With everything going on in the world, it would be fair to say that Fashion Week might not seem like the most pressing topic to be writing about. Sitting in a room with a lot of privileged people looking at runway fashion—however beautiful—felt trivial at best, and tone-deaf at worst. Still, even in a time of unrest, the world of Fashion Week has the potential to shape perspectives; it reflects who we are and how we express ourselves. (And no woman should ever feel guilty for wanting to look at beautiful things.)
Then amid the snow and sludge this February, something awesome happened: Fashion got woke.
While protesters gathered in Washington Square to speak up for women’s and immigrants’ rights, designers got political, feminists advocated for better treatment of models, curls were celebrated—not straightened—and the runways got much more diverse. (This season, the runways in New York saw more models over size 12 than ever before. Slow. Clap.)
Of course, there remains work to be done. Much like the growing movement to make Hollywood more representative, fashion as a whole, too, needs to better reflect the people it serves. That’s where these six revolutionaries come in.
We teamed up with photographer Alex Sweterlitsch of the wildly popular Instagram Fashion Instant to bring you a snapshot of a few insiders leading the charge. Change might not happen overnight, but we’re on our way.
THE CASTING DIRECTOR SEEKING OUT DIVERSITY
By now, Christian Siriano’s shows have become a hallmark of diversity at New York Fashion Week. And while Siriano is of course a force of change, the person behind the inclusive castings is actually his casting director, Hollie Schliftman. “People are responding so well to the shows,” she says. “They are still talking about Christian’s show from last season. Still!”
Schliftman has worked with major clients like H&M, Uniqlo, and Dolce & Gabbana, but it’s Siriano who’s truly making her voice heard. “Christian likes to push boundaries and take things to a different level. Why not appeal to different kinds of markets? Why can’t all women feel like they have the opportunity to wear his clothes?” If her sentiments sound familiar, it’s because Schliftman and Siriano are on the same wavelength when it comes to diversifying the fashion space. “I really try not to follow the ‘normal’ fashion road,” says Siriano. “I’m trying to showcase, on the runway and in the front row, that fashion is for everyone and we should celebrate as many women as we can.”
The two make changing Fashion Week seem like a breeze, but for them it kind of is. “I don’t think we have had many [challenges],” says Siriano. “Maybe just that being different or trying new things takes the viewer some getting use to.” Adds Schliftman: “He does yell at me like, ‘Did we just see 400 girls?’ But I do that to him every season.”
So why does something like runway casting matter so much? The obvious reason is that fashion shows are no longer shown to just a smattering of editors in a private New York venue; they’re live-streamed on the Internet—and since people around the world are now absorbing fashion’s aspirational images by tuning in, it’s important to represent the world as it actually is. In Schliftman’s words: “Casting has everything to do with how a viewer feels when they watch a show. They are there for the garments, styling, and fashion, but the takeaway for them is how they relate to the runway. Seeing women of all body shapes and ethnicities helps women to visualize themselves in the process.” —L.C.
THE MODEL FIGHTING FOR SIZE INCLUSION
“Why can’t I be me and walk in Fashion Week?” asks size-14 model Iskra Lawrence. If her name sounds familiar, it’s likely because you’ve seen the game-changing, Photoshop-banning, curve-embracing model as @iskra on Instagram. While she’s had major success on the social platform (with 3.2 million followers to prove it!) and as a spokesmodel for Aerie, one place she’d been previously iced out is on the runway.
Before the spring 2017 season, the last time she was part of Fashion Week was 11 years ago—and suffice it to say that it didn’t go so well. “I was 15, and I walked only one show,” Lawrence says. “I remember being backstage and nothing fit. The stylist was like, ‘You’re too fat. Why are you here?’ Up until last year I thought if I ever wanted to do that again I would have to lose weight.” She was wrong.
Last season Lawrence walked in Chromat’s show, which marked her first time on a New York Fashion Week runway at her natural weight. And for fall 2017 shows, she did one better and walked for Chromat and Christian Siriano. Come next season, she’s set a goal to be part of the Coach and DKNY runways, since those brands are on the radar of her loyal followers. “I’m always strategizing,” she says. “I want to work with brands—like I did with Aerie—to connect with their consumer and get their sales up. I don’t just want to be in a photo or on the runway, I want to help.”
