At Top Magazines, Black Representation Remains a Work in Progress

At Top Magazines, Black Representation Remains a Work in Progress

By Jessica Testa—Sept. 2, 2021

On the last Friday morning in August, the website for Harper’s Bazaar magazine led with an image of a Black model smiling widely in an Hermès gown, her hair in dreadlocks. Beneath that was a portrait of Lil Nas X and, just below it, an assemblage of stories about Aaliyah’s personal style.

The magazine’s most recent print cover featured Beyoncé, photographed by a Black photographer, Campbell Addy, and styled in part by Samira Nasr, who in 2020 became the first person of color to lead the publication in its 154-year history. (This was also Beyoncé’s first Harper’s Bazaar cover in a decade; she was last photographed and styled for the magazine by two white men known for selling images that resemble soft-core pornography.)

None of this is lost on Nikki Ogunnaike, who was named digital director at Harper’s Bazaar in November. Nearly 15 years ago, when she began interning at fashion magazines, she grew accustomed to being one of two Black people on staff, she said.

Now she moderates panels during such initiatives as Hearst Magazines’s recent three-day series highlighting Black talent in fashion. (Did she have access to similar programming early in her career? “Absolutely not.”) Now, when looking to fill entry-level positions, she scouts graduates of historically Black colleges and universities far from New York City. (“I don’t think 10 years ago that people were running to H.B.C.U.s,” she said. “They weren’t running to U. Va., where I went.”)

But the question remains: When it comes to magazines, will the change Ms. Ogunnaike has witnessed, accelerated in 2020 by the murder of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed, be lasting? Will fashion, with its history of bias and exclusion, fall back into old patterns of treating racial progress as a trend, or will it truly embrace systemic reinvention?

The conversation around magazines’ diversity problem is perennial. In September 2018, for example, Black women covered a majority of top titles. But by 2019, the models on those covers were less racially diverse, according to The Fashion Spot’s annual report.

Even now, there are signs that the imperative has waned. Earlier this year, The New York Times examined whether Black representation had improved in the fashion industry, including magazines, and encountered widespread reluctance from companies to engage with questions about staffing. Still, an analysis of nine major magazines — four international editions of Vogue, the American and British editions of Elle and Harper’s Bazaar, and InStyle — showed a surge of Black representation at the time.

That surge has gone sluggish. The majority of those nine publications used less Black talent for their covers in the six-month period from March to September of this year when compared to the previous six-month period that came on the heels of the summer of Black Lives Matter protests. (Two exceptions were Vogue Italia and Harper’s Bazaar, which used more Black talent over time.)

Diverse covers also do not always reflect a diverse staff. The people creating magazine covers — the models, photographers and hair and makeup artists — are typically freelancers and contractors, hired quickly and employed temporarily. Long-term staffing changes take more time and effort.

Even as Black leaders ascended to top jobs and turned content in a new, more inclusive direction, they weren’t typically able to make rampant new hires, or wipe out the staffs they inherited and start over. And because of fashion’s longtime exclusion of marginalized voices, the Black talent pipeline went underdeveloped for years.

“When it comes to Black leaders stepping into these roles, a lot of people expect changes overnight,” Ms. Ogunnaike said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”

Read more at The New York Times.

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