Ethnic Diversity in the Lingerie & Sleepwear Industry

June 09 2017

Or rather, the lack thereof.

A few months ago, as I put together a collage of our SS'17 collections to attach to email correspondences, I came to a stark realisation: all the models were white. Sure, I don't have a massive line-up of brands that I stock on the site nor have I shot my own editorial campaigns for Full Disclosure (so I am actually grateful to the brands for sharing theirs) but still, it didn't sit right with me. I felt that this was not the image I wanted Full Disclosure to put forward nor was it what we represent and stand for. So I decided to delve into the topic.

The Fashion Spot reported that for the SS'17 shows, just over 25% of models cast were non-Caucasian, and though it's a number that's slowly on the rise, it's still a far cry from where we should be given that the category encompasses Black, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latina models. Cora Harrington, founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Lingerie Addict, the world's most popular lingerie blog, describes the industry we're in "What is clear is that the overwhelming ethnic and racial homogeneity within the lingerie industry is outdated at best and hostile at worst. There is no reason at all, especially not in 2017, for any brand to limit their casting call to 'whites only'". Cora has often raised the subject of diversity in the lingerie industry on TLA, often saying the things most people don't dare to.

Courtesy of Cora Harrington. Photographer Nomi Ellenson 

So the question we keep asking is: who is responsible for this? Why do we favour homogeneity? Do we realise that by playing it so safe, we're reinforcing a trend that doesn't even represent us anymore?

I recently met Loulawa-Marie, a French Black model who was happy to share her experience with me. Having worked mostly in Paris a few years ago, she talked about how limited the market was and pointed out that, in her experience, many modelling agencies typically had only one or two Black models in their portfolios. Moreover, they were often typecast as the fierce, exotic short-haired girl. So when she decided to grow her locks, she found herself without much work, "they wanted me to shave my head but I refused", she told me. Not one to be put down, Loulawa-Marie now organises and coordinates photoshoots with an adorable 6-month old in tow.

So I surveyed a few modelling agencies' online portfolios and found that models of colour represented less than 10% of all the women featured. Some companies went as far as not displaying their photos on their mainboards at all. Whether that's to save them for certain clients or jobs, because they're harder to come by or to precondition you to go for a Caucasian model, I can't say I have the answer. But that's before you've even narrowed the options down to lingerie models. Put simply, this means that if you reached out to a small to medium-sized agency, your chances of finding a non-Caucasian lingerie model were slim already - unless you had the budget for a bigger, more inclusive and varied agency. (I tried reaching out to one agency for comments but sadly did not hear back.)

Via Chinese supermodel Liu Wen for La Perla's AW17. Courtesy of Loulawa-Marie

In fact, this is the situation Leanna Williams, Designer and Director of Harlow & Fox found herself in.

Leanna ran me through her selection criteria and process when dealing with plus size agencies which entailed - in this order - bra size and proportions, model's geographic location (it's more costly to fly a model in) and finally availability (to tie in with photographer, venue etc). Of course with budget also a consideration. This always left her with a very small pool to choose from and unintentionally casting Caucasian models for every campaign. "It was actually then pointed out to me how identical all of the models did look, and the lack of diversity I was representing in my imagery and it gave me a bit of a wakeup call that I need to be more aware of the choices I was making and the effect that has" says Leanna. In her AW17 campaign, she cast a Black model and the results are invigorating and beautiful to say the least. I explicitly recall opening the digital Look Book a few weeks ago and thinking wow right away; it jumped out at me. "I wanted to visibly show all the many sides to the brand [because] my customer is lots of different women. [...] The last thing I want is for my imagery to be saying otherwise", says Leanna.

Ultimately, the customer is at the heart of it all. And the unspoken truth is that perhaps brands worry that casting a model of colour would hit at their bottom line because - I don't know - people are still consciously or unconsciously prejudiced? To quote the infamous song from Avenue Q "everyone's a little bit racist, sometimes". And though this sounds farfetched, until you know how hard it is for a small business to survive from one season to the next, specially in a tough retail climate, you can't understand how terrifying that risk is to take even if you're almost sure it's not true and that your sales would be unaffected or even grow. A study from 2015 by Dr. Ben Barry for The Business of Fashion confirms that "Caucasian women’s purchase intentions did not change regardless of whether the model in the fashion campaign was black or white" whereas "Black women were 1.5 times more likely to purchase a fashion product advertised by a black model." Good news for us all.

Courtesy of Jenny Rieu. Photographer Jason Kamimura Photography @jasonkamimuraphotography 

So it's time for things to change. And it's time for us to make a personal commitment to drive that change.

I reached out to lingerie model Jenny Rieu for an account of her experience as a plus size Black model and her response was inspiring. Rather than stressing on the discrimination, Jenny prefers to focus on the opportunity: "I feel strongly about the fact that at the end of the day if you have talent, brands will acknowledge that no matter what ethnicity you are" also pointing out that personal growth has a lot to do with it. Jenny worked hard to build her brand, created a PR company and fought for what she wanted. She also credits the rise of social media to the expansion and influence of the positive change in her career.

Cora believes "the biggest thing that could make a real difference is also the simplest: designers, brands and retailers should hire models of [colour]." Indeed, a very true statement. Take a risk, be inclusive, want to inspire, set an example, step out of the ordinary and your clients will take notice. Diversity isn't just a press-attracting buzz-word, it's an environment we should normalise. For Jenny, it's about the bigger picture: "It really matters to me to have a positive impact on people's lives [...] and I hope to continue doing that throughout my life whether I am still a model or not". The embodiment of change we should all abide by.

It fills me with hope that the likes of Cora, Leanna and Jenny are focused on and positively engaged with this issue and I am inspired to reflect on how I can contribute. I will feature more models of colour on Full Disclosure's social media, I will be casting models of different ethnicities in our own campaign this month, and I hope, with this article, to inspire fellow brands and retailers to pledge the same.

Shirine x

Special thanks to:
Cora Harrington of The Lingerie Addict  Follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
Loulawa-Marie who can be contacted via Model Mayhem
Leanna Williams of Harlow & Fox (Discover the brand on Full Disclosure and on their website). Follow the brand on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
Jenny Rieu of Ooh La La PR. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter