Size 14 Kathryn in VAWK S/S 2011

Size 12 Lelia in VAWK S/S 2011

On Monday October 18th, VAWK by Sunny Fong presented their Spring/Summer 2011 collection, Toro Safari, in Walker Court at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Combining Spanish and African influences, the winner of Project Runway Canada season two created a richly textured collection: perforated suede, weightless leathers and fringe. We were delighted to provide models of varying ages and sizes for their runway show. Size 12 Lelia, size 14 Kathryn, 61 year old Helen and size 4 Carolyn each made their fashion week debut. The media raved about the empowering representation of women, with the Globe and Mail exclaiming:

The models were not the undernourished, underage waifs typically seen at fashion shows.Instead, Fong sent women of varying shapes, sizes and ages down a makeshift runway that undulated in imitation of the Frank Gehry staircase overhead. The underlying message was that his clothes are wearable and accessible to a large swath of the Canadian female population.

Diversity on the runway has been slowly gaining mainstream momentum with labels such Chanel, Balenciaga, Jean Paul Gaultier and Zak Posen casting models of varying ages and sizes in their most recent Paris shows. VAWK, however, has featured diverse models since its launch three seasons ago. We have been thrilled to partner with this leading luxury brand since their start and help them authenticity reflect their consumer while still staying true to their high fashion DNA. Photos Credit: Model Resource

61 year old Helen in VAWK S/S 2011

Writing Diversity into Fashion

September 23, 2010

A 71-year-old model closes the Giles S/S 2011 show at London Fashion Week

As fashion weeks take hold of major cities around the world, images abound of models strutting the catwalk. These images offer the perfect opportunity for the fashion industry to question who they cast in their shows and, in particular, the effectiveness of exclusively featuring the singular beauty ideal. Some designers have already begun to challenge the assumption that only one type of model sells by including size and age diversity on their catwalks. Mark Fast, Tom Ford and Giles Deacon are three such designers who have shaken up the tradition casting strategy to resounding success.

In addition to providing diverse models to these fashion weeks, I have been invited to write articles/answer questions for various industry news outlets and communities on using diversity. I do not believe there could be a better time than “fashion week” to share my insights on why we need to use diversity because the industry sees almost the same number of models daily as they do new outfits. They are thus not only thinking clothes, they are thinking models. In this post, I share two articles with you.

First is an interview I did with Fashions Collective called The Cultural Shifts in Consumer Mentality: An Interview with Ben Barry. Fashions Collection is a must-read blog that discusses challenges and shares insights on how managers can best market fashion brands. For me, the site has become daily read.

Due to a number of factors, the consumer mindset is changing. While we understand how this affects our bottom line, it is less clear what changes brands and marketers can make to reduce the negative impact and emerge as stronger, more profitable brands.

At Fashion’s Collective, we maintain that marketing needs to move toward a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the consumer as an individual. This understanding can power more meaningful brand interactions, establish real connections with customers and generate longevity and success for brands.

In our work, we have been fortunate enough to encounter Ben Barry, CEO of the Ben Barry Agency, a model consultancy headquartered in Toronto, Canada. His company scouts and sources models of all ages, sizes, colors, and abilities for fashion and beauty brands, including Old Navy and Armani.

Ben has been the subject of feature interviews on Oprah, CNN, MTV, and Fashion Television, and his work has been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Globe and Mail, and Glamour.

In addition, through his PhD studies at Judge Business School at Cambridge University, Ben has conducted extensive research on perceptions of beauty around the world and the cultural shift in consumer mentality. Today, Fashion’s Collective discusses with Ben the cultural deviations he has detected and what the implications are for brand marketers.

FC: In studying the psychological aspects of body image, what have you uncovered that can be applied and interpreted as a marketer?

My research of over 3000 women between the ages of 14 and 65 in Canada, the US, and UK found that women are more likely to purchase a fashion product when they see a model who resembles them – their size, age, and ethnicity – in the ad. My finding suggests that there has been a shift in the mindset of today’s female consumers; they do not passively absorb idealized images of models, but instead are skeptical and savvy of their fantasy.

