diversity in fashion: where are we now?
When Carrie Hammer sent a model with Down's Syndrome down the catwalk at NYFW, she sparked a resurgence in the long-standing debate about diversity in fashion. Was it a stunt or a radical celebration of what makes us unique? Charlotte Gush looks at the...
"Role Models Not Runway Models" is the maxim of Carrie Hammer, a virtually unknown designer of women's business wear, who made global headlines a few weeks ago when she cast actress Jamie Brewer, who has Down's Syndrome, to walk in her autumn/winter 15 show in New York. A year ago, she cast sexual psychologist and wheelchair user Dr Danielle Sheypuk to roll the runway. Both were industry firsts and the internet went crazy, with excited (ok, click bait-savvy) journalists declaring that a runway revolution had begun. But has it? The mainstream press went wild, but fashion magazines were unmoved; few even reported it. Compare this to the huge industry response to Rick Owens' casting of an American step team in his spring/summer 14 show: nearly all black women and all larger than "standard" model size, their stomping feet and snarling faces were featured on every fashion magazine's website and in several later print editions.
Of course, the difference is the clothes. Rick Owens is a well-respected and influential high fashion designer. Carrie Hammer isn't pushing the boundaries of fashion; she's designing for suits who don't want to look like sacks. But she's also trying to present her vision of the aspirational woman. None of the women on Hammer's runway were models, nor did they fit the "standard" model mould. Instead, they were selected for being at the top of their game, in science, business, charity and culture. Jamie Brewer is a prominent disability activist and an actress in American Horror Story, a wildly popular Fox series that Lady Gaga has just announced she will star in later this year. Brewer walked alongside entrepreneurs, CEOs, presidents and editors, many friends of the designer from her previous career in advertising. Hammer's customers are diverse "power women" and she presents the clothes on members of their ranks. It's marketing, of course, but it doesn't feel like a cynical stunt; it feels honest and sustainable.
It also makes business sense, as a study by fashion researcher Dr Ben Barry shows. The Cambridge academic surveyed thousands of women's responses to fashion advertising and found that their "purchase intentions" (how likely they are to buy the clothes) increased dramatically when the model's body more closely resembled their own. The stats are compelling, but high-fashion designers don't like to appear to be swayed by commerce; instead it is art that guides their singular vision.
Like Carrie Hammer, high-end designers also seek to present their vision of an aspirational woman. As the show notes will tell you, they are presenting a concept, a narrative, a world and the women in it; if they're good, a redefinition of femininity. What they are saying when they repeatedly cast only young, thin, white, able-bodied models is that women who do not fit this mould do not fit their vision of an aspirational woman, of contemporary femininity. As hugely influential tastemakers, that's a damaging message to send.
This season in New York, 78% of the models were white. As Diversity Coalition founders Iman, Naomi Campbell and Bethann Hardison say, "no matter the intention, the result is racism". And the same applies to other matters of diversity: no matter the intention, the result is discrimination when models almost exclusively fit one identikit concept of beauty. It's damaging and, frankly, it's boring.
"Fashion is boring when everybody looks the same" - that's the motto of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, the industry campaign that I'm part of to promote and celebrate diversity in fashion. Our message to designers is simple: diversity should feed your creativity, not cauterise it. Fashion designers are in the business of innovation, they can and should aim higher, and we should expect it of them.
Working with differently-abled models is not unheard of in high fashion. Way back in 1998, Nick Knight proved that casting a disabled model was no barrier to creating iconic, uncompromising fashion imagery, when he chose athlete and actress Aimee Mullins to model Alexander McQueen in a cover shoot for Dazed, entitled Fashion-able. Mullins later walked in McQueen's spring/summer 99 show on custom-made prosthetic legs, each carved from a single piece of solid ash. Perhaps commentators thought that this too was a fashion revolution, but of course it wasn't; models of differing abilities did not become increasingly integrated into fashion. The fact is, it has to be kept up in order to demonstrate that diverse casting isn't just good for a bit of quick press, but for a designer's reputation and indeed sales.
In business wear, it seems Carrie Hammer is leading the way. In high-fashion, Rick Owens has continued to subtly promote diversity on his catwalk, casting women who are diverse in ethnicity, age and body shape; some are models, others are friends or employees at his atelier. Elsewhere, Nicola Formichetti, in his role as artistic director at Diesel, has consistently cast a diverse range of models including fashion editor and wheelchair user Jillian Mercado and recently Chantelle Winnie, who has the skin condition vitiligo. It is sustained, integrated diversity by fashion's most respected creatives that will effect real and lasting change in the industry and beyond.
Of course, designers are not solely responsible for the lack of diversity in the fashion industry: model agencies, casting directors and editors can also bring about change. And certainly fashion is not the only industry where the rich diversity of society is underrepresented. However, those in the fashion industry are in a unique position to do something about it. Fashion has an overwhelming power to communicate not just what is cool, but also what is acceptable. And difference must not only be accepted but celebrated if society is to become more equal, and individuals more free.
Do it because it's interesting. Do it because it's important. Keep doing it because fashion absolutely has the power to make the world a better place.