Her driving force, of course, is the fan base of young women watching her career. “There’s a trickle-down effect,” Lawrence says. “Fashion is completely connected into our subconscious, into our daily decision of how we present ourselves to the world.” And because her followers are connected to her via social media, she can see exactly how her work resonates with them. “When I posted that picture of me walking in Chromat, the amount of comments that I got from girls saying, ‘Holy crap, you got to walk in Fashion Week? People are doing that now? They’re accepting you?’ was huge. I want every single person to wake up every day grateful for the body they have and celebrate by dressing how they want—if seeing me on the runway helps, then I’ve done my job.” Can she get an amen? —L.C.
THE DESIGNER REPRESENTING ALL PEOPLE
If you’ve been following Chromat’s New York Fashion Week shows, you know what to expect by now: an opening performance (this season’s was by Uniiqu3), a wicked soundtrack by Discwoman, and a whole lot of diversity on the runway. “I think it’s strange that so many shows are only skinny white women,” says Becca McCharen-Tran, the label’s designer. “We as fashion designers have a platform and an opportunity to open up the narrow standard of beauty. I feel like it’s my responsibility to show and celebrate women of all different shapes, races, genders, and abilities.”
Specifically, McCharen-Tran leads the fashion pack in gender inclusivity, with five transgender or gender-nonconforming models in her fall 2017 lineup. “As someone in the queer community, I’m surrounded by all different genders—androgynous tomboy girls to trans women all the way to high-femme boys—and I want to encourage more people to live their truth,” she says. She’s also ahead of most when it comes to the inclusion of larger sizes. And while many designers cite not having big enough samples as an excuse for not using bigger models, she puts money behind developing plus sizes from the get-go. “For us to have people that are above a size 10 on the runway, we make different patterns for each of them,” she explains. “That means double the patterns, double the samples, and double all the costs as well. But it’s worth it.”
It’s clear that McCharen-Tran’s forward stance on inclusivity is rare in the fashion industry; so where does one get such a genuine commitment to the cause? Personal experience. “Growing up not being represented in fashion makes you feel like ‘Is there something wrong with me? Why don’t people look like me on the runway? Maybe I should change.’” she says. “And I think that can be really dangerous.” Now Chromat is ever focused on preventing people from being harmfully affected by fashion’s exclusivity. “I felt like I needed to change the industry so I wouldn’t be feeding its cycle of negativity that makes people feel bad,” says McCharen-Tran. “I have to take a stand, be vocal, and fight for what I believe in.” —L.C.
THE MODEL STANDING UP FOR WOMEN OF COLOR
For all the steps designers have taken to make runways more diverse, backstage has largely stayed the same. Which is to say hair and makeup teams are really, really white. This Leomie Anderson can—and will—tell you all about. “Why is there more white makeup artists backstage than black when black ones can do ALL races [sic] makeup?” she shared in a series of tweets last year about the disparity. She followed up with, “Why is it that the black makeup artists are busy with blonde white girls and slaying their makeup and I have to supply my own foundation.” Why, indeed?
Since then, things haven’t gotten much better. “That was just one of many times where I’ve had to go to the toilet and redo my makeup,” Anderson says. Of course, that’s only a small part of her concerns. What’s greater to her is that young women feel represented the way they want. “When I was younger, I used to have this anxiety if my hair or my makeup was done incorrectly,” she says. “I never wanted to speak up, because when a black girl speaks up, you’re a ‘diva.’ Do you know how many situations I’ve been in where artists have said, ‘Well, I’ve done Naomi Campbell’s hair….’ It shouldn’t be that if you know how to do her hair, you can do mine. You never hear people say, ‘Well, I’ve done Kate Moss’s hair,’ to a white girl.”
If some of the most talented pros in the world can’t get it right backstage, it sets a poor tone for the rest of society, Anderson argues. “It’s great to see that things are changing and diversity is being accepted,” she says. “We just need more education and conversation.”