Their history of interacting with fashion ads has taught them that no amount of shopping and dieting will ever allow them to mirror the beauty ideal. Their saturation of ultra thin models has left them jaded, bored and uninspired by their beauty. Their exposure to the rapid flow of information and social networking has taught them to question and challenge advertising images. Armed with such knowledge, consumers no longer buy fashion in the hope of fulfilling an impossible fantasy but instead purchase it to achieve a dream that can come true.

FC: How can brands use this information and insight to better connect with their audience and form more meaningful interactions?

My research suggests that unrealized economic potential exists for fashion brands that feature models that represent the demographics of their consumers. To increase sales, fashion brands are advised to select models that mirror the ages, sizes and backgrounds of their target market rather than models that all represent the Western beauty ideal — or, in other words, to replace their strategy of “hope in a jar” with what I term “aesthetic realism.” Managers should note that my findings do not support the end of size zero, but instead the start of body diversity.

This conclusion does not mean that women want to do away with images of aspiration. The very opposite is true. The worst thing a fashion brand could do is to feature physically diverse models in images that resemble a driver’s license mug shot, with poor styling, clothing and photography. Instead, women want to see models of a variety of sizes and ages that have the same glamour, artistry and poise as conventional fashion models.

FC: When we talk about the shift in mentality, the words authenticity and transparency keep coming up. For me, this forms an instant association with social media. What role, if any, do you think social media plays in these shifts in thinking?

Street style blogs, more than any other social media, have facilitated the shift from artifice to authenticity by showcasing clothes on people of all ages, sizes and backgrounds and celebrating them as champions of style. In a world where our fashion cues come from “the worst bikini bodies” in tabloids or photoshopped images of perfection in fashion magazines, street style bloggers highlight the one group we still believe in – real people. Looking at their images, we see ourselves in them and picture their styles on us. They inspire us to play and experiment with fashion because they remind us that fashion is not only a great form of self-expression, but also a whole lot of fun.

Second is a feature article I wrote for the JC Report called Fashions Changing Forms. For over seven years, this online fashion news source is one of the most well-read sites by fashion fans and professionals for news on everything fashion. I am a daily reader of the JCR because it is often the first to uncover key movements in the fashion industry as well as provide insights on the latest trends.

Models of various ages and sizes have become increasingly common among top fashion magazines and runways over the past few seasons. The topic captured worldwide attention when Mark Fast featured several size 12 and 14 models in his London Fashion Week show in October 2009. Coupled with rumors that Fast’s stylist quit 48 hours before the debut as a result of the casting, the curvy models made headlines for a week following the outing.

Magazines and other designers have also made changes to the models they hire. German Brigitte and British Essentials, for instance, have each announced that they would use “real women” of all sizes and ages instead of traditional models following a resounding survey among readers. High fashion glossy V and French Elle (which featured a size 16 model on its cover) also devoted issues to size diversity, while Italian Vogue created a section of its website specifically for curvy girls. And for AmericanElle’s special 25th anniversary October issue, it featured Gabourey Sidibe, the black full-figured star of “Precious,” as a cover girl.

Taking cues from this shifting media emphasis, luxury fashion brands have also followed the same course. Prada and Louis Vuitton celebrated curvaceous and mature women last season by casting models whose age and size make them a runway rarity, including Christy Turlington, Laetitia Casta and Elle MacPherson. Tom Ford unveiled his highly anticipated women’s collection during the most recent New York Fashion Week on a diverse group of celebrities ranging from Beyonce Knowles to Lauren Hutton, while Giles Deacon featured a 71-year-old Veruschka on his s/s ‘11 catwalk during London this past Fashion Week. And among the up-and-comers, Project Runway Canada winner Sunny Fong included a few size 14 models—including one gray-haired 55-year-old discovered on Craigslist—in his Toronto Fashion Week show last March.

“If you see something, and you can reach what you see, then you do not have to make an effort any more,” Karl Lagerfeld once said, effectively summarizing fashion’s unattainability ethos. Given this outlook, models who resemble consumers (i.e. anyone over size two and 25 years old) fail to convince buyers to “make an effort” and therefore shop for that new dress. And yet, even Largerfeld—who also famously claimed that only “fat mothers” found curvy models attractive—cast size 12 supermodel Crystal Renn in Chanel’s recent resort collection and American ad campaign.

