Why So Many Models Are Refusing to Keep Quiet

Catwalkers prove that they’re more than just pretty faces

Thanks to Cameron Russell and countless other catwalkers (like Karen ElsonLily AldridgeVittoria CerettiEdie CampbellSara SampaioElsa Hosk, and Constance Jablonski) who have recently shared the hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse, models have proven that sexual harassment extends far beyond the reaches of Hollywood. “Casting couches” are fixtures in many areas of the fashion industry, and women are working collectively to expose the Harvey Weinsteins of the world by using their powerful presences on social media as a megaphone. New York State Assemblywoman, Nily Rozic, is also working with groups like the Model Alliance to introduce an amendment to the state’s anti-discrimination laws, which, according to The New York Times, would make designers, photographers, and retailers “liable for abuses experienced on their watch.”

During the Spring 2018 shows, models also seemed more empowered than ever to speak up about the issues affecting them (and their millions of devoted followers). Instead of acting as human hangers with pretty faces for designers’ latest wares, the men and women who walked this season seemed determined to make their voices, opinions, and often dissatisfaction heard on a myriad of issues including American politics, body inclusivity, and LGBQT+ rights. Thanks in large part to models with something to say, fashion shows actually felt relevant when so many are questioning their purpose and worth.

There’s still a long way to go in terms of showcasing real diversity on the runway, but Ashley Graham, Sabina Karlsson, and Candice Huffine were pleased to see that many of the designers (such as Christian Siriano, Prabal Gurung, Michael Kors, Eckhaus Latta, and Chromat) who cast women with curves during the Fall 2017 season were making repeat efforts for Spring. “To me, that means they aren’t just looking at us as a trend or a token, but they’re actually taking [us] seriously,” said Graham, who added that the aforementioned houses are also “going up in sizes—they’re not just putting us on the runway and then not caring what’s considered a plus size.” It’s also a concept that appears to be resonating with many designers’ client base (which makes perfect sense seeing as the average American women falls somewhere between a misses size 16-18): “Last season Michael pulled me aside and he said that he brings not only the editors and all the main fashion people [to his show], but he brings some of his customers,” said Graham. “A woman came up to him and said, Michael, I saw women my age and my daughter saw women her size on the runway. Thank you.’ And it just meant so much to him because that’s the instant gratification that you want to hear.” Sure, there are costs associated with expanding into a wider range of sizes, but for Siriano, “it’s only good for business” and a commitment that’s well worth the investment. “It does cost more to make a larger size dress, that is just a fact, but I don’t think the customer should have to pay more for that, so we do what we can to make up the money on other projects,” explained the designer. “I want my customer, no matter what her shape or size, to feel like she is getting the same thing as everyone else.” That said, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. While Huffine was “extremely optimistic” that the size inclusivity movement would make its way across the pond backstage at Gurung’s show, we didn’t see the effect “snowball” in the European markets like the super had hoped. She later revealed on a panel hosted by Elle that she “dreams very big” and has “a lot of expectations,” but “can’t say that all of them got met …I just thought from February to now would have been like doors blown off, ceiling blown off, sky’s the limit, but it just takes more time.”

Models like Vincent Beier Kaspersen, who walked Coach and Prabal Gurung this past season, was also longing to see more “fluidity” regarding stereotypical gender labels. “I hope it’s not going to be as big of a thing as it is [right now],” he said of rocking what is classically considered womenswear on the runway. “I get why some [designers] don’t embrace [the concept] because they are appealing to a more conservative market, but I hope, at some point, they will be open to different genders.” Trans model Casil McArthur echoed these same sentiments backstage at Marc Jacobs: “I’m quite bored. I go on photoshoots and I see beautiful dresses and I’m like, I could wear that because I can wear dresses. I love dresses. But I never get to put them on because those are for the female models. And I’m like, Why isn’t all of this clothing just for the models? Why do you have to continuously genderize this clothing?” It’s a good question and one designers like Shayne Oliver and Alessandro Michele attempted to answer by pushing androgyny at iconic houses like Helmut Lang and Gucci.

For McArthur and Teddy Quinlivan (who went public with her trans identity during the New York shows), politics also played into their decision to use the catwalk as a platform to discuss LGBQT+ rights. “We made so much progress under the Obama administration and then the Trump administration took office and he kind of gave permission to discriminate again,” said Quinlivian. “It started with the bathroom ban and his support of that, and then he took protections away from transgender students in public schools. I remember going to high school and I didn’t have any protections under the law and that’s a big reason why I didn’t come out, I wasn’t ready to face that crazy discrimination and prejudice. And then there was the military ban—I mean, when does it end? We’re seen as second class citizens.” The runway is a vehicle that can be used to sound the alarm in a way that is digestible. “I hope that fashion is really what helps people get the fuck over it and gets people used to people like me,” said McArthur. “The more exposure there is, the easier it is.” 

