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


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

Business of Bliss

January 23, 2010

Ben speaking at the Business of Bliss

Ben speaking at the Business of Bliss

In October 2009, I had the honour of speaking at the Business of Bliss in Calgary, Alberta. The event was a full-day speaker series designed to inspire women to discover their purpose, live their passion, and create a life they love. I had the incredible opportunity to share the stage with Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City; Martha Beck, New York Times best-selling author and columnist for O, The Oprah Magazine; and Peter Walsh, organizational guru from TLC’s Clean Sweep. In my talk, I shared my story of challenging the fashion industry to represent authentic beauty and I extracted tools for the audience to join me in debunking the beauty ideal, re-imagining beauty, and allowing their newfound understanding to inspire their lives. I would like to thank the creator of the event, Kari Dunlop, for providing a forum to turn dreams into reality and, by doing so, lead the lives we want to live.The Business of Bliss

Ben signing copies of his book, Fashioning Reality

Audience at the Business of Bliss



Ben speaking at The Capital Centre


Ben speaking at Almaguin Secondary School

This past week, I was invited to share my entrepreneurial journey and tips with 1000 high school student in North Bay and the surrounding regions. I spoke about  how young people do not need to wait until later in their lives to begin their own businesses, but have all of the skills and ideas right now. I touched on themes such as how to start a firm with limited capital, how to develop mentors, and ultimately, how questioning your mentors means that you have developed a unique business idea. The Business Centre Nipissing Parry Sound hosted the two events to promote their programs that foster youth entrepreneurship, such as Summer Company (co-presented with The Ministry of Small Business and Consumer Services) that provide business training and grants to students who want to begin summer businesses. A big thank you to Anna Iati and Neal Kelly for their hospitality.