NEW YORK (Reuters) - A dearth of black models strutting the catwalks is a persistent issue in the fashion world and while the numbers have improved, there are still too few, fashion observers say.
At New York's semi-annual Fashion Week ending on Friday, many designers used two or three black models, in the more than 30 shows attended by Reuters reporters. Several only used one, and some had none. Most of the shows featured between 12 and 25 models.
Labels Tracy Reese, DKNY and Diane von Furstenberg displayed a high number of black models this season while others, such as Vivienne Tam, did not use any.
Too few industry types are following the lead of former Vogue editor Grace Mirabella, the first to use a black model on the magazine's cover, said Tim Gunn, creative director at Liz Claiborne and co-host of Bravo television's "Project Runway."
Some designers consider cultural and ethnic diversity on the runway, "but there are not enough," he said.
While the issue was once left to pioneering black models Iman and Naomi Campbell to note, attention has grown recently.
This year, Vogue Italia's first "Black Issue," with more than 20 black models, created worldwide buzz and sold out.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America, the U.S. industry trade group, has said it is up to the designers to establish ethnic diversity. This season, the group's president, Diane von Furstenberg, urged them to seek a diversity of models.
Blacks make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to census data.
Some insiders said fashion still discriminates.
"Visually on the runways, it has improved," said Bethann Hardison, a 1970s African-American runway model. "But the results are still racist. You choose the same white and you never go towards the brown or the dark."
Designer Tracy Reese said the question of diversity on the runway needs to be brought up again and again to ensure change.
"If it's too exclusionary, it puts me off," she said.
More than three decades after Yves Saint Laurent hired the first black model for his collection, many designers say it's their right to cast models regardless of race.
Rubin Singer, who said he was criticized for "going too ethnic" by using a high number of black models last season, said his choice always depends on the designs and what sells.
"I'm dressing women here," he said. "I'm building a business and building my customer base."
Designer Michael Angel said: "I don't ever think about color, nor do I think of race. That is the most backward way to think."
Other designers blamed the modeling agencies.
"It's very hard to find them," said Adriano Iodice. "If you ask an agency to send 25 composites of models, only two or three of them will be black."
IMG Models did not return calls for comment. Neal Hamil, of Elite Model Management, said his agency was "stepping in the right direction" and he sees progress.
"I believe the fashion industry has taken note on this serious issue. The greater number of ethnic models seen on the runway is apparent," he said.
Others said discussions of the issue and media attention had stirred the industry's consciousness.
"There has been a definite surge, to use the military term, of much diversity, particularly more black girls," said Andre Leon Talley, editor-at-large at Vogue. "There's been a series of conversations. It's a fresh moment."
A spotlight on race due to Barack Obama's presidential nomination could spill into fashion, commentators said.
"It is my hope because of Michelle Obama that fashion will grasp it and redefine beauty," said fashion author Kathryn Finney, referring to the Democratic candidate's wife.
Gunn added that not just the runways need to change.
"I would like to see more diversity among fashion designers," he said. "With more support for designers of color, that can help this issue as well."
Additional reporting by Jan Paschal, Michelle Nichols, Martine Geller and Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Mohammad Zargham