Valentino’s spring/summer 2019 couture show, held in the hallowed halls of the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild, was a celebration of old-school glamour – a parade of floor-length gowns laden with feathers, frills and painterly floral prints – but the Italian maison certainly wasn’t stuck in the past.

Over half of those who walked the runway in Pierpaolo Piccioli’s extravagant creations were women of colour, making it one of the most diverse couture shows on record. Leading the line-up was South Sudanese model Adut Akech, who wore a pink cape with a ruffled hood, and closing it was Naomi Campbell, who returned to the Valentino couture catwalk in transparent black organza after a 14-year hiatus. There was also Somali-American newcomer Ugbad Abdi, making her debut; runway regulars Alek Wek and Liya Kebede; and Chinese supermodels Liu Wen and He Cong. The show sparked tears of joy from both Campbell on the catwalk and Céline Dion sitting front row, but it also laid bare the realities of casting at Couture Week. In a crowded schedule, Valentino’s diverse casting was still the exception.

Fashion’s diversity problem is industry-wide, but the statistics on the ready-to-wear circuit have been improving. The Fashion Spot’s autumn 2019 report found that the season’s runways were the most racially diverse to date, with 38 per cent of all castings going to models of colour (a 2.7 per cent increase from spring/summer 2019). Not so at couture, where the number was significantly lower. Across 22 catwalk shows, only 26 per cent of looks were modelled by people of colour. The prestigious opening and closing slots proved elusive, too. Akech opened Givenchy, Selena Forrest led the way at Dior and Tami Williams opened Balmain, but the season’s finale brides were predominantly white. Chanel made history in autumn/winter 2018 when it cast Akech as a couture bride – she was the second-ever black woman to close a Chanel couture show, after Alek Wek in 2004.

“Shows like that are symbols of progress within our industry,” Akech tells Vogue. “We’ll look back on them for many years to come, but I do hope they bring about more long-lasting change.” Campbell concurs: “The Valentino show was a prime example. They took four months to do their casting and you could see that. It reminded me of the time I was under contract at Yves Saint Laurent. He just wanted beauty and aesthetically the right look for his clothes, so they put in 

Couture’s quick-fix approach to casting is partly to blame for this comparative lack of inclusivity. While at Valentino, Piccioli’s long-time casting director Patrizia Pilotti hand-picked the SS19 line-up, many Parisian houses still rely on agencies to supply them with models based in the city. Agencies, in turn, may not represent many models of colour or have a financial incentive to send models to couture. “It’s about the economics,” veteran casting director James Scully explains to Vogue. “Chanel, Dior, Givenchy and Valentino will fly you out, but there aren’t many other couture houses left that have advertising attached to them. They’re not the most important shows for a model’s career, they don’t pay well, and no model gets more than one or two shows, especially models of colour.”

Even beyond the casting issue, Scully believes Couture Week has a lot of catching up to do. “It just feels out of step,” he adds. “Fashion has to be democratic and couture is completely inaccessible to the average person.” Defined by its commitment to tradition, fantasy and age-old craftsmanship, couture’s value system may have discouraged some brands from challenging the status quo, but it has galvanised others to subvert expectations.

At the heart of Piccioli’s vision for Valentino was a desire to transport couture into the 21st century. “When you think of couture, you think of images from the past,” the designer tells Vogue. “When couture was born, it was meant to be for white women only, not black women. Now, it’s about beauty and extravagance, but it can also be modern. Not necessarily in terms of the clothes, but modern in terms of the women wearing them, modern in terms of being inclusive.”

Scully is confident that Valentino’s shift is a permanent one. “The message of that show was very powerful,” he says. “This time around, I hope they bring some of those models back. Considering the casting at their men’s show recently, I think this will be the norm for them. It’s not just a one-season statement.” Will Piccioli’s success prompt other houses to follow suit? Perhaps, in terms of promoting greater racial diversity, but inclusivity on other fronts – with older, plus size, transgender, non-binary and disabled models – needs to be on the agenda, too.

SS19 saw the now 71-year-old Maye Musk walking the runway at Dundas and transgender model and activist Teddy Quinlivan stealing the show at Alexandre Vauthier. Moving forward, the goal is to make this the standard, rather than the occasional talking point – something couture’s increasingly global, millennial clientele will surely appreciate. “I think couture is the extreme expression of duality and diversity,” adds Piccioli, nodding to its made-to-measure credentials. “It’s all about individuality.”

This week, as Paris gears up for another round of shows, the dramatic silhouettes, luxurious fabrics and decadent venues will remain as they have for the past century, but the faces on the catwalk are slowly changing – and, in the end, that may be couture’s saving grace.

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