As we coast into another fashion month, the luster of glamour feels duller than usual, and it’s not just thanks to the past year and change of handwringing reports and think pieces about the State of the Future of Fashion Week.
Perhaps I’m not feeling it because I have even less patience this year for how so much of Fashion Week feels so sharply disconnected from the women I know and love—even those working within capital-f fashion—even when marquee designers are trying to connect on a visceral and philosophical level with those of us whose buying power it wants to harness. And now that women are speaking up more than ever about how the industry’s constructs of perfection (white, skinny, conventional, painfully young) represent an acute disconnect from the values of beauty that we see for ourselves, it makes most of fashion week seem like an archaic, dusty old establishment.
These scorching hot thought-nuggets occurred to me while watching the New York Times’s latest video, entitled “Models Talk: Racism, Abuse, and Feeling Old at 25.” Watching this procession of dynamic, diverse, fascinating women talk about their disenfranchisement in their own profession is both infuriating and invigorating, because they represent that women don’t have to accept what fashion wants so desperately—thirstily—to dictate to us. There is Sara Ziff, who transformed her runway career into one in activism, advocating for labor rights for models and others in the industry. There is Paloma Elsesser, the plus-size model most recently featured in the Fenty Beauty campaign and whose cool essence seems to embody the best of New York City. “My understanding of Fashion Week in general is very limited,” says Elsesser, “because as a plus-size model, we are never really invited.”
There’s the stunning Precious Lee, who describes herself as “literally the biggest, blackest model at IMG,” and says that her first agent wanted her to change her name to Victoria. “We need more people who have more power and influence to open their minds to different types of beauty.”
Beyond exclusion because of skin tone, body type, or disability, models detail actual