This shifting attitude in the industry’s definition of beauty is largely the result of changing attitudes among increasingly savvy female consumers. Following Fast’s infamous show, a reporter for The Guardian mused: “The curvy models genuinely altered my appraisal of the clothes in the show, making me consider how I would look in these designs.” Modern women live two steps beyond those original marketing manipulation tactics—cookie-cutter models have become monotonous, mainstream criticisms of airbrushed ads abound and the recession has replaced a desire for fantasy with a hunger for authenticity. These days, many women seek fashion inspiration from the plethora of street style blogs that showcase clothes on people of all ages, sizes and backgrounds, celebrating everyday fashionistas on the merit of style alone.

This altered attitude is also reflected in the way consumers are purchasing items. A recent study of over 3,000 women between the ages of 14 and 65 by researchers at Cambridge University found that more than 85% of women in Canada and the US increased their intentions to buy a fashion product when the ad featured a model that resembled their size, age and ethnicity. Women want to see models of a variety of sizes and ages that have the same glamour, artistry and poise as conventional fashion models, but no longer reflect the archaic images of impossible aspiration. From an anecdotal angle, this outlook was nicely summarized in New York Magazine analysis of Ford’s daring show: “It was kind of thrilling to see very expensive clothing on women who might actually buy these clothes.”

In a world where fashion cues come from “the worst bikini bodies” in tabloids or photoshopped images of perfection in fashion magazines, it’s no wonder consumers are drawn to the one group they can still believe in: real people. Fast, Ford and the others who have embraced diversity remind us that fashion was never intended to live on a one-size-fits-all silhouette, but instead to move and take shape on the beautiful diversity of our human bodies.

A fashion editorial from French Elle with a size 16 model

My Role Model: Radiant Tali

September 2, 2010

An image from Tali's portfolio

What makes us beautiful is our ability to trust our own voices, be true to ourselves and radiate beauty through our actions. This is the mantra told by my client, Tali Giat, who shares her story of learning to believe in herself in our latest My Role Model feature. Many of you might remember Tali from FOX’s More To Love TV show; her authenticity, compassion and charisma captured and inspired so many of us, including me. As a woman whose voice touched me, it was personally thrilling to connect with her only a month ago. It is now a true privilege to serve as her modeling agent.

At 5’4 and size 12, Tali statistically represents the average North American woman; but it is her confidence, kindness and honestly that allows her to represent our true definition of beauty. Her story of learning, challenging and re-defining beauty gives me the strength to always dare to be me and to celebrate my own unique beauty. Even more, it gives me confidence that the fashion industry will continue to change and represent diverse images of beauty because Tali is here to share herself and her message.

So after you read her message, answer this question: How will you Be The Change and help shift the singular beauty ideal? We can do it – but only together!

Growing up I always admired beautiful things. Not in a material kind of way, but in the way they captured my eye; interior spaces, a piece of art, dinner table setting, clothes on windows’ mannequins or how they moved on the body, people’s faces, nature, colors, sounds. None really had to be organically perfect, however the way each was put together in presentation was what appealed to me. I have always sought harmony and balance in the esthetics of everything.

Like many young girls, I was fascinated and mesmerized by beauty ads and TV commercials featuring models and celebrities. I believed idealized these images and was fascinated by the people in them – even though I didn’t even know who they were. But one thing I knew for sure, I would have given my all to look like one of them, even for a day.

Disappointed and defeated by my inability to magically transform my appearance to resemble these perfect people in the magazines, my insecure seven year old self convinced herself that there must be a special day each year when these people are all born; a day when God is in His best mood, and He decides to create His best-looking masterpieces.

Growing up in Israel, the oldest of six children, I didn’t feel a connection to an inspiring role model in my life. I was surrounded with love but I didn’t have someone to push me to find my own identity or encourage me to follow my passions, goals and dreams. Rather, I was often told I should stop fantasizing about places and things that only “great people” could achieve. I was told that I was average and will always be this way (little did I know, but one day being “average” would be my greatest asset.)

Whether it was for my weight, overall appearance, personality or what I had to say – I continuously felt underestimated and brought down. No matter what I did or who I was, it was never enough. I could go on by telling the many stories of how I was always the chubby girl at school, how I battled my weight throughout the years, how I was teased and looked at strangely, how I never fit in. But this would be a story you’ve all heard so many times before, in one version or another.