Putting herself to task, Anderson recently started her own fashion brand, LAPP (Leomie Anderson the Project the Purpose), which is grounded in intersectional feminism. The word’s getting out fast: Rihanna wore one of her pieces to the Women’s March! Anderson also launched a blog for writers to discuss everything from fashion to race and mental health issues. “There are so many people who have something to say,” she says. “I want to give them a platform.”
As for what’s next? “I’d love to become an ambassador for a makeup brand,” Anderson says. “But I’d be more than just the face. I’d use it to speak up about the beauty industry and work to make sure every young girl can walk into a makeup store and find her shade. Literally, if that’s all I accomplish, it’d make me happy.” —L.S.
THE DJ-MODEL JUST BEING HERSELF
When Avie Acosta moved to New York City from Oklahoma last year, she was 19, had a love for fashion, and never aimed to be a poster child for gender identity. Rather, she felt empowered by the artistic license that came with being in front of the camera. “I loved fashion in the sense that I’d go and shop at Goodwill, but it was never part of the culture for me to look at runway shows,” she says. “It was more about me wanting to create my own fantasies with someone and then seeing those images and the art come to life.”
Then her dream of being a model came true. Acosta was signed to Wilhelmina’s men’s board and made headlines for her nonconforming editorials. But, while more representation of the LGBQT community in mainstream media is unquestionably a good thing, it also comes at price. Models like Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner are asked about their fashion or beauty choices, but the discussion with trans folks often centers around just that—their being transgender. “It feels crass,” as Acosta puts it, citing how people’s identities have been turned to click-bait.
What’s more, though, Acosta hopes the way we label fashion and beauty choices as a whole becomes less gendered. “Fashion says nothing about your gender,” she says. “Fashion is not going to liberate anyone’s gender—that’s within yourself.” To put it in context, she offers this analogy: When you’re a woman at home in sweatpants and a big hoodie, nobody is questioning your identity. You’re not suddenly “masculine” because you’re in sweats. You’re just you, but comfortable. The same should go for any other kind of expression, be it clothing or makeup, she says.
Now Acosta’s just focusing on doing her: her art, her work as a model, and her life as DJ (she hosts a weekly party called Who Isn’t She?). “I just got to a point where I took back the power,” she says of the narrative constructed around her. “I stopped giving people the power to influence what I’m wearing and what I’m doing, who I’m going out with, and how I’m talked about.”
“I’m just being looked at as a person,” she says. “That’s all I ever wanted.” —L.S.
THE ADVOCATE CAMPAIGNING FOR MODELS’ HEALTH
Fact: The average career of a fashion model lasts five years. Also fact: Sara Ziff is an exception. In 2012 the former model launched the Model Alliance, a labor advocacy group for models working in the American fashion industry, and made major news in 2013, when she pushed New York State to make a enact ensuring child models would be covered by the state’s labor law. Now she’s going after Fashion Week, with the company’s #DearNYFW campaign, which calls for members of the industry to put models’ health first—preferably in the form of another law. “It wasn’t until I became an advocate in the industry that I felt a sense of purpose or even belonging,” she says.
#DearNYFW started with a study in which the Model Alliance found that 81 percent of models have body-mass indexes that are underweight; 62 percent of models have been asked to lose weight by their agency; and 21 percent of models were told their agency would stop representing them unless they lost weight. “It’s a little bit like announcing that water is wet,” says Ziff. “But now we actually have some data to work with.” To her that data proves “that models work in an industry which requires them to lose weight as a prerequisite for employment.” She adds: “That is coercive and dangerous. We really need to look at this not just as a labor issue for the models but also as a public health issue. People working in other industries have laws that protect them from harm.”
The campaign also features an open letter signed by 100 models and influencers that calls the industry to action. “Whether you’re a photographer, editor, designer, casting director, or an agent, we’re pushing you to make health a priority at Fashion Week,” the letter goes, “and for the industry to celebrate diversity of age, race, ethnicity, size, and gender status.” And though 100 isn’t a small number, their actual reach is much bigger. “Between us, we have millions of followers on social media,” says Ziff. “It might be the first time models have gathered together to spur consumer activism via their social media channels. Our approach is to act collectively. We’re so much stronger as a group.” —L.C.