Halima Aden, a former Somali refugee who wears a hijab, also believes that her presence at shows like Max Mara will eventually “normalize” Muslim models in the fashion sphere and lead to lasting change. Behind the scenes in Milan, Aden noted that winter is “usually much easier because it’s cold and things are longer,” while ensembles for spring are often sheer and can’t easily be worn by Islamic women who adhere to a religious dress code. The model said she was “very honored and surprised” to walk this season, but did question why more designers aren’t taking women like her into consideration when creating looks. “I mean, Muslim women don’t stop shopping because it’s spring,” she said. “We shop—all the time!”

While much of the progress seen on the catwalk was confined to New York, there were plenty of positive shifts seen in all four fashion cities. Age was merely a number at shows like Anna Sui, Michael Kors, Helmut Lang, Tome, Eckhaus Latta, Roland Mouret, and Versace (which spotlighted supers of another era alongside today’s It girls). But nowhere was timeless beauty more prominently on display than L’Oréal Paris’ extravaganza on the Champs-Élysées. At 72-years-young, Dame Helen Mirren marched down the catwalk swinging a cane with confidence, while Jane Fonda, 79, looked stunning as she threw up peace signs and strutted her stuff to roars of applause from editors, celebs (like Naomi Campbell), and the Parisian public. Janaye Furman made history by becoming the first black model to open Louis Vuitton since the house was founded 163 years ago. And there was, of course, the model charter established by LVMH and Kering to protect the well-being of the men and women walking the shows. There were posters plastered on the walls backstage at Dior reminding models of their rights and even going so far as to offer nutritional tips (which, for the record, didn’t do much to deter me from the buffet lined with croissants and espresso). A 24/7 hotline staffed with a “team of independent psychologists” for anyone experiencing “stress, problems, and fatigue” was also advertised. (As a frazzled editor at the end of my rapidly fraying rope during fashion month, I was tempted to dial in, but decided to find the answers to my problems at the bottom of a bottle of wine and leave the lines open.) The charter also banned French size 32 for women (a double zero by U.S. standards) and 42 for men, and required that anyone under the age of 16 “must not be hired by brands to take part in shows or shooting representing an adult.” Even with these new guidelines in place, however, the lineup at shows like Dior, Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, and Céline didn’t drastically differ from seasons past. At Alexander McQueen (a Kering brand), inbetweenie models (women who fall between the straight and plus categories) had a moment, but it was merely a tremor on the larger PFW scale.

Despite Balenciaga’s checkered past and warranted blast by James Scully last season, the mistreatment of models seemed to continue. Louise Parker, a 28-year-old veteran, was quick to blow the whistle on Instagram after she lopped off her hair as a “first option” for Balenciaga, only to later be cut from the show. While she did agree to change her physical appearance, admitted to being “too willing to please,” and was ultimately paid for her time (which she donated to Model Alliance), it was the notion of being “disposable” that really got to her. “The real problem lies in the power imbalance at play between models and clients. Whether it’s a haircut, or asking a girl to be topless for a shoot, clients need to understand how difficult it is for a model to say no on the spot when you feel like you could be jeopardizing a job or a client relationship,” said Parker. “There needs to be a different structure in place to handle these sorts decisions in order to help take the pressure off models who are constantly working to satisfy someone else’s agenda.” Visiting a doctor to ensure she had a healthy BMI “was a substantial change,” as was the amount of food and drinks available to models throughout the casting process at the storied house, but according to Parker, more measures need to be taken to protect models from being treated as “coat hangers” or dolls that can be stripped and altered on a designer, photographer, or casting director’s whim.  

Spring 2018 was far from perfect, but it was a step in the right direction. Models made it clear that they aren’t mute mannequins robotically stomping a runway, but human beings with plenty of power to make significant shifts. Just like many designers, catwalkers are using fashion as a means to share varying points of view with the masses and facilitate real change in what has become an increasingly volatile world. “If you’re not talking about age, race, gender, and size, then you’re not talking about what’s relevant,” said Graham. “I’m in the modeling business and I want to be represented on the runway. You can only imagine being a regular consumer and not seeing yourself during fashion week—you must feel like you’re not part of the in-crowd.” While many consider these disparate voices to be mere whispers, collectively, models have roared like never before. They are, as the age-old adage (regularly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi) goes, being the change they wish to see in this world simply by being brave enough to be themselves.

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