Beauty’s New Borders
The luxury end of the fashion spectrum isn’t exactly known for championing diversity when it comes to beauty ideals, but could we be on the brink of real change? Kind of ... concludes Eugenie Kelly.
One of the most talked about models in the fashion world right now currently sports a mouthful of silver braces, insists on wearing a hijab, and can only boast 107,000 Instagram followers (chicken feed to the Kendalls and the Gigis of this world). Nineteen-year-old Halima Aden’s breakout moment took place on February 15 at Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 5 show during New York Fashion Week, when the Somali-Minnesotan, who was born in a Kenyan refugee camp, walked the runway in a floor-length fur coat and black headscarf. Her strict standards of modesty means she’ll only wear conservative looks that comply with her beliefs, but that doesn’t seem to worry her fairy godmother, renowned stylist Carine Roitfeld, who cast Aden in Yeezy, enlisted photographer Mario Sorrenti to shoot her for the cover of the 10th edition of CR Fashion Book. IMG Models signed Aden at breakneck speed, and a week later, she was walking in the Alberta Ferretti and Max Mara shows during Milan Fashion Week.
Fashion designers have long used the runway as a soapbox from which to espouse their political views, but if there was ever a season when they felt the need to react, this recent fashion month, amid the marginalisation of minorities under US President Donald Trump’s policies, was it. Aden has undeniably become a poster child for diversity, but the term has undergone a redefinition: it now encompasses more than just skin colour.
The rising profile over the past two years of models such as 24-year-old Argentinian Mica Argañaraz (spot her in the current Louis Vuitton campaign); 18-year-old Nigerian Mayowa Nicholas (who snared Miu Miu’s spring campaign); 20-year-old Imaan Hammam (Moroccan-Egyptian); and 24-year-old Adwoa Aboah (British-Ghanaian), is definitely making it easier for women of colour trying to break through. In fact, it’s the latest Caribbean crop of Dominican darlings (dubbed “the new Brazilians”) who are dominating the biggest shows and campaigns right now, Lineisy Montero’s arrival paving the way for Ysaunny Brito and Luisana Gonzalez, to name just two.
But perhaps the bigger story here is that fashion brands weren’t showing their clothes exclusively on young skinny bodies this season. Also in the mix were—gasp—“real” people, plus-size models, models aged from their 40s to their 70s and transgender models. According to Kate Kennedy,
RMIT University’s programme manager for the school of fashion and textiles, the use of numerous transgender models in shows such as Marc Jacobs wasn’t intended to be a political statement or a token gesture, but rather simply a reflection of the wider social demand for more gender neutrality and a show of support for the transgender community. “This is more than a marketing campaign,” she says. “Runway gender diffusion has been a feature for several seasons. And on the practical side, the use of transgender models is perfect for the oversized/overscaled garment, where the body becomes ambiguous.”
One of the most diverse modelling casts of the season was at Dolce & Gabbana, where almost all of the catwalkers were “friends” of the brand, otherwise known as “real” people. In the Italian designer duo’s world, that translates to couture clients (Susan Casden and daughter Alyssa Fung), journalists (Jo Ellison of the Financial Times), designers (Charlotte Olympia), the odd aristo or two (Lady Kitty Spencer, Princess Maria-Olympia of Greece); bloggers (Aimee Song); and vloggers (Marcus Butler). Their sizeable social media followings led Fashionista. com, among others, to dismiss the diverse casting as among the season’s “most blatant plays for millennial engagement on [Instagram]” that backfired (it didn’t make the top five shows that got the most play in Milan). But if you watch all those shapes, sizes, ages, and upbeat vibes on that runway, everyone genuinely looks as if they are having the time of their life. That’s a win in our books.
Hong Kong-based businesswoman Candy Chuang had given birth to a boy last October and was still nursing, but couldn’t say no when the designers asked her to don a crown and red flowers in her hair, and she revelled in her two minutes of fame. “I was nervous, but the hairstylist and make-up artist assured me I looked absolutely ‘Dolce’,” she says. “For me, by bringing us all together to walk the show, the brand was making a statement—that this was a celebration of what fashion should be. That it should be fun.”
This idea of inclusiveness was front of mind for certain designers at London Fashion Week, most notable Simone Rocha, who took an anti-ageist stance by choosing to showcase her clothes on older women. (Savvy: that’s the segment most likely to be able to afford her USD4,500 cotton-tulle dresses). Rocha told WWD the reason for casting the likes of 73-yearold Italian actor Benedetta Barzini, 72-year-old ex-model Jan Ward de Villeneuve, and 55-year-old Marie-Sophie WilsonCarr was to reiterate that she designs for all types. “It’s 100 percent mother, daughters, granddaughters. It’s something I’ve really built my identity on, so it was nice to be able to share that this time,” she said.
TheFashionSpot.com releases a biannual diversity report post-show season, and found New York to have the highest diversity rating, with 31.5 percent models of colour. London came second (28.4 percent); third was Paris (25.9 percent); and Milan came in last (23.8 percent). The figures are a small improvement on last season—and often only a domino effect from whistleblowers speaking out about perceived discrimination. Case in point: when casting director James Scully called out Lanvin in an Instagram post for allegedly requesting only white models attend its show audition this season, there was understandable outrage (Lanvin strenuously denied it). Naturally, it created waves in the industry, and eventually two black models, Joan Smalls and Alicia Burke (out of a total of 41 women), walked in the show. “The percentage of non-white to white is still very low,” Kennedy says of the season. “The important thing is to reflect the customer profile. And that’s waaay outside of the white fashion ideal.”
In Paris, the same went with respect to size; the only show to feature anyone less than razor-thin was H&M (Stella Duval and Katy Syme). In Milan, meanwhile, Dolce & Gabbana featured plus-size model Alessandra García-Lorido. And in New York, Ashley Graham walked Michael Kors, probably helped by the fact (and we’re trying not to sound cynical here) she has more than 4.6 million Instagram followers. Healthy social-media numbers must be a factor—after all, when body activist and English model Iskra Lawrence posted a video of her walking for New York label Chromat (which features five plus-size girls), it got almost 800,000 views from her 3.5 million followers.
But these are little wins. Especially when you pit them against what’s going on at the more mass end of the market. Such as when cosmetics conglomerate L’Oréal Paris announced in February it had signed 24-year-old Angolan beauty Maria Borges as a global spokesmodel. Lauded for sporting her own “short, natural afro hair” when she walked the Victoria’s Secret runway in 2015, she sent a clear message to all those teenage girls given hair straighteners as birthday presents that it’s cool to embrace your natural beauty. Considering the mega reach a L’Oréal Paris campaign has, it’s an indicator that our beauty ideals are broadening, right?
Winnie Harlow at H&M Autumn/Winter ’17 Lineisy Montero at Tome Autumn/Winter ’17 Adwoa Aboah at Sportmax Autumn/ Winter ’17 Halima Aden at Max Mara Autumn/Winter ’17 Maria Borges at Wanda Nylon Spring/Summer ’17 Actor Benedetta Barzini at Simone Rocha Autumn/Winter ’17
Cindy Bruna at Balmain Autumn/Winter ’17 Aleece Wilson at Maison Margiela Autumn/Winter ’17
Ashley Graham at Michael Kors Collection Autumn/Winter ’17 Ysaunny Brito at Akris Autumn/Winter ’17 Trans model Dara at Marc Jacobs Actor Jennifer Tilly at Dolce & Gabanna Autumn/Winter ’17