Diversity on runways: Real this time?

Ade Jaiye has modeled for nearly a decade.

However, it wasn't until last year that Jaiye, lauded for her ebony skin and close-cropped natural hair, was cast in shows where she didn't feel like the "exotic" one.

"My look is more accepted in this industry as a whole," said Jaiye of Old City, who regularly models jewelry, cosmetics, and apparel for QVC in West Chester.

Jaiye also is the go-to model for the Joan Shepp brand, and in February, Jaiye modeled in the New York Fashion Week runway presentation of celebrity stylist and designer Kithe Brewster. Of the 10 models in Brewster's lineup, four were black.

"My look was considered the token girl for a long time, but now it's definitely more girl-next-door," said the thirtysomething Jaiye. "We are coming to the runway as accepted, not 'other.' "

Bethann Hardison, a longtime advocate for black models on the catwalk, agrees. "We've never seen so much diversity, so naturally. It finally feels very comfortable."

After many years of protests and pleas, the fashion industry is attempting to operate in a much more evolved space - one that's multiethnic and incorporates a diversity of experiences on its runways, glossy magazine covers, and marketing campaigns. Credit social media's constant voice of reason - Black Twitter can be relentless - and a cultural landscape where it's possible that the Oscars' lack of diversity can become the anthem for a show that was created to celebrate the rich and famous.

It looks like these practices are not merely trendy - they may be here to stay. In the fashion world, anyway, minorities are starting to get treated as though they are mainstream, for no other reason than that they are.

"It's a new way of communicating," said Rakia Reynolds, president of Skai Blue Media, a multimedia communications agency with clients in New York and Philadelphia. Skai Blue Media represents Ashley Graham, the full-figured model who landed on one of the three covers of this year's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

"The chief influence officers and those with the most household purchasing power are women," Reynolds said. "And women are driving the conversation around diversity and inclusion, and that's more apparent in fashion."

Other recent examples of diversity wins: Designer Egypt Ufele, age 10 (yup, 10), presented a plus-size collection called Chubiiline during the February shows. International design collective FTL Moda sent down its runway two models who were congenital amputees. And Target announced Tuesday that Mattel's petite, curvy, and tall Barbies will have their own Mossimo and Merona bathing suits.

But it's the growing number of black models - many of whom are wearing natural hair - who make more visible the industry's attempts at cultural inclusion.

Unlike past black-is-beautiful moments - when hitting the two-women-of-color quota on the runway was getting the job done - recent collections offer a vibe that's more organic. Nobody has won the war of inclusion yet, but we can note that progress has been made:

Zac Posen was inspired by Ugandan Princess Elizabeth of Toro and boasted many black models in well-tailored outfits.

Christian Siriano's plush knits and structured evening wear were worn by a myriad of complexions. Tory Burch - the epitome of the wealthy and white - sent her '70s-inspired patchwork ensembles down the runway on models with modern-cut Afros. So did Derek Lam.

"We have a really good selection of girls to choose from," Hardison said of this year's crop of black models on the New York and European runways. "It's constantly building. We are constantly working on making sure these girls work."

Brewster's fall 2016 eponymously named collection told the story of a futuristic, multicultural world where well-dressed women appreciated the magic of David Bowie.

"You are seeing people of multicultural background in a position of power to exercise how they feel," said Brewster, 48. In other words, the people who are making decisions have diverse backgrounds, so when they tell their stories, the aspirational ideal reflects their world.

"That is why I don't think it will disappear this time."

Although, with emerging designers, economic obstacles can quickly limit how consistently they show their work - especially when it can cost $100,000 for a Fashion Week presentation.

Though casting agencies are looking to social media - especially Instagram - to find diverse models, regional, smaller fashion weeks have been important incubating grounds for diverse models.

Kevin Parker, one of the cofounders of Philadelphia Fashion Week, said that in the 11 years he has been organizing the event, he had seen several of his models hit the big time: Philadelphians Henry Watkins and Ronald Epps are working with Ralph Lauren and Balmain, respectively.

"Regional fashion shows have had an impact on the current diversity story on the national and international runways," said Parker, 30. "From the beginning, we've been sensitive to racial inclusion because we started this as a way to give people in our community opportunities to participate in the world of fashion."

Designers, too, are more diverse. Michael Costello (of Romani descent) and LaQuan Smith (African American) got their start at regional shows, and they bring with them a diverse clientele.

Before showing in New York and designing pieces for Michelle Obama and Beyoncé, Charles Harbison cut his teeth at regional fashion weeks showing The Harbison Collection in St. Louis and Charleston.

His diverse experience as a gay, black child growing up in the South in the late '80s ultimately informs his collections - from his inspiration to the models he chooses.

"Everything I do is about a diverse life," Harbison said. "And that makes the industry better. Black women, white women, Asian women, middle-class women, working-class women - they all benefit when a garment is inspired by a diverse perspective. It behooves the fashion industry to welcome that and embrace it."

ewellington@phillynews.com

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