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

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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

My Role Model: Cathy

March 9, 2010

An image from Cathy's portfolio by Felix Wong

My work to promote diverse media images is only half of the effort; the other comes from the women and men we represent who have the courage and confidence to re-define our visual culture with each flash of the camera and step on the runway. They serve as the ambassadors for this new movement of beauty that reflect and represents all of us — and their stories and positive energy inspire me daily. Given their important role in my work, I have decided to launch a new series on my blog that profiles our models, introducing you to the women and men behind the pictures. I have called the new series “My Role Model” because that is how I think of fashion models; they are role models that should empower us. In each post, I will introduce you to the person profiled, and then, in their own words, they will share  their experiences in life and motivations to model. Each person has a story; I want share their stories because they are as inspiring as the way their images change the wallpaper of our world.

I am delighted that the first role model is Cathy Iadinardi from Montreal. I met Cathy last year via social networking shortly after she was selected as a finalist for Canada’s Next Top Plus Model Search presented by Addition Elle. I was immediately captured by her confident and soulful spirit that I saw translated to her pictures, whether professional or candid with her friends and family. When I had the opportunity to meet her in Montreal, I saw her spirit in-person and immediately asked her to join my agency in Toronto. I am excited to work with Cathy; I know she will inspire people through her courage to listen to herself and speak her mind.

I’ve struggled the fluctuations of my weight for as long as I can remember. I started my first diet when I was 11 and worried about how I might lack acceptance from others because of the weight. At that age the seeds of self-hate are planted and it becomes very difficult to steer away without the proper guidance. Everyone woman in my family struggles with their weight, so weight loss and appearance was a huge presence in my upbringing. I made excuses for myself not to achieve certain goals, be more productive with myself. I stopped myself from enjoying life, doing things that a normal adolescent girl would do. I dreaded the changing rooms at department stores to the point that I avoided shopping malls all together. I struggled with binge eating disorder and by age 17 my weight escalated to 320lbs and found myself spiraling down as my self-esteem diminished. I lost myself in this whole process.

I finally woke up one morning and had enough. I felt in my heart I needed to do something drastic to get my life back. I booked a plane ticket to Africa when I was 19 and left the country for 6 months. The experience shaped and shifted my perception on life; it helped me grow as an individual and also helped me get my life back on track. I noticed right away how differently people’s mentality was. Strangers say hello to one another on the street, they were content with what little they have and another shocker… curvy women were PRAISED. Curves were a sign of health, wealth and sex appeal! Upon my return, I took it upon myself to lose weight and most importantly promised myself to approach the endevour it in a positive and healthy way. I made it a point to love myself and do things for myself that would feed my soul. I read beautiful books, took mediation and yoga classes, surrounded myself with positive people. After 3 years I dropped 100lbs.

I am now a healthy size 14/16 from being a size 26. I have never been happier; however I would be liar if I said I don’t battle with “fat girl demons” from time to time. They come and go, and its a price to pay while living in North America, to be bombarded and subjected to weight loss pills and gimmick on top of gimmick that is just brainwashing people, adolescent girls especially. Becoming a model has been an exciting and extremely fulfilling experience and has also assisted my journey to self-acceptance. Adolescent girls need more positive messages about weight, self-esteem and body image issues. North American women spend way to much time criticizing the way they look instead of using that precious time to feed their spirits with beautiful experiences and self exploration. Hopefully I can be a positive role model and aid in the healing of negative body image.

An image from Cathy's portfolio

Someone for Everyone

March 1, 2010

Debenhams' ad campaign featuring model diversity

The models in Debenhams' ad strike a pose in front of their poster

The models in Debenhams' ad strike a pose in front of their poster

Debenhams has continued to celebrate the diversity of their consumers. Last week, the UK department launched an advertising campaign for their Principles fashion line that features models of a variety of sizes, backgrounds, and abilities. By celebrating women of all abilities, the chain became the first UK fashion retailer to employ a model who uses a wheelchair in an advert. Michael Sharp, Debenhams’ Deputy Chief Executive, said: “We cater for women of all shapes and sizes, young and old, non-disabled and disabled, so we wanted our windows to reflect this choice.” Debenhams says that it is committed to using disabled models in other photography; a second photographic shoot is being organized.

While there has been much debate over the inclusion of size diversity in fashion, the incorporation of women and men of a variety of abilities has remained absent in the media. In my fight for diversity, I have always included abilities as one of the positions in the movement for diversity in fashion. In 1998, when my agency held a model search in Ottawa, we selected Joe Radmore, who uses a wheelchair, as the winner of the search. That same year, the brilliant Alexander McQueen used model Aimee Mullins, with two specially carved wooden, prosthetic legs that he had designed, in his London Fashion Week show. All of these efforts are important steps in diversifying fashion, but it is important to recognize that  models of different abilities that have been incorporated into fashion to date have represented the singular and accepted size, age, and racial beauty standard. To be truly groundbreaking, fashion needs to use people of diverse abilities who are also of a variety of sizes, ages, and backgrounds in their adverts and on their catwalks.

Debenhams reminds us all that we must continue to push, with courage and conviction, for people of all abilities to be incorporated into fashion advertising and on the runway. Fashion and style knows no size, no age, no background, and no ability; they are open to our definitions and re-definitions because the most important runway is not the catwalk in New York or Paris, but the sidewalk in our neighbourhood where we breath life into the clothes – whether we strut, limp, or wheel.

Winner of the 1998 Ben Barry/Billings Bridge Model Search Joe Radmore

Model Aimee Mullins who stared on Alexander McQueen's runway

Reality in the Window

February 19, 2010

Size 16 mannequins at Debenhams

UK department store Debenhams launched UK size 16 (US 14) mannequins in the window of their Oxford Street store in London. They are up for a trial period in London, and soon in all the UK stores, to see whether customers want to keep them. A sign next to the mannequins asks customers: I’m a size 16, do you want to see more of me? While Debenhams currently uses standard size mannequins in all windows, the majority of women in the UK are either a UK size 14 or 16.

Debenhams stocks up to UK size 26 in its Womenswear department, and 42% of sales come from UK size 14 and 16 garments. Debenhams Head of Creative, Mark Stevens, said: “We are proud to offer a broad and varied choice for women of all ages, shapes and sizes in store. So we thought we should reflect this in our window displays. If it’s popular with customers we would love to roll it out.”

Whether the mannequins stay is up to us. The retailer awaits our feedback on their site. We can change the industry because we keep the industry in business through our spending. I say to Debenhams: Use three sized mannequins to reflect the variety of body types of your consumer. That way she can see herself in your windows and in your clothes.

Percentage of sales by size at Debenhams

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

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