Reflecting our diverse world isn't a complicated undertaking, as new gen designers are proving — but will the shift towards industry equality keep going?
marc jacobs, balenciaga and simone rocha autumn/winter 17
In a one-room studio in Bamako, Mali, Malick Sidibé captured a country in the midst of ecstatic change. The photographs he shot at the moment that Mali gained independence in the early 60s, are both elegant and exuberant, teetering between the traditions of Malian culture and a burgeoning influence of the west.
His studio became a gathering point, where young men and women could assemble in front of his lens to show off their clothes, their love affairs, their friendships. Malick would photograph them long into the night, and then capture them again in motion on the city's streets and in nightclubs.
Malick's name was mentioned on the accompanying notes for Marques'Almeida's autumn/winter 17 show that closed out London Fashion Week in February. The influence of his photographic eye was there, imprinted on the clothing -- black-and-white stripes stretched across tailoring, amplified at the shoulders, or along the length of zipped-up shirt dresses, echoing the backdrop of his studio.
But this wasn't just a physical reflection of his work. Post show, designers Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida remarked that Malick's influence also came through in a different way -- in a message of inclusivity, of belonging, of community. And simply, in the reflection of Malick's desire to make his subjects feel beautiful. "Everyone likes to be beautiful in photographs," Paulo explained.
For Marques'Almeida, that sense of community has for the last few seasons been at the centre of their work. It's why they have their affectionately titled M'A girls, a gang of young women who walk in their shows, appear in their campaigns and even come sealed up in little packets of photographs that accompany orders placed on the label's website. They are the women who wear their clothes, who feel good in them.
This season was no different, but there was an even greater effort by Marques'Almeida to reflect the world around them -- girls who work in their studio, women they found on social media, some that had done a little modelling in the past. What it meant was a group of young women that was truly diverse -- different skin colours, heights, body shapes, haircuts, confidence, experience.
After the show, the designers shared a video on Instagram of the girls exiting the catwalk, hands in the air, smiling. It felt powerful. What better selling point than that? Like those who trailed through Malick's studio, some more than once when they had new earrings, new shoes -- this was about feeling good, and showing off.
But what it also proved was that diversity needn't be one of those "deep breath" issues. Rather, it can be, as the Portuguese designers demonstrated, second nature. The duo work in London, and London was reflected in the girls they cast. It wasn't just a statement, but fact; these are the girls they see on the streets around them. Diversity -- of skin colour, of shape, of height -- merely reflected the girls who inhabit the world around them.
It was a point that underscored the season -- though high-level casting controversies again exposed a hideous underbelly that still exists, with claims of straight-up racism and model mistreatment -- several designers, many of whom are young, proved that diversity could come naturally by merely gathering together the women they see around them -- those who buy, or want to buy, their clothes. To borrow a cliché, their tribe.
Case in point: Dries Van Noten, who, on the other end of the spectrum to Marques'Almeida's newness, showed his 100th collection in Paris. To be sure, Dries Van Noten's ladies were all supermodels with a capital S, nothing normal about them, but they represented a gamut of ages from twenties to fifties, selected from shows past -- Cecilia Chancellor, Guinevere Van Seenus, Kirsten Owen, Carolyn Murphy, Liya Kebede and Alek Wek.
Dries called them his family of women, and backstage, editors excitedly chatted away to girls that have appeared in their publications over the years. It was this image of women collectively reminiscing, shared on social media, that gave the spectacle a joyful sense of power.
Simone Rocha too showed different generations of women, stretching all the way back to models who made their names during the 60s, like Jan de Villeneuve and Bernadette Barzini who are 72 and 73 respectively. Presented with neither gimmick nor mention in the accompanying notes, they represented Rocha's woman -- a femininity neither soft nor girlish, but tough, knowing, emotional.
At Versace, the autumn/winter 17 show was closed by Amber Valletta, aged 43, a show that saw her walk next to models more than two decades younger. Her presence was important, as throughout the collection Donatella proposed a fearless type of glamour. And why shouldn't older women be glamorous? One only needs to look at Donatella for proof of that fact.
This all poses the question: why now? Is our obsession with age about looking backwards? Or more cynically, about gaining coverage? Perhaps. But more so, it was about something that, for these designers at least, felt right. Here were women equipped to tell the tale for the season. And, business-wise, is there not logic in showing clothes on women closer to the ages of those who actually buy and wear your clothes?
In New York and at Eckhaus Latta, the duo also looked to older women to walk their catwalk. Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta called them "gorgeous old moms" -- like artist Susan Cianciolo, modelling a collection that was a softly spoken, emotional polemic against Donald Trump. For that reason, for the designers, inclusivity meant intimacy. They cast the boys and girls that populate their world: artists, activists, photographers. Like Collier Schorr, who, backstage, boasted she didn't even crack a smile when i-D's fashion director, Alastair McKimm, shouted her name from the front row. It spoke of a quiet expression of community, of coming together, as elsewhere the world unravels.
Which is not to say that diversity should not be shouted about, or always addressed by turning inwards. After all, when you hear that this was the first New York Fashion Week to contain at least a single woman of colour in each show, how can you not be angry? How did this only happen now? It is not triumph, but proof of how far we still have to go.
We should reserve praise for brands like Chromat, Tome and, of course, Gypsy Sport, whose show was cast from the various protests across the city. It meant a thrilling mix of activists of different colours and gender identifications, individuals that walked the runway in their very own way. It was about the furthest away from tick box diversity you could get.
And those decisions do not live in isolation, they do have the power to affect the industry. Take Slick Woods for an example. She was Rio Uribe's muse at Gypsy Sport, straight-talking, shorn-haired and utterly irrepressible. Now she's walked for Fendi, Fenty x Puma and Marc Jacobs.
And, talking of Marc Jacobs, there was suggestion at his autumn/winter 17 show that casting a transgender model is no longer a big deal now. Which is, in itself, a big deal. He cast three transgender models, and they weren't a gimmick, just great models. It helps too that they have their own armies of Instagram followers, they help Marc as much as he helps them.
Of course, there are still battles to be had. Collections will soon be reduced to campaigns, notoriously poor at representing minorities. The same goes for the pages of magazine editorials, fragrance ads, glossy shampoo deals. It remains to be seen whether these small changes will spiral into something more seismic.
But for now, at least, there is proof that inclusivity, diversity, or whatever you wish to call it, is not, and should not, be a difficult ask. And more than that, why would you not want to reflect the world in which you live? The designers here show how rich that world can be, and how much better a collection can look for it.
Text Jack Moss
Photography Mitchell Sams