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


2 Responses to “Writing Diversity into Fashion”

  1. Calista Says:

    This is the best line ever!!!!
    “Women want to see models of a variety of sizes and ages that have the same glamour, artistry and poise as conventional fashion models.”

  2. FANTASTIC! I can’t say enough in support of this!

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