Design  |  Features

A Call for Model Diversity

December 18, 2013  |  9:37am
A Call for Model Diversity

As a Project Runway judge and the creative director of US Marie Claire, Nina Garcia’s life revolves around the world of fashion. Last month in an interview with Huffington Post Style, Garcia mused “It’s interesting because we live in a country where the obesity is so enormous. And then the reflection on the runways is girls that are so thin. So there’s two extremes that are almost like a reflection of themselves, and it’s very hard to be in the middle with girls that are just healthy.”

Healthy is a hard word in the industry. The public is being fed reports that obesity is an epidemic while fashion insiders such as Velvet D’Amour claim that the skinniest of models are simply unhappy. However, there is a bit of logic behind the uniformity of models size come fashion week. Designers look for models that are a consistent size to fit samples without having to make costly and time consuming alterations, but the public demand for more relatable models is resulting in conflicts between agencies. MSA Models is suing rival agency MC2 Models Management for “poaching” models Caryn Hyman and Tricia Campbell—both who would be categorized as “plus-size.”

Actually, the term “plus-size” is a bit of a controversy in itself. On Tricia Campbell’s website the model is referred to as “size sexy” and Australian model Robyn Lawley argues that the term “plus-size” has a negative impact. “It’s okay in the fashion world referring to us booking models, but in the regular world I shouldn’t be called a ‘plus-size’ at all,” she told Fashion TV. However, Lawley acknowledges that online movements such as “real women have curves” are counterproductive—there is no one type of woman that is able to define what is real. “Curves don’t epitomize a woman. Saying, ‘Skinny is ugly’ should be no more acceptable than saying fat is,” she told the UK Guardian.

It’s quite easy for the rest of us to look at the women born with rail-thin bodies and impossibly long legs and criticize. But the truth is, some women are simply born that way and shouldn’t apologize for it. Fellow Texan and model Ali Michael went public with her struggle with eating disorders and the pressure she felt in the industry to be a certain size. Nowadays, the model adheres to a healthy vegan diet combined with exercise and is still a naturally svelte 106 pounds at 5-foot-9 and continues to get work. That’s how she’s built, that’s who she is. No shame. Not that she needs anyone to tell her that.

So while celebrities such as Sophia Bush, who is currently waging war against Urban Outfitters after their release of a T-shirt that simply says, “Eat less,” has her heart in the right place; her response via a photo of her sporting a similar T-shirt stating, “0 is not a size” seems counter-productive. Zero is, in fact, a size. Women come in all sizes, including super-skinny. Size insecurity is not only an issue for full-figured women.

Additionally, size diversity isn’t the only problem haunting models in the fashion industry. Year after year, designers at New York fashion week display a lack of ethnic diversity on the runways. According to Jezebel, almost 80 percent of models in the NYFW Spring/Summer 2014 shows were white, and fashion heavy-hitters such as Calvin Klein had no models of color whatsoever. Supermodel Chanel Iman has reportedly been turned away casting sessions after being told that the show had already cast one black model and didn’t need another. She is just one of many models who have joined The Diversity Coalition, an organization that presses the powers that be in the fashion industry to include more diversity in their promotions and campaigns.

The lack of women of color in the fashion industry makes less sense than the lack of size diversity from a business aspect. It makes sense that designers don’t want to waste time altering clothes in the midst of the busiest times of year and therefore cast models that will fit sample sizes. But, why marginalize models based on skin color or ethnicity? In an increasingly globalized marketplace it seems that designers would want their brands to reflect the boom, not hide behind a flimsy veil of exclusivity. Women who wear high fashion do it as a status symbol, and the type of models a designer chooses to represent their work and the status that comes with it reflects the brand’s idea of who deserves said status. A parade of white women down the catwalk does not reflect well.

The topic of ageism in modeling has become more prevalent as of late as well. After models such as Coca Rocha spoke out about the working conditions they experienced as teen models, New York State signed a bill into law putting underage models under the same legal category of child performers, creating brand new guidelines for designers wishing to hire them and providing more legal protection for the models themselves. A BBC documentary entitled “Fabulous Fashionistas; featured Daphne Selfe—an 85-year-old model who has worked for brands such as Dolce & Gabbana—inspired fellow “Fashionista” Bridget Sojourner to use the platform of modeling in her campaign against ageism. Sojourner sent her pictures to several agencies and received meetings with an impressive number. While all the people she met with praised her for her style and ambition, they all turned her away. “Fashion is for the young,” one agent tells Sojourner.

The subject of women’s bodies is a volatile one. Can there be a solution? While creating runway shows with models of various shapes may be a difficult task, it doesn’t seem like it would take much effort to diversify beyond white women. However, magazines and print—probably the fashion platform that reaches the widest audience— have less of an excuse. The print side of the fashion industry could certainly diversify in all aspects: size, shape, color, at the very least to appeal to a wider audience. After all, fashion is an industry, and like any other, is driven by profit. Morals aside, it’s fiscally irresponsible for designers not to be more inclusive with their designs.

So, is there any hope for change in the industry? After all, Karl Lagerfeld is still the head honcho at Chanel, and still thinks the people who criticize thin models are simply, “fat women sitting in front of televisions,” and stars from Katy Perry to Oprah freakin’ Winfrey felt the need to shed some weight for Anna Wintour when appearing on the cover of Vogue. At least over at Marie Claire, Nina Garcia has hope. “We are all about real women. We don’t really shoot girls that are incredibly thin or incredibly young. Sometimes we shoot women that are not even models. The industry has changed tremendously and there is more change to come,” she said.

There is ample room in the fashion market for more models of different shapes, sizes, colors and ages. If designers and casting directors simply give the people the diverse representation they want, maybe fashion can evolve past it’s social controversy into more of what it’s supposed to be: a fun, easy form of daily self expression.

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