I graduated high school and then enlisted and served my country with pride for two and a half years in the military. As the oldest of the siblings, as a daughter, a friend, and a soldier – I felt I was fighting everyone else’s fight but my own. For twenty-three years, I did everything to please everyone else, thinking maybe it would make me feel worthier, prettier, better, more deserving.

Years of self doubt, constant questioning and confusion had brought me to a very low point in life. I felt worthless, unappreciated, invisible, a complete outsider. I couldn’t believe there was nothing that I was meant to be or do in this life; it was only one thing that kept a glimpse of confidence in me. I finally couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted more for me without feeling guilty.

But in order to get over my hurdles, I soon realized I had only two choices. I could choose to be the Victim or the Creator of my own journey, dwelling on my life’s circumstances or writing my own destination. Deep down my heart kept whispering one clear message: “Don’t ask. Don’t question. Don’t wonder. Just GO!” And so I did.

I did something no one who knew me thought I would ever do. I packed up my insecurities, my questionable pride and my intimidating fears (and some clothes too!) and boarded a plane to the land of opportunity. Twenty-six hours later, I had landed in the USA, with two suitcases, a fifty dollar bill, a little overwhelmed and a lot confused. I thought “Have I just listened to my own voice for the first time, and without thinking twice, actually allowed it to lead me across the world?”

Now years later, I am still thanking this voice inside. For speaking so loud in my head, and making my stomach crumble, for pushing me to BE the change I so wanted and needed in my life. I now recognize the voice as God speaking through my inner spirit. This journey has taken me to the most empowering ups, as well as to the most challenging downs. But most of all, it has led me in ways where the biggest blessings were brought to me through the incredible people I met along the way. These people have taught me strength, faith, courage, belief, the power of one’s own will and the courage to let go and let God.

It was in winter of 2007 that I had faced difficulties paying for my college education, and my aunt and uncle sat me down and suggested I should perhaps try modeling. I looked at them in disbelief and incredible doubt. I had hated taking pictures, even family photos. Nevertheless, just two months later my best friend had heard an advertisement on the radio about a local talent and modeling casting in Denver. I took a leap of faith and with zero expectations I attended the casting call. Soon enough I passed the first audition and was invited to meet with top agents in a weekend long event in Kansas City. It was now spring of 2008 and I was discovered by a modeling agent from NYC, and a Hollywood casting director out of Los Angeles; both attended the event.  My modeling career was born.

In the first year not much of significance had yet developed in my career. I learned a lot about how strict, harsh and often narrow minded the industry can be. Winter of 2009 was when I decided to take another big risk. At that point in my life I was already so determined and passionate, and I didn’t care as much about what people thought of me.

I packed and moved from Denver to NYC by myself, four years after starting my journey to the US.  It seemed at the time as if I was back again in the place where I started; a new place, two suitcases, less then $100, some old insecurities, and lots of worries. I was hitting the pavement with go-sees, working overtime; doing everything I could possibly do to use the opportunities I was presented with, and creating new ones from the obstacles and challenges. In the spring of the same year, I replied to another casting call, this time for a new reality dating show that for the first time aimed to depict people of normal-size on national TV. I got the gig and was quite proud to be a part of something that had such an incredible potential to make a change.

Since becoming a finalist (well the ‘winner’, but really what does that mean?) of the Fox Network show, my dreams and goals, my passion and purpose in life have become clearer then ever. Modeling is my way of speaking up; I have grown to learn that beauty has no single definition, form, time or mathematical equation. It is simply an interpretation to the reflection of one’s own existence, through many different eyes. There is no one-way to be.

Today, I strive to show young ladies their beauty in a different light by explaining that the chase after perfection is a no-win race.  Such a destination doesn’t exist. It is an illusion. I encourage them to look in the mirror and be the champion of their own uniqueness. My main goal through modeling is to challenge the beauty ideal by breaking the standards of that the industry can perpetuate to maintain as status quo. Using your voice is all that is needed to make a change. And I choose to use mine.

Through entertainment, media, fashion and marketing, I aspire to challenge the beauty ideal by simply promoting the message that the word “ideal” shouldn’t even be in association with the term “beauty.” Creativity, fashion, style and beauty are not limited by a cookie-cutter form. The impossible is what nobody can do, until somebody does. Coming to know and work with Ben Barry and his agency has been a blessing.  Our values are well matched and I have endless respect and admiration for what Ben has accomplished in moving boundaries and open minds in beauty, fashion, and life.

