things i've learnt from 5 years campaigning for diversity in fashion
I joined fashion diversity pioneers Debra Bourne, Caryn Franklin and Erin O’Connor at All Walks Beyond the Catwalk in 2010. Here's what I've learnt from five years campaigning for the celebration of a wider range of sizes, shapes, ages, abilities...
All Walks Beyond the Catwalk is an industry-insider campaign to promote and celebrate a broad range of body and beauty diversity -- in terms of size, shape, age, ethnicity, ability and gender -- in fashion imagery and on the catwalk. Launched in 2009 by fashion communications expert Debra Bourne, fashion commentator and erstwhile i-D fashion editor Caryn Franklin and British supermodel Erin O'Connor. After reading about the initiative on Twitter, I joined the team a year later, in 2010.
Today, as All Walks, i-D and other members of the fashion industry head to parliament to attend the government inquiry into model health led by Caroline Nokes MP, I'm reflecting on the things I have learnt after 5 years of campaigning for diversity in fashion...
Any body type can be high fashion
There are many people in the industry and beyond who actually would love to see greater size diversity in fashion, but are tormented by the following concept: 'Clothes just look better on thinner bodies,' or the variation, 'Clothes hang better on thinner bodies'. It is presented as an unfortunate truism, particularly by those who wish it wasn't true. So here's the good news -- it isn't.
First off, it's an odd idea that what clothes should correctly do is 'hang,' as if they're curtains, but the simplest way to deconstruct this concept is to consider that the only bodies that are regularly presented among the trappings of 'high fashion' -- that is, boundary-pushing design, world-leading styling, make-up, hair, lighting, photography, editing and even top locations -- are thin bodies. It's like thinking carrots are always orange because you've only ever seen orange carrots; as soon as you see a purple one, you have to accept that what you thought was true actually isn't, you just hadn't seen the alternative yet.
Crystal Renn on the runway for Jean-Paul Gaultier is high fashion. Beth Ditto on the runway for Marc Jacobs is high fashion. Tara Lynn, Candice Huffine and Robyn Lawley shot by Steven Meisel for the cover of Italian Vogue is high fashion. If you think you cannot create a high fashion image with an average-sized or fat body, it's not the model's body that's lacking, it's your creativity. Fashion is boring when everybody looks the same!
The next gen are all about diversity
Since 2013, All Walks have been running Diversity NOW!, a national student competition that challenges the next generation of creative talent to show us their vision of a diverse fashion future, when the industry represents a broad range of body and beauty ideals. The response has been huge, with more than 30 fashion colleges in the UK submitting work from students across design, styling, photography, filmmaking, graphic design, illustration and journalism. When i-D hosted a public vote for the People's Choice winner, more than 3,000 readers responded.
Founders Caryn and Debra have also toured fashion schools to present the diverse message of All Walks, and the feedback they receive is often powerful and emotional. "I normally feel that I don't have a voice within fashion but after this talk it has now made me feel that I can help change and motivate this new age of fashion," one student wrote, with another saying, "I have thought about the problematic industry for a while and worried that I was doing the wrong course because I didn't want to be part of an industry that warped body image... I would like to change the catwalk for younger generations".
Fashion is a feminist issue
And just like feminist debates, the discussion of diversity has to evolve. For example, a few years ago there was a drive among body confidence campaigners for 'real women', meaning women of average size (UK14), in fashion -- something that continues to be echoed in mainstream culture today. It wasn't until women of below-average size responded with the question, 'Am I not real because I'm a size 6/8/10/12? What am I, a mirage?,' that we realised how offensive it was. Then we stopped using it. The way to promote marginalised bodies in fashion is not to denounce or discriminate against young, thin, able-bodied, cis-gender, white models, but to broaden the spectrum to include others. All people who identify as women are real women and all bodies a beautiful.
Progress is being made
After years of campaigning for diversity on the catwalk and in fashion imagery, it can appear that not much has changed: the models are still predominantly very young, very slim and overwhelmingly white. But significant progress has been made in the industry and in society during All Walks' existence. I'll hand you over to co-founder Debra Bourne to explain how the cultural landscape has changed...
"Our campaign launch in September 2009 was the first event at London Fashion Week created to confront the lack diversity in fashion. Back then, it felt like we were handling dynamite. We worked incredibly hard to frame things positively, without blame or judgement. Many were skeptical that high-end fashion could look credible on anyone other than a standard UK size 6/8 model. Challenging our industry's dependency on rigid, unachievable beauty and body ideals, we launched by pairing eight emerging catwalk designers, notably Mark Fast, William Tempest and David Koma, with a diverse range of models in terms of size, age and skin tones -- printing 2,000 glossy brochures of fashion-editorial activism to be left on editors' catwalk seats. It was an unquestionable success.
"Six years on, the conversation we set out to create around diversity, model health and body image in fashion is firmly established; and many other voices have joined. All Walks have led on fashion education, embedding diversity in the curriculum, running the national student competition Diversity NOW! in association with i-D and establishing annual diversity forums at Graduate Fashion Week; we also sit on government expert round tables and launched the parliamentary awards for industry best practice. Yes, there's a long way to go, but we've certainly made ground."
Fashion didn't create the problem alone, but it does have the power to bring about change
Fashion is not the only industry to promote a very narrow concept of female beauty: the film industry also predominantly celebrates young, thin, able-bodied, cis-gender, white women, and the advertising industry is also a real culprit. However, fashion has a unique place within visual culture, one that is obvious to most in the industry, but far more opaque to those outside: whatever our industry does today will be mirrored in mainstream culture months and often even years later. We have the power to set the cultural ball rolling. Ideas that originate in fashion's creative core translate to mainstream fashion and then to mainstream visual culture. Those pioneering diversity in fashion are working stealthily to normalise a broader range of bodies in all culture and throughout society.
Fashion is constantly moving forward, and the future is diverse.
Text Charlotte Gush
Photography Daniel Sims