Teresa Mathew
September 17, 2015 9:13 am

This has been an amazing season of firsts on the New York Fashion Week runway. From plus-size models leading a movement to models with unique abilities stealing the shows, we’re finally seeing some diversification of beauty standards and we couldn’t be happier about that. But there’s still work to be done. The face of fashion is still predominantly white. At the New York Fashion Week of 2014 Fall/Winter, Jezebel reported that out of 148 shows and 4,621 looks, only 985 were worn by models of color. 78.69% of models were white. 9.75% were Black. Meanwhile, Fusion pointed out that only 14% of magazine covers featured women of color last year.

Model Ashley B. Chew hopes to change that, starting with a simple yet powerful fashion statement. Her arrival at New York Fashion Week has been getting a lot of attention, thanks to her customized handbag featuring the words “BLACK MODELS MATTER” in white paint (a nod to the Black Lives Matter movement) across her black bag. She also wore a white tank top she designed which had an image of a Pantone color swatch with the word BLACKNESS emblazoned on it. And before she could even enter the doors of NYFW, she was a street style phenom. But she didn’t choose this outfit for self-promotion. Hers was a larger cause.

 “Its refreshing to walk a runway that celebrates all types of beauty, but this is not always the case. I have seen many shows over the years and the ethnic model ratio is still very poor with some shows,” Chew told HuffPost UK Style.“As a black model and fine artist it is disappointing sometimes to walk into a casting and seeing later in runways they didn’t cast a model of color.”

Since her street style photos outside NYFW were posted to Instagram a few days ago, Chew has been inundated with requests for her handmade wardrobe. “People have lost their minds, my bag took more photos than I did in 11 hours,” she told HuffPo. “These shirts sold out in hours back in April, but I’m thinking when I get home to Indianapolis, I will have to roll out another batch due to the attention both the shirt and bag have been getting. So many New York Fashion Week goers have been asking me!”

Clearly, Chew’s statement taps into a growing unease with the lack of representation in an industry with significant cultural influence.  And she’s not the only one sending a sartorial message of equality.

Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, founder of luxury sports line Pyer Moss, made a statement of his own earlier this week at his runway show. Jean-Raymond debuted his Spring 2016 collection with a video, clothing, and live graffiti art intended to take on issues of police brutality and the entrapment of the Black body. The models’ white boots had Eric Garner’s final words—“I can’t breath”—written repeatedly across them, and red lines of paint trailed down the backs of jackets like blood.

“If you’re going to put me in this ‘black designer’ category, at least let me tell a story,” Jean-Raymond told Mic.

But not only is that category narrow-minded, it’s incredibly under populated. Less than 3 percent of Fashion Week designers are African American. According to The New York Times, the percentage of African-American designers who are members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America is roughly 12 out of 470. Tracy Reese, designer of the dress Michelle Obama wore onstage at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, was one of two Black students in her graduating class when she attended Parsons from 1982 to 1984.

“I think we all have to make an effort to reach out and mentor and pull people in, because ours is not really a friendly industry,” Reese told New York Magazine, when asked about fashion’s diversity problem.

As for Chew, whose street style shots are overshadowing some of the runway’s biggest players, she’s proven that the right fashion statement can have a huge impact.

Related:

This model with a bionic arm is poised to take over NYFW

PlusIsEqual is Fashion Week’s coolest movement

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