​imagining a radical fashion future with diversity pioneer caryn franklin

A fashion editor and co-editor of i-D in the 80s, Caryn Franklin has more than 30 years of experience in the industry and is a co-founder of All Walks, a charity promoting diverse body and beauty ideals in fashion. Ahead of the government's inquiry...

by Charlotte Gush
30 November 2015, 1:56am

Caryn Franklin is a fashion revolutionary. From her days as fashion editor and co-editor of i-D in the 80s, she has pioneered an approach to fashion that prizes personal identity, celebrates a diverse range of body and beauty ideals and champions sustainability, with a focus on healthy body image, self-esteem and feminist principles.

I met Caryn in 2010, when I joined All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, the campaign for diversity in fashion that she co-founded with Debra Bourne and Erin O'Connor the previous year. In the 5 years since, 'All Walks' has driven the debate around body image and diversity in fashion, working with everyone from students in fashion colleges across the country to top fashion creatives and even politicians. All Walks are part of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image that is hosting a government inquiry into model health, led by Caroline Nokes MP, next week on 1 December.

In the run up to the inquiry, and as part of our #SizeMatters week, Caryn spoke to i-D in a short film about her views on fashion and body image; this companion interview seeks to delve deeper into the issues introduced in the film, exploring our shared history at All Walks and following Caryn's radical and unique fashion philosophy through the prisms of psychology and feminism to deconstruct the capitalist system and identify the young London designers reclaiming the post-punk spirit of the 80s to construct a diverse and exciting alternative fashion future.

Let's start by talking about the upcoming inquiry. We know that BMI is an unreliable way of testing model health. Rosie Nelson, who started the change.org petition calling for a law to protect models, suggests mandatory health checks. Do you think that would work?
There's a much bigger culture that needs health checking, and that is the attitudes and the ethics of the fashion industry itself. Of course you can work bottom up, on the front line, with models led to believe that they have to exist on starvation rations in order to be employable, but it would be so much better if we could work top down and question why the fashion industry thinks it's appropriate to work with very thin young women as the only representation of femininity, or indeed very thin young men.

On a practical level, it's good to have health checks for individual models to prove that they're healthy, but on a philosophical level, is a test to prove the health of very thin models actually ignoring the issue that we're fetishising extreme thinness?
We're taking it to the model's body when it's a much, much bigger culture than that. You know, why do we fetishise the prepubescent, gamine white woman? I'm not convinced that an instant health check will really make a big contribution. If the fashion industry think, 'Oh, let's just put this band aid on at the bottom end of the process and then we don't have to think about it,' that's damaging in itself.

There are two issues here: one is the health of models, and obviously it would be good to take steps to improve that, but there is also the effect that that ideal has on people not in the industry, on consumers; and perhaps some of the things that are being discussed, like model health checks, are legitimising an unhealthy ideal, which is unhealthy because it's singular and not diverse. It ignores the fact that, even if that particular model is healthy, or a group of models is healthy, it's still an unachievable body for most people. It doesn't address that.
It doesn't, and you know, they might be healthy for a short period in time, while they are very young and their body hasn't finished growing, but for many models recruited at 16, 17, their body is still growing and when they get to 19, 20 they are then having to work very hard to maintain that low body weight.

It's a strange thing that the industry does to stop finding them beautiful.
It is, and something I want to say is that Erin O'Connor's Model Sanctuary [hosted during fashion week] was one of the few spaces to give models a chance to chat with each other about their vulnerabilities and to find solutions and to be mentored towards better mental health. You know, if you take an industry that works with very, very young women, they accept the authority of middle aged adults who run things and it's a difficult space for them to independently disagree or challenge, which often means that their agency will hear reports of them being 'problematic'; it shouldn't be down to an individual 18-year-old to try and take their industry to task.

Is part of the answer unions, as in unions for models, and making that an acceptable thing? There is a union [Equity Models Network], but even joining a union seems to suggest that you might be a 'problematic' model. In any other industry it would be seen as bad to have coercion to stop workers joining a union for their rights.
Well, it goes on all over the world. It reveals the exploitation of an industry when there isn't good union politics, and I'm sorry to say this is a much bigger picture, but capitalism and fear around not making money and conservative politics has generally suppressed union activity. I grew up with strikes happening every five minutes and it just doesn't happen in the same way [now].

