Her career boasts one of the most famous ‘discovery’ stories in modern modelling history. Born 3 August 1990, Jourdan Dunn was found by a model scout whilst out shopping with her friend at the Hammersmith branch of Primark.
She was approached by an agent from top agency Storm, the same agency that is also responsible for launching Kate Moss’ career, and Jourdan signed with them in 2006.
In February 2007, Jourdan made her runway debut at the Autumn / Winter shows for Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren and Salvatore Ferragamo in New York and Milan. In September, Vogue named her a ‘rising star’.
Jourdan’s success continued, with runway appearances for Alexander McQueen and Hermes in Paris, and in February 2008, Dunn got the attention of the mainstream press when she became the first black model to walk for Prada in over ten years. The last black model to do so was Naomi Campbell.
The year continued to bring new honours, including accompanying designer Peter Som to the Costume Institute Gala in May, scoring her first Italian Vogue cover in July and also undertaking an ad campaign with British high-street giant, Topshop.
The cool, street-wise series of images, shot by Emma Summerton, launched Jourdan into the big-time: every fashion-conscious teenager now knew her name and face.
The lucrative professional relationship between Dunn and Summerton continued with editorials in Italian Vogue, and in November, a cover of British Vogue, with Dunn appearing alongside Eden Clark and Rosie Huntington.
In November 2008, Jourdan was nominated for and won ‘Model of the Year’, as voted for by the British Fashion Council. She topped the year off with a cover of French Elle. In February 2009, she opened the Autumn / Winter collection for Jason Wu, plus appearing in shows for Oscar de la Renta and Vivienne Westwood. She also had the honour of closing shows for Betty Jackson, Issa, Thakoon and Twenty8Twelve.
This brief summary of Jourdan’s career to date (temporarily on hiatus due to a pregnancy announced in July this year, with the baby due in December), shows that designers are definitely willing to hire (and re-hire) a black model.
Race in fashion is a contentious issue – even more so than weight. It has been said with alarming regularity that fashion, as a whole, is racist – deep down to its very core. It is true that even a cursory glance over a variety of fashion publications that the editorial balance is skewed in favour of white models, both in terms of editorial content and ad campaigns.
But the astonishing rate, at which Jourdan’s career blossomed, belies this idea. How can fashion be racist and still rave over beauties like Dunn? Jourdan herself was interviewed by iD magazine and refuted the notion that the industry will only hire a small number of black models at any one time. A brief scan of Jourdan’s friends within the industry also questions this commonly-accepted idea: Emanuela de Paula (Brazil-born), Sessilee Lopez (America), Honorine Uwera (Rwanda) and Arlenis Sosa (Dominican Republic). This is not a roll-call of an industry only interested in promoting a blonde, blue-eyed template of beauty.
These names are not necessarily well-known outside the immediate fashion industry, but Jourdan has certainly not been alone on her rise through the fashion ranks. Chanel Iman has also scored much press coverage as well. The fashion industry thrives on finding new faces – and ethnicity doesn’t seem to be the primary decider in whether a model gets signed by an agency.
By choosing to focus on Iman and Dunn almost exclusively, the press have been omitting other girls who are making a name for themselves. Models like Emma Pei and Toni Garr may not be household names, but they are well-respected and making a handsome living.
So Jourdan is right to challenge the idea of only a few black models working at any one time – we have ample evidence to the contrary. What is more puzzling, and perhaps more unsettling, is the question of why these girls aren’t better known? Is there a cap on success in the fashion industry if you are not white?
We all know that modelling is basically a sales pitch in heels. Whatever is being modelled, sells not just the thing itself, but an aspiration, an idea attached to it that if you buy this dress / bag / tube of lipstick, you will become more beautiful by association.
A quick glance of Jourdan’s CV throws up something troubling. She has had plenty of success on the runways and in landing high-profile editorials and covers, but aside from affiliations with high-street stores Benetton and Topshop, Dunn has no other campaigns to her name. True, Jourdan hasn’t been working that long, but if you compare her CV to that of peer Karlie Kloss , who has already landed a coveted fragrance contract with Marc Jacobs, you can’t help but think that something else is going on here.
