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: 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

Size 6 and 41-year-old model Peggi Lepage

Size 14 and 55-year-old model Kate Watson

On Monday March 29th, VAWK presented its Fall/Winter 2010 collection in Walker Court at the Art Gallery of Ontario for Toronto Fashion Week. Last season, the label earned rave reviews not only for its stunning collection, but also for its use of diverse models. Once again, Project Runway Canada winner Sunny Fong, designer for the emerging luxury label, and I selected models of a variety of ages, sizes, and backgrounds to present the collection. We wanted consumers to imagine how Sunny’s exquisite craftsmanship and artistry would translate onto them. The media gave VAWK top marks for presenting a masterfully executed and right on trend collection while also praising our use of diverse models. One journalist remarked: “[The models] looked stunning, oozed strength and helped us understand how the clothing would appear on women who aren’t a size 0. Thank you.”

One model in the show, 55-year-old and size 14 Kate Watson, was a complete newcomer to the catwalk. I met Kate when she responded to an ad I had placed on Craigslist. Her sister sent her the link to the ad I had posted. It did not mention my agency or the fashion label, but only said that a fashion brand was looking for an older woman with silver-gray hair in an effort to produce a diverse runway show. Kate explained: “I liked what the ad said. They were putting value on ladies like me. Real women.” Our confidence boosting and runway pro Liis coached Kate on her runway walk so that she would be as polished and poised as the models with years of experience. Kate says of her first step onto the runway, “It was like being on a plane taking off a runway. “It was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life.” No doubt, there will be many, many more. I am excited for Kate’s thrilling modeling career ahead with us as she helps to transform the face of fashion.

Size 12 and 27-year-old model Alison Sharp

Ben, Kate, and reporters from Cosmo TV

Every Woman Search

March 23, 2010

Jeanne Beker announces Moji as the winner of our Every Woman Search

On March 20th, we were delighted to announce that the inspiring Moji was selected as the winner of our first Every Woman Search with Fashion Has No Boarders at the BMO Center, Stampede Park in Calgary. The event, hosted by Fashion Television’s Jeanne Beker, invited women who had never modeled before to bring their personality, character and lived experience to the runway and model in a fashion show. From hundreds of applicants, a group of judges selected ten finalists of a variety of sizes, ages, and backgrounds and taught them how to strut the catwalk and celebrate their own beauty. All of the women who entered serve as role models for each of us. Moji’s story, character, and fierce catwalk inspired and empowered the judges. Immigrating from Nigeria at age 19, she has spent her years in Canada teaching life skills programs to Nigerian teens and working with The Immigrant Women’s Society, The Congress of Black Women in Calgary, and the YMCA Minority Achievement Program. We are honoured and thrilled to welcome her as our newest model at the agency.

Winner of our Every Woman Search Moji

Age is Beauty

January 17, 2010

Irene Sinclair in the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty

Women in their 90s are the stars of the catwalk and international beauty campaigns. American stylist and designer Abigail Lorick, stylist of TV show Gossip Girl, presented her her 2009 Spring/Summer collection for her label Lorick at New York Fashion. Abigail ditched the conventional catwalk presentation and instead opted for an interactive performance. Presented in different rooms in a Manhattan apartment, the audience joined models partaking in an afternoon tea party. Abigail also ditched the beauty ideal and included  93-year-old model Mimi Widdel in her show. But this was not Mimi’s first fashion show; she graced the New York Times runways in 1941 (when the newspaper hosted its own fashion shows).

97-year-old Irene Sinclair, a great grandmother from London, was the face of an international beauty campaign for Dove. Her picture has appeared on a billboard in New York’s Times Square, in addition to posters throughout Australia, Canada, the UK and in Vogue, Flare, Galmour ads, among others. Unlike Mimi, Irene was a newbie model but decided to give it a shot because she wanted to demonstrate that age is only a number. She explained: “I got involved to be an ambassador for older people and to affirm that we have a lot to offer and we aren’t past it. I’ve never been beautiful, but I feel I am beautiful now. It’s all about growing older gracefully.”

Mimi Widdel in the Lorick S/S 2009 presentation