Tali in a fashion editorial in Plus Model Magazine

My Role Model: Moji

August 6, 2010

Moji in an image from her portfolio

Moji is a woman whose confidence and radiance makes you believe in yourself as soon as you meet her. As the winner of our Every Woman Search, her positive energy, passion for fashion and fierce catwalk strut inspired the judges and audience alike. But what makes Moji so special — and makes her my role model — is her commitment to her community and her belief that fashion is a form of self-expression. She works tirelessly with youth in the justice system to help them realize their full potential. Her attitude towards fashion reminds us that fashion is not about trying to look like someone else, but it is about expressing your personality, playing with fabrics and having fun. Reading about her experiences of discovering, challenging and redefining beauty inspired me to always be me … and to have fun with fashion while doing it; I know it will do the same for you.

As a young girl growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, my light skin, light brown eyes, gangly figure, flat chest and bottom went against the accepted norm and ideal representation of a black person and an African for that matter. I was teased constantly but my older sisters always told me that I was pretty and special which gave me the confidence to face all challenges head on.

My parents always dressed well and my entire family had a love for shoes. Although we didn’t have much, what we had was quality. In my neighborhood, I was the first to wear trousers and a men’s shirt with the tail un-tucked (compliments of one of my brothers). Within a short period, my fellow neighbour girls started to wear trousers; to the chagrin of their parents. I have always had a sense of fashion and the statement fashion conveys about an individual. One must not be afraid to make a statement in a tasteful and classy manner.

I arrived in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in 1978 with plans to attend college. I was admitted to the Radio Arts program in Lethbridge where I continued to amaze my classmates with my fashion sense. I always came to class wearing a dress or dress pants (never jeans) and had my hair styled differently five days a week. Many foreign students were shocked by what they perceived as either bravery or stupidity.

At the time, a black female with an accent studying broadcasting in Alberta was unheard .  There were individuals who advised me against perusing broadcasting because they believed that no one would hire me, it would be a waste of my time and my foreign tuition fees. Regardless of the naysayers, I completed my diploma and acquired a job at a radio station. After six weeks of employment I was “let go” once the owner found out that I was black. Instead of being discouraged, I enrolled at the University and earned a BA in Sociology. I have not, nor will I stop learning and achieving.

Back in Calgary in the late 80s, with three small children and a full time career, I entered the Mrs. Calgary Pageant contest. Surprisingly, I made the top ten but a career in modeling as a black person was not meant to be. This was due to the restrictions that were placed on what constituted the present ideal beauty, the industry and media at large. Nonetheless, I have never allowed restrictions to define who I am or who I can become.

A few months ago, Sharon Cornwall of Fashion Has No Borders Expose in collaboration with Ben Barry Agency put out a call in search for the “Every Woman” Competition. One of my children entered me in to the competition. Initially, I was reluctant to participate thinking that my modeling days were over. My daughter reminded me that she has never seen me shy away from challenges or adventures before. With this reminder, I decided to investigate the criteria further. As soon as I found out the criteria for the competition…..individuality, confidence, charitable, beauty and inner strength….I decided to embrace the challenge and have fun while at it. I love having fun regardless of what I’m doing.

On March 20th, 2010, at the BMO Centre in Calgary, Jeanne Beker of Fashion Television announced the winner of the competition. Out of 1400 applicants, I was chosen as “The Every Woman” winner. I now have the realization that my fashion and beauty journey from Nigeria has come full circle to being chosen and represented by the Ben Barry Agency: An agency that promotes all people, cultures and challenges the status quo concept of beauty.

After meeting in person with Ben Barry, I know that I’m ready to embark on a new adventure and possibly a new career. Whatever happens happens, I’m ready to have fun modeling and live life to the fullest because we all have only one life to live.

My message…..Go ahead! Take chances, go where you’re not suppose to go, do what you’re not suppose to do and dare to be different, if you wish.