The responsibility shouldn't be on those who are being bullied to help their oppressor change. The responsibility should be with the oppressor. Now that's one of the reasons why I began studying psychology in fashion [Caryn is completing the MSc Applied Psychology in Fashion at London College of Fashion]; because I wanted to know what it is that happens in our brains that means we turn a blind eye to things we know we should speak up about, or we overrule ourselves.

Fashion has yet to recognise the amount of authority it has in people's lives. So, I began looking into belief systems and, you know, that is one of the things that excited me about being a part of All Walks, because I felt we were really staging an intervention and setting up an alternative belief system that has huge meaning for young creatives coming into fashion, which is certainly something I experienced anecdotally when I would go lecturing [Caryn has delivered an All Walks lecture on diversity in fashion to students in fashion colleges across the UK and internationally].

What fashion has done is create a belief system around an appearance ideal, and around membership, that isn't acknowledged, that is manipulative and exploitative and significantly affects mental health, and so for me the excitement of immersing myself in understanding a little bit about psychology meant I could begin to unpick that with more rigour. I want to create a semi-academic space in fashion using lay-language that is actually accessible for people, to show that yes, there are studies that support this and yes there are people in psychology that have been saying this for a long time.

How does fashion begin to acknowledge that?
I think recognition and an understanding of the power of image and the power of repetition -- which obviously brings in digital promotion; there should be ethics in place within our industry. There are ethics in place in other industries. You know, repeat showing of a hyper sexualised teenager is unethical; of an emaciated teenager; of a group of white people with no ethnic diversity. Creating a space in which young creatives want to engage in fashion and want to bring in better ethics, it is the only way forward.

We can educate the next generation of fashion creatives, but what about people already in the industry who missed out on that kind of education -- do you think it's important to find ways that allow them to start to make change without being the villain? I'm thinking of, for example, the Diversity Coalition -- Bethann Hardison's letter to the industry about the lack of black models on the catwalk, which said, "whatever your intention the result is racism". They didn't call the designers who didn't use black models racists, they just said, 'Look, the outcome is racism'. It's important to show people that they can redeem themselves.
Yeah, I couldn't agree more. This is where psychology can help again. I was looking for studies to help me make progress with the CEOs that I was sitting opposite. I was in meetings with CEOs looking at a board [of directors] where there wasn't anywhere near enough diversity, so therefore there was fear around difference and fear around what I was suggesting and most of all, there was massive fear around not delivering the quarterly profit returns. That is the number one objective of the huge fashion companies. It's not thinking about the wellbeing of consumers, so when you're trying to unpick a format to suggest a new way of dealing with things you come up against an avalanche of fear, and just saying 'I believe this' or 'I've seen this anecdotally' or 'my 34 years experience in the fashion industry has taught me this', means very little and that's why I thought I've got to go and find the scientific study that can help people engage with something more concrete.

There are psychological studies to say that we form relationships with models in imagery that we can see have shared characteristics [with us] -- we make a bond with them. We do think that average size models are as effective in selling some products; now, there isn't enough testing to say that they'll sell this or that, because this is all early, but -- most importantly -- there are also studies around the importance of diversity for the brain, that when you have boards that are full of diverse thinking, they generally tend to be more creative because they encourage less of a reliance on rule of thumb. They encourage less of a reliance on heuristic thinking. For me, this is really, really exciting and that is what is what I want to get out there.

What does that mean, 'less of a reliance on heuristic thinking'?
The brain uses two systems to process. If we were hyper-vigilant about everything that we processed, we'd be exhausted; the brain has to take a lot for granted, and so repetition, for instance, of fashion imagery allows us to take it for granted, it's called a heuristic, it's always been there. It's a rule of thumb that models will be thin, that they'll mostly be white, that the fashion industry relies on them to sell clothes because the clothes 'hang' better. So that's heuristic, we're not hyper-vigilant about it. We don't realise every time we look at an image -- and we're looking at between 2,000 and 5,000 images a week -- we're not hyper-vigilant about each one, we don't deconstruct it. So, therefore, we process in a very quick way.

