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Fall Fashion Week

Fashion models breaking barriers

Women of color still facing challenges on the runway

From Jason Carroll

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Liya Kebede is breaking modeling barriers.
Alek Wek
Matthew Williamson

NEW YORK (CNN) -- She is the fashion model of the moment.

Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede is known for her beauty and for breaking barriers.

Kebede is the first black woman to land a coveted cosmetics contract with Estée Lauder, which was a first in that company's 59-year history.

"I think Liya's Estée Lauder contract was probably the shot heard round the world," said Ivan Bart, president of IMG Models.

Kebede is satisfied with her status. "I don't think I can ask for anything more," she said.

Liya's break came when Tom Ford, former designer for Gucci, chose her for the runway when she was still a struggling model in Chicago.

"It was tough. I got lucky with the whole Tom Ford thing," explained Kebede.

Her success -- and that of Sudan's Alek Wek and Japan's Ai Tominaga -- is the exception, though.

Though those models are redefining beauty standards, progress for most models of color is slow.

The omissions are evident. Take fashion giant Prada, for example. CNN looked at runway shows going back several years.

Last year, there were no women of color in their show. In 2003, none and in 2002, zero.

Indeed, Prada has not put a woman of color on its runway in at least six years. A Prada spokesperson did not return CNN's calls.

Some models try to remain upbeat. "It has always been a sweet struggle," says Indian model Ujjwala Raut.

But Brazilian-born model Caroline Ribeiro is more direct. "That's the way it is, and it's never going to change," she said. "I don't think it's going to change."

Sean Patterson, president of the Wilhelmina modeling agency, agrees that it's difficult to place a model of color.

"It can be a tough sell and that can be heartbreaking, because you have some really unbelievably gifted people, beautiful people who aren't given the opportunity to break through," he said.

Designer Matthew Williamson believes the situation is changing, however -- though he acknowledges using models of color in major fashion shows, such as those of New York Fashion Week, or in big advertising campaigns is still the exception.

"There's resistance. I don't know what it is. I think it's probably getting less and less so," he said.

"It's kind of safe, it there's one Naomi ... one Alek Wek ... one Liya, you know, but when you've got all on a runway, it creates a stir and a shift and I think people aren't quite comfortable with what that shift is," said Michaela Angela Davis, fashion and beauty manager of Essence magazine, which is targeted at African-American women.

Until then, Liya will keep pushing.

"You have to keep going. You have to persevere," Kebede said.

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