Moji in an image from her portfolio

My Role Model: Kate

July 26, 2010

A look for Kate's portfolio by Melissa Peretti

My second role model profile features courageous Kate. You might remember Kate from a previous post as the woman I discovered on Craigslist who made her modeling debut in the VAWK by Sunny Fong Fall/Winter 2010 show. At age 55 and a size 14, Toronto-based Kate inspires me with her bravery and self-confidence. In a set of 15 traditional fashion models, Kate strutted the Toronto Fashion Week catwalk like a pro with years of experience. Her very presence in the show, and in this industry, sends a clear message to all of us: We are beautiful and fashionable at every age and every size. Kate is now one of our newest models; she has an exciting and trailblazing career ahead. I know her story of questioning, challenging and redefining the beauty ideal will inspire you as much as it does me.

I was naturally thin most of my life, until I hit my forties. Being slim however, did not automatically guarantee me success or make my life picture perfect. In high school my friends affectionately nicknamed me “beanpole”, but bullies loved to tease me for being so tall, gangly and flat chested. I dreaded getting changed for gym class and envied the curvier girls who displayed no inhibition about their bodies. Although I excelled at sports, I continued to struggle with my body image.  By age 15 I reached my full height of 5’9” and weighed 115 pounds. Back then my sense of worth was so lacking, I avoided my prom as I felt I didn’t “fit in”. I possessed minimal self esteem and self confidence. Several years of life experience had to pass before I could shake off those negative “body image” messages that profoundly affected me as a teenager.

I’ve never had an eating disorder and during my twenties and thirties could eat whatever and whenever I pleased, still managing to keep my svelte figure. Salty snacks were my weakness and I craved simple carbs like rice, bread and pasta.  Being moderately active didn’t prevent my weight from increasing in my forties and it has continued to creep up year after year.  Now at 55, I have those curves I desired when I was younger only to find that society in general and the fashion industry in particular have adopted a narrow definition of beauty with “young and thin” heading the “must be” list.

I now weigh 170 pounds and wear a 12/14 dress size. I’m eating a better diet for heart health and walk everyday. I always find quiet time for myself and keep a positive attitude. This is vital for women as we’re so hard on ourselves and usually put other people first.

Years ago my definition of beauty could be found in the pages of Seventeen and Glamour and like so many young women I dreamed of becoming a model but was too shy to act. Now, decades later, with buckets of strength and confidence, I’m embarking on a new modeling career. I responded to an ad placed on Craigslist by Model Agent Ben Barry, looking for a gray haired woman to model for Toronto Fashion Week. I truly believed I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by going for it. So what if I wasn’t chosen? I wouldn’t be crushed and would just go on to something else. But I was chosen, and walked the catwalk alongside veteran traditional models at the AGO for “VAWK” designed by the very talented Sunny Fong. I told Ben, taking my first step was like being on a plane taking off a runway. It was exhilarating. Even better, Ben signed me to his Modeling Agency! It’s amazing how taking that one small step forward has impacted my life. It’s sad to think how many other women read that same ad but didn’t reply simply because they didn’t feel beautiful enough. Rejection is not a loss. Never trying for fear of rejection is the loss.

I certainly don’t fit the description of a traditional model and my definition of beauty has changed. For me, it’s not about having perfect facial features, weight and measurements.  Nothing wrong with being young and stunning, but women of all ages, sizes and ethnicities need to recognize that feeling beautiful comes from within and not from the rigid definition of beauty other people would have us believe. Beauty is about energy, vitality, attitude and confidence. It’s about your own sense of style, grace and sophistication. So celebrate, embrace and appreciate the incredible beauty you already possess. You have something special that no one else has. We all have unique selling points and something to contribute in our own way. Develop the guts, courage, strength and determination to pursue your dreams and passions whatever they may be. Surround yourself with like minded people who support you. Ben is a wonderful mentor and always tells me “I’m beautiful just the way I am and not to change anything”.  My runway coach Liis Windischmann who is a gorgeous model, has been such an inspiration. Sunny boosted my confidence just by choosing me to wear one of his beautiful designs.