Then, we can be in a situation where we're forced to think in a more hyper-vigilant way, so an example of that would be: instead of sitting around a table full of creatives who you know, who are reassuringly just-like-you, you could be sitting around a table of creatives that don't look like you and perhaps bring a different culture, different languages. So, there could be someone with obvious physical difference or disability, there could be different ethnicities, there could be an equal ratio of genders. Now, sitting in that space means people are more hyper-vigilant and they work harder. So they are not reliant on, 'Ah, well we've always done this and this has always worked so let's carry on with it'.

So, what you're saying is really, we also need to see more diversity behind the lens in the industry as well as in front of it? [This is a motto of All Walks.]
I put that line up on the website as soon as I began to realise that diversity in front of the lens and behind it is truly the only way forward.

You can see that with people like Edward Enninful, who has been so instrumental in bringing many of the new black models into the industry, regularly putting them in big magazine shoots. The change he has made, personally, has been noticeable.
Yeah, and that's how it works. And that's why we need quotas. You know, I have spent a lifetime waiting to see more equality in top-tier womenswear selling and so, this kind of notion that we have to promote on merit, we go back to people promoting in their own likeness, people promoting because it's a repetition that makes them feel comfortable and unchallenged.

I think that it's kind of a myth that it's on merit, they just think it is.
Yeah, absolutely. And so, we have to begin to look at boards, to look at creatives teams. You know, I look at some of the stuff that passes for fashion imagery that contains rape culture, that contains misogyny, that has a lack of ethnic diversity, a lack of age diversity, and I think to myself -- and I say this to my students -- let's just imagine for one moment who was on that creative panel; were there people of colour who felt that it was possible to say something? What might they have said? What might a handful of women have said about this rape culture ad? You know, challenging what's going on and having the confidence to do it, because you're not the only one who's seen the problem, is important.

I want to mention some young London designers, like Nasir Mazhar and Claire Barrow who have really embedded diversity into their -- I don't want to say 'brand message' because that sounds too corporate, but from the very beginning, they've just done it. Every time they show their clothes, they show it on a diverse group of people, some of whom are their friends and it's authentic. They've not shoehorned it in at the end, which is the pain that lots of big companies are feeling.
What we're returning to is what I started in fashion with in the 80s, because that's exactly what BodyMap did and that is what I thought fashion was; and, as I saw it become more and more corporatised -- I'd never heard of the word 'brand' -- as I saw it move into that space, I became less interested in this promotion of 'trends'.

I've always been interested in personal identity and those of us, these designers included, who are asking these questions can make a separations between a huge corporate machine that wants to behave in an exploitative way at the expense of its most prized creatives -- mentioning Galliano and McQueen in the same sentence -- we can make a separation between that vehicle and a vehicle that knows who its end user is, a much smaller set-up that cares about the messaging it is putting out there. It's what's so brilliantly explained in Georgina Goodman's interview -- in a way, she explains why the fashion industry doesn't work for designers; because it has been appropriated by, effectively, venture capitalists.

What was it that made the 80s different?
Post-punk culture and that's what we need again.

I wonder whether we can [get it back], because fashion wasn't so popular back then, or it wasn't mainstream entertainment like it is now. Can you see that same punk spirit in the young designers embracing diversity?
Yeah, it's so exciting to see that. But it's almost as though fashion doesn't know it's own history; in a way, that's what happened the first time around, that was what it got sucked into, the big corporates making a profit, and that's why Georgina Goodman's interview is so timely. It has to be made visible again so that people can understand what the pitfalls are.

I guess it's the same as in politics, the history is written by the victors, and in the fashion industry the victors have been the massive corporations with loads of money; they've re-written it to have very particular icons.
You're right. They've written the belief system and I think this is where the consumer has the choice, this is where the individual has a choice because of social networking. We can choose not to buy into this massive cult of a belief system that is the fashion industry, and we can choose to align ourselves with a belief system that serves us.

We can buy into all the amazing things that fashion really can deliver, but we don't measure ourselves against unachievable body ideals; we don't decimate a bank balance because we've been told this season is what we'll be judged on; we don't buy into a lack of integrity in the way that things are manufactured. They're just all choices that we can have when we decide what our own belief system will be and that's what's exciting. That's what I am personally really, really excited about.



Text Charlotte Gush

size matters
Caryn Franklin
all walks
diversity in fashion
body image diversity