We consider ourselves to be living in a multi-cultural society, but the facts do not compare well when we look a little closer at the wider fashion world, beyond the runways and the editorials of high-fashion. If fashion truly does reflect what is going on in society today, then why was Jourdan the first black model to walk for Prada in over a decade?
Many fashion insiders are reluctant to get drawn into the racism debate, not necessarily because they have something to hide, but because with this issue, there are no easy answers.
Casting agents for the big cosmetic firms hire faces on one key component: sell-ability. The controversial, but indisputable fact, when unit sales are directly compared, is that a white / non-ethnic model will sell more tubes of mascara than a black model. This then creates a vicious circle: cosmetic companies may want to go with someone more ethnically-diverse like Jourdan or Chanel, but if a white model sells more products, they have to make a decision based on economics, not aesthetics. By not using a black model, the cosmetic company are then continuing the self-fulfilling prophecy that a white model sells more units, and are then even less likely to use a black model for their next campaign. Consumers then only see white faces in beauty campaigns, and subconsciously make the semantic leap that a paler face is to be interpreted as inherently beautiful. They then respond by buying the tube of mascara, again fulfilling the prophecy that in terms of sales, a white model is a more profitable signing.
This leads back to one question. Why are cosmetic companies using white models so much in the first place? Is it because the public can’t see a black model as being beautiful, and by implication, aspirational? Does the problem lie with the cosmetic companies, or with us, the consumers? Are they in fact only following the agenda that we have set out for them? Who really decides what is beautiful? The problem appears to lie not with reality, but with perception.
For centuries, the template of beauty was not predominantly, but exclusively, white. Beauty was built around European features: big, child-like eyes, small noses and chins. The differing facial proportions on faces outside Europe – Africa, India and Asia – were not considered beautiful because they did not match the European ideal.
The preference for petite features is of course grounded in issues not just of race, but of power and inequality. Those who had the lion’s share of the power set the terms of what was considered beautiful. If you did not match the ideal, you were not beautiful – even if in reality you were actually better looking than your European counterparts: reality and perception – very different things.
The uncomfortable truth is this template has been clearly internalised by all of us. Why else would sales of a magazine cover featuring a black model perform so badly in comparison to those featuring a white model? Even now, it appears the struggle for equal and comparative pegging in the modelling industry is lagging behind the times. If lighter skin and features that lean towards European proportions are still seen as preferable, is there any hope for the industry at all?
The fact that the race issue is being discussed so openly means that there has been a revival of interest on diverse kinds of beauty within the modelling industry. Jourdan Dunn, Chanel Iman, Devon Aoki, Alek Wek, Arlenis Sosa and Emma Pei are proof that the fashion industry is more than willing to employ ethnically-diverse models – not as a gimmick, but because these models are extremely good at what they do.
While this is a debate that will continue to spark discussion, what is good news for models entering the industry today, is that the fashion world itself has no qualms about hiring new faces from around the world.
Part of this has to do with new designers such as Peter Som, Derek Lam and Thakoon coming from diverse backgrounds themselves. Their own history and personal understanding of the race issue makes them in turn more aware – and awareness is the key to breaking down barriers.
American designer Jason Wu used an array of black models for his recent Autumn / Winter and Spring / Summer runways to prove this point. To say that fashion does not regard ethnically –diverse models as being beautiful is simply not true. The problem is with perception: and that problem is centred squarely on consumers’ shoulders. We are the ones not buying it; we still prefer a magazine with a white model on the cover and vote with our cash accordingly. Cosmetic companies choose primarily European models not because of some hidden agenda, but because it is what sells. If we really are serious about wanting to see a more even representation of models out there, on the catwalk, in magazines and campaigns, a conscious effort is required to make it happen.
This changing of attitudes will take time, but there is definitely cause for optimism. The flourishing success of Jourdan Dunn’s career shows how high-fashion is willing to embrace new talent. There is no easy solution to the race issue, but while designers and editors continue to explore the wealth of diverse modelling talent available, there is hope that perception will eventually follow reality. The whole point of beauty is that it is beyond definition.
Fashion likes to think of itself as cosmopolitan and part of that attitude is its openness to new kinds of beauty from around the world. But it will take the continued efforts of high fliers such as Jourdan Dunn to keep reminding us that fairness and equality are always in fashion.