Marketers want consumers to buy into the fantasy that if we use a certain product we will resemble the model in the ad. We are bombarded with these messages, perhaps as this mind set has worked so well in the past. I recently had my first photo shoot to have pictures taken for my portfolio. It was a very positive experience and a lot of fun, but it did take an entire team of professionals to get me looking my best. I had a hair and make-up stylist, clothes stylist and photographer using proper lighting. Models don’t look like they do in the ads so women would be best not to compare themselves. Also, times are changing as baby boomers, who have tremendous purchasing power are getting older and want to be represented by models that look just like them. Both Sunny and Ben are trailblazers because they had the chutzpah to use diverse models in the Sunny’s show. The feedback was all positive, so let’s hope more fashion designers, editors and retailers follow suit. The fashion industry does seem to be shifting in favor of using non-traditional models to represent the general population, but there is still resistance.

As a mature woman, I refuse to believe that beauty diminishes with age. I only have to look at the beautiful women in my own family to attest to that. My grandma, mom and aunt were all strong women with fashion style and beauty which only intensified as they got older. They’ve all passed away, but I carry with me the memory of my mother always telling me I could be anything I wanted.

I would like to be a role model for women aspiring to be the best they can be in every area of their lives. It starts with self love. Once you embrace and love yourself just as you are, you can go on to be and do whatever you desire. Do what I did – just do it!

A look for Kate's portfolio shoot by Melissa Peretti

Guardian Hay Festival

June 2, 2010

Ben outside the Hay Festival sign

On Saturday May 29th, I had the honour of presenting a talk, entitled The Body Image Revolution, to a sold out crowd at the Guardian Hay Festival in Hay-on-Rye, Wales. Founded by Peter Florence in 1988, Hay is one of the world’s leading festivals of authors and thinkers who talk about their latest work. Bill Clinton described Hay as “The Woodstock of the mind.” I spoke about my current research on fashion advertising that reveals a cultural shift in the consumer mindset; they reject artifice, crave authenticity, and make their feelings known at through their purchases. Following is a summary of my talk from a report on the Cambridge University blog:

For decades, the fashion and beauty industries have been selling us unattainable looks and “hope in a jar”. Ben Barry’s research suggests that, as he revealed to his audience at Hay this morning, women are now starting to get wise and demand reality instead.

It’s a little startling to hear society’s predilection for ultra-skinny models being described as a public health emergency, but, according to Ben Barry, the statement is in many ways becoming true.

“There’s a day to day obsession with weight and a large amount of time spent by women on body hatred and wanting to look a different way,” Barry told his audience in the Oxfam tent at Hay this morning. The problem has been so significant, he added, that the American Psychological Association recently presented research showing that on average, American teenage girls are more concerned about putting on weight than they are about the possibility of a nuclear war.

Barry, as documented in our preview feature elsewhere on this very blog, is a PhD student at Cambridge’s Judge Business School, where he focuses on body image and the way in which it both shapes and is shaped by fashion marketing. In an earlier incarnation as the head of a modelling agency which he set up when he was just 13 (he is now 27 years old), he was, among other things, involved in scouting for Dove’s “real women” campaign which broke the mould by placing normal, curvy models at the forefront of its marketing instead of the size 0 ideal that has become the norm.

This campaign has, Barry believes, precipitated a culture shift away from the super-skinny, supermodel ideal. Fashion designers like Cheri Milaney and Mark Frost have followed suit, making headlines by creating clothes for size 12 and 14 models. Smaller scale efforts have been made by the likes of Prada and Louis Vuitton, placing size 2 and 4 models on the catwalk at headline shows. Admittedly they hardly resemble the average woman, but, compared with the size 0 ideal these brands have promoted since time immemorial, it represents a significant start.

The shift does not apply just to leading designers and fashion houses. Debenhams have followed Dove with a real-women style campaign and magazines like Glamour have won acclaim from thousands of readers for putting pictures of average-sized models in their pages. In France, Parliament is currently debating whether or not to make it a crime to “incite” thinness.

So have the real women won? Barry warned that these attempts to ensure that advertising represents something other than a largely unattainable fantasy remain anomalies, rather than the norm. “The industry is still trying to sell hope in a jar”, he said. It benefits from offering women unreachable forms of beauty, in other words, because it believes that they think they can reach it by buying its products.

Since arriving at the Judge, he has been examining how far that contention really holds true. For his PhD, he has surveyed 3,000 women in Britain, Canada and the US representing a cross-section of shapes, sizes, age groups and ethnic backgrounds. Each was shown pictures of products being modelled by a similar variety of women. Some represented the supermodel fantasy of a young, thin, usually white size 0 woman. Other items were modelled by people with more conventional looks. The survey group were then asked to say how compelled they felt to buy the product being marketed in each case.

