Model diversity: Growing movement in industry is redefining the faces of fashion

TORONTO – Despite an ever-growing range of apparel and accessories available to consumers, a richer diversity isn’t always reflected in the faces of those modelling the fashions. Lithe, leggy women remain a dominant presence in ads, editorial spreads and on the runways.

But some gains have been made in the fashion world to redefine these cookie-cutter images.

Jamaican-born Canadian model Stacey McKenzie recalls that when she first started out in the mid-1990s, there was little diversity seen among the models cast for shows.

“There was a couple of designers that had different ethnicities on the runway and those designers included Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, Yves Saint Laurent, Todd Oldham, maybe Tommy Hilfiger from time to time… but that was it,” she said in an interview at Toronto Fashion Week where she walked in the Bustle show.

“Nowadays, everywhere you turn, there’s more than one black girl… there’s more than one Asian girl,” she added. “I’m even seeing East Indian girls which is so super cool because before, I would never see an Indian girl on the runway.”

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Women flaunting fuller figures are also making waves.

French fashion legend Gaultier and Canadian designer Mark Fast have featured plus-sized models in their shows. V Magazine and French Elle have had spreads showcasing plus-sized models, while “Vogue Curvy” is a dedicated section on Vogue Italia’s website offering style and beauty tips for fuller-figured women.

Ryerson University’s School of Fashion recently hosted “Marketing vs. The Market: A Case for Diversity in Fashion,” an interactive panel discussion exploring the need for and implications of diversity in the fashion industry.

Panel moderator Ben Barry is CEO of the Toronto-based Ben Barry Agency, which represents models of all different ages, sizes, backgrounds and abilities.

“I think really what was interesting was really how there is an accepted norm about what type of model is effective to sell a magazine or to sell clothing in an ad or on a runway, and so rarely is that idea challenged,” he said, referring to one of the notable discussion points which emerged from the panel.

Barry said another key issue raised was the finger-pointing which can take place among various players in the industry: magazines who receive clothing samples that are too small; designers who make small sizes because agencies only have ultra-thin models; and agencies who say they hire models capable of fitting the small samples.

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“It becomes, in a sense, a very circular argument, and I think to make change, everybody has a responsibility,” Barry said. “It’s not that you can place the blame on one party or one sector of the industry.”

Fellow panel participant and Ryerson marketing professor Brynn Winegard says in order for producers of fashion to change their behaviours, the norms must be questioned.

“There seems to be a shift – at least in the narrative of the marketplace – towards consumer interest and authenticity of every kind,” she said. “The real question about whether or not this translates to the fashion world – and whether it will translate at all – is whether those consumers are willing to vote for it with their dollars.”

“I promise you, if consumers ask for it verbally and pay for it with money where their mouth is, producers will produce it because they’re in that profit-making game. Producers are in the business of creating and responding to what consumers do.”

Barry got his start while still in his teens after a female friend, who was size 12, was told “she was too big to be a model.” He sent her photos to a magazine in his hometown of Ottawa, and the fashion editor who hired her assumed Barry was her agent.

Barry’s agency recently partnered with VAWK to help in the casting process of everyday women for the label’s show at Toronto Fashion Week.

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Sixteen women of various ages, heights, sizes and ethnic backgrounds were selected from more than 100 submissions to model looks from VAWKKIN, the new, affordable sister collection to the VAWK line.

“We pretty much cast all different body types just to show a good balance of who our customer could be,” said Sunny Fong, the designer and creative force behind VAWK and VAWKKIN.

Born and raised in Toronto, Fong said he wanted to reflect both his culturally diverse hometown as well as the models who loomed large during his early exposure to fashion.

“I grew up in the era of the supermodel where we had the diverse range of cultures and body types and the curvier bodies, too,” he said. “Every time I want to put on a show I think about that.”

Alicia Cox Thomson had spoken to an agency about modelling in the past, but opportunities never truly panned out. After covering past VAWK shows and being a fan of Fong’s, she decided to throw her hat in the ring for the open casting call and was among the select few chosen.

As the daughter of a Polish mother and Barbadian father, Thomson said Fong’s desire to cast women of different shapes, sizes and backgrounds was of particular significance to her as a woman of colour.

“Fashion Weeks around the world can be sort of biased towards being sort of one race, so I was pretty excited about that,” said the 33-year-old as she sat backstage prior to her first professional runway show.

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“Sunny is really trying to sort of lead the charge using real women of different sizes and shapes in his shows, and hopefully, that will branch out to other fashion weeks around the world,” she added.

Barry said there have been more opportunities in recent years for broader-based representations of beauty with more designers and magazines featuring size and age diversity.
“The concern is always that it could be a trend and that this is something that will be in fashion for a season and then out the next, or the designers do it in a way where they fetishize the other, or the tokenistic effort … one plus-sized model and one mature model and that maybe seemed to grab a headline and that’s it,” Barry said.

“But ultimately, fashion is a business, and it’s consumers who hold the power.”


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