the new male model
As London's menswear season kicks off this weekend, we explore how male models and designers are changing the face of fashion and challenging gender.
21-year-old Jacob Mallinson Bird has had a very busy year. Juggling a degree at Cambridge University with increased notoriety as his after-hours alter-ego, the leggy blonde drag queen Dinah Lux, he has also become an outspoken activist and champion for queer rights. Jacob's year culminated with an impassioned TED Talk (The Painted Face of a Queer Future), something usually reserved for those far beyond his years.
But Jacob is also a successful, if atypical, male model. He reflects a new wave of boys who are eschewing stereotypes and shaking up our perception of what it means to be a man in fashion. "I would probably have said that male modeling was intrinsically hetero ten years ago, but a lot is changing," Jacob says. "I mean, you still have your Versace boys, but I do think the aesthetic is changing to one that favors young, doe-eyed—almost queer—innocence. It's become less about the archetypal butch male."
Jacob is signed to Tomorrow Is Another Day, a modeling agency that chiefly specializes in boys who defy the hyper-masculine archetype. Hand-picked by agency chief Eva Gödel, the boys are drawn from Europe's subcultural tribes: whether club kids like Jacob, lean skater boys, or cool kids scouted outside of a gig. Starting off as a niche agency, TIAD has grown in stature and influence massively, providing faces for most of the major shows in Paris, London and Milan. Raf Simons has even been known to travel to Germany, where TIAD is based, just to see Eva's latest boys.
James Spencer--tall, slight and softly spoken--is one of TIAD's more recent recruits. He too does drag, something he started when he moved to London to study at the London College of Fashion. "I like walking into a room and having people look at me in places that you wouldn't usually see someone in drag," he says. But it's not for attention, "It's about being different--to say, I can dress how I want."
At TIAD, he isn't pressured to hide who he is. "It doesn't feel like I'm a model," he says, "they let us have our own things that we are into, our own interests." It's something that Eva considers when she picks her boys. "The ideas they have of life, what they do or want to do besides modeling, their plans--that's what is most interesting to me," she explains. "It is about the person."
The boys do occasionally feel the pressure of booking jobs. "Sometimes I wonder whether I should hide the drag thing, it can be confusing to casting directors," James says. "But most of the time it doesn't matter.' Just last week he booked a job because he did drag, wearing drag. Jacob has had similar experiences. "I think some casting directors probably hate it, but I guess I wouldn't want to work with them anyway," he jokes. "Once I was really scared because I'd bumped into a big stylist's assistant at a club when I was in drag and the next day I got called in to see him. I thought he was going to say something, but turns out he thought it was fab and wanted to offer me a job!"
Alongside those who play with gender more overtly, the industry has also seen a marked increase in the amount of openly gay models. It's something that Marc Sebastian Faiella, a Parsons graduate who identifies as gay, has noticed. "Within the last three seasons, I know I'm not the only one who has noticed the flood of models who are most definitely a 'friend of Dorothy'," he wrote in i-D. "I can recall more than one occasion in which a boy was in heels - or two boys were holding hands at a casting."
While homophobia is something that he has experienced, whether through being told to butch up or asked to remove suggestive pictures from Instagram, Marc and his friends are making the point that they shouldn't have to stay quiet about who they are in order to work. "Why should it make any difference if some us prefer to kiss other boys?" he asks. This feeling was crystallized when Instagram-scouted gay couple John Tuite and Carlos Santolalla ('Jarlos' to their followers) became the first gay couple to be signed to a modeling agency.
The move reflects a changing attitude towards both gender and sexuality, a subject that is more than ever being questioned, written about and protested for. Those leading the charge come from various walks of life--there's Panti Bliss, a drag queen who tirelessly campaigned for gay marriage in Ireland, or trailblazing transgender actress and Time cover star Laverne Cox. Paris Lees, a London-based activist and writer, is dedicated to speaking out for members of the trans-community, and Mykki Blanco challenges the stereotype of who can make rap music by dressing up as a woman while he does it. Then there's Jacob and his friends, who found their voices by performing in drag on the stage at Sink the Pink.
Fashion is not immune to these societal influences. For menswear designers, these questions have manifested themselves as an exploration of what it means to be a man and how that man should dress. J.W. Anderson is an oft-cited example of how to shift the gender framework, presenting ruffled-hem shorts for men, flat at the crotch to appear somehow genderless. "To flat-surface that area is kind of disturbing for people," he said in an interview with T Magazine.
Anderson's collection was part of a growing mood within men's fashion, formulated at Prada through Miuccia's compromised, sensual boy or in London, where the designs of Craig Green are given life by theatrical, ethereal proportions. Then there are young designers, like Ed Marler, who is often seen wearing his own fantastical, over-the-top womenswear. Even more traditional brands are shifting their perceptions - Gucci's recently appointed Alessandro Michele posited pussy bow shirts, lace t-shirts and shrunken knits as a new way for a man to dress.
It's an approach that has also filtered down to the physical act of buying clothes, epitomized by the much publicized agender pop-up in Selfridges, where the department store dedicated an area to gender-neutral fashion curated by transgender model Hari Nef. It showed that this was no longer a niche fantasy, and was viable, even sellable. But does this mean that gender is just another fashion trend?
"It does worry me," Jacob says. "I don't want to damn it, because having Selfridges talk about something like this is incredible, I just don't think it was done in the best way." Instead, he envisions something beyond. "I think the queer future of modeling and fashion is to see gender as constructed, have clothing push the boundaries of gender, showing the malleability of those boundaries, and importantly not to see that as gay, but as inclusively queer." For now, Jacob sees a future away from modeling, choosing instead the world of academia ("the drag queen model musicologist - obsessed!" he says). "But if I ever get an invite to open Dior you know she's not gonna say no!"
It may be a while before we see Paris burning, but for now, a new guard of male models are providing a very modern fantasy - the fantasy of being who you want to be, whatever that may be.
Text Jack Moss
Photography Piczo, J.W. Anderson spring/summer 15