The aim was to see what these women really want to see in fashion and beauty advertising and whether it concurs with the idealised form the industry thinks it should be trying to sell them. Contrary to the views of corporate marketeers, Barry found that in general the women’s purchase intentions increased when a model who reflected their own age and size. In other words women want to buy products modelled by someone who, they think, looks like them.

“The people we surveyed are questioning, challenging and redefining beauty,” Barry said. “The women I met compared fashion to real life and preferred their own reality to the fantasy that advertisers are encouraging them to seek out. They rejected the central premise that their looks and lives could be improved by buying a certain product.”

In subsequent focus groups held with some of the survey participants, Barry confirmed his initial conclusions. The women who had taken part wanted to see an interpretation of beauty that reflected their own lives.

“But,” he added, “this isn’t a case of getting rid of aspiration. Rather, it marks a cultural shift from an unattainable aspiration to an aspiration they can attain.”

Barry believes that consumers are becoming increasingly media-savvy and recognise the artificiality of the manufactured constructs the fantasy models who are put in front of them represent. This is being helped further by social media, not least the “street-style” blogs which feature photographs of ordinary people “modelling” particular looks or brands. In some cases, these now command millions of hits a month, putting them on a par with many leading magazines which deal with similar themes.

This may also be one of the areas in which the recession has actually helped, Barry suggests, arguing that it has led to a “back to basics” culture. Fast fashion, which can reinterpret catwalk fashions for a mass (and ordinary-sized) audience within three weeks, and the emergence of unconventional style icons, like Michelle Obama, have also helped to feed the shift.

The industry is not the only thing that needs to change for the sake of a better society in this sense, Barry argues. As a member of his audience pointed out, far better still would be a cultural transformation in which our attitude to our own looks was defined less by corporations and fashion houses altogether. Until that happens, however, the industry will retain some sort of power over the way in which many women, in particular, see themselves and therefore needs to take responsibility for it.

“My research shows that the body image revolution is not about an end to size 0 or an end to size 2,” Barry added. “It shows that people are ready for the start of body diversity and acceptance of the idea that body is the one you’re born with.”

“For brands, it means they should be looking at who their target consumer is, particularly in terms of age or size. It’s not in their interests to represent everybody for the sake of everybody. But it is in their interests to represent their target market.”

Ben delivering his talk at the Hay Festival

Celebrate Your Curves

April 11, 2010

A few of our models (and others) with designer Jessica Biffi (centre) all wearing Jessica Biffi for Addition Elle and MXM

Project Runway Canada Season Two alum Jessica Biffi has launched two capsule collections for Canada’s top plus size retailer Addition Elle. The collections, Bold Biffi for MXM and Jessica Biffi for Addition Elle, bring Jessica’s rocking style, design savvy, and firsthand knowledge of the plus consumer, as beautiful curvy woman herself, to all of us. Jessica wanted to celebrate women’s curvy bodies – not hide them – with her collections: “Plus size women have hips. They have breasts. Those are assets to have. I think it’s a shame when people wear really baggy clothing and don’t show off that they have a waist, and don’t show off that they have a bust line. It all becomes one thing … I think that plus-size women should not be afraid to show off their curves.” Jessica’s fresh approach is sure to innovate the world of curvy fashion.

As part of her media tour, I was thrilled have some of my models showcase Jessica’s stunning collections on Toronto’s Breakfast Television. Jessica is a huge advocate of size diversity in fashion media. She explained: “I think it’s really important [to have plus size models], because then [plus size consumers] can identify more with what they’re seeing. If they’re seeing someone who is clearly not plus-size, or much older than them, they don’t identify with what it is that they’re looking at. I mean, people are very visual, so if you can envision yourself in the same position, then you’re more apt to think, ‘Oh, yeah, I’d totally wear that, because I’m like that girl.'” I look forward to continuing my work with the talented Jessica Biffi and Addition Elle.

Note: Jessica’s quotes are from her interview with plus size model blog Judgement of Paris.

Our models Melissa and Cathy wearing Jessica Biffi for Addition Elle and MXM