gets a call like the ‘just not a blonde’ call, she’s aghast: “[It] begs the question, do people even want to talk about it, do people really understand diversity?”

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A model at the NextGen Fashion show.


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A model at the NextGen Fashion show.


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A model at the NextGen Fashion show.


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The crowd watch the models during the MBFW Bianca Spender show.


  • The fashion week audiences were frequently more diverse than the models walking in the shows

Indeed the problem is much bigger than fashion week. A flick through the current womenswear campaigns online is disheartening: at the time of press the clothes featured by Target, General Pants, Jacquie E, Cue, Country Road, Review , Witchery, Sass & Bide, Sportscraft, Veronika Maine, Sportsgirl and Zimmermann are mostly photographed on slim, white, blonde women, with the occasional brunette. Bonds, Peter Alexander and Cotton On are slightly better, and retailer Big W is the most diverse.

Ragenard says a trip through any of the capital cities shopping strips will demonstrate the vast gap between the models and the general demographic. “It’s very homogenised and you look at the people walking towards you on Pitt Street mall and it’s certainly not what’s reflected back at you.”

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Model Jesse Nishijima.


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Model Jesse Nishijima attending a fitting for Albus Lumen the week before her show.


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Model Jesse Nishijima.


  • Jesse Nishijima has been modelling for about a month, and this was her first year at Australian fashion week.

Clearly the retailers are missing a trick, she says: “[When] there is an Asian model depicted or a model who is older than 30 [in the advertising] and that’s who you are, don’t tell me you are not more likely to go into that store to see what their offering is.”

It’s difficult to attribute blame: the fashion houses complain that the agencies don’t offer options, the agencies say the clients don’t book them – and the models know that if they aren’t going to get jobs, they won’t get signed.

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Jesse Nishijima backstage at The Client Liaison fashion show.


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Jesse Nishijima walking along the red dirt runway at the Overseas Passenger Terminal.


Model Elfy Scott has been in some high profile advertising campaigns including Sportsgirl, Google Android and Virgin Mobile Australia, but she’s very pessimistic about the industry. “In my experience I would say that commercial Australian fashion, as opposed to high-end Australian fashion, is still very deeply concerned with the protection of white Australia. I think it’s changing slowly, there are definitely brands that I have seen that have included models of colour on their posters, but at the end of the day they are trying to appeal to a white audience, and I think that’s where the problems stem from for a lot of those brands.”

While she’d like to believe brands are aware of the diversity of their potential market, she’s pessimistic: “I would say that brands just want to appear as though they are riding the tide of political correctness and maybe as soon as nobody is looking, they will just go back to the old way.”

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New Zealand model Manahou Mackay.


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Model Manahou Mackay backstage at MBFW Sydney.


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Manahou Mackay during rehearsal for the Thomas Puttick show.


Scott also points out the lack of diverse body sizes on the catwalk. There was much hoopla around the curvy models featured in this year’s swimwear show at fashion week but they didn’t appear in many other shows.

The casting is often tokenistic, says Scott, with a larger model proving the exception rather than the rule. “Sure, we can have one size 14 model walking down the runway but where are the size 8 models? Where are the size 16 or 10? If they existed, the fashion industry could claim some sense of diversity but they are basing it on these exceptions to the rule and I think they brings the issue more into light than they do anything else.”

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Models backstage.


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Manahou Mackay modelling for Thomas Puttick.


So, while there’s murmured agreement that things are moving in the right direction, much more change has to happen. As Mackay says, she’d like it to get the point where diversity no longer needs to be discussed: “I would like to see it at a point where it’s not even acknowledged as a thought process – it just happens organically.”

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Manahou Mackay is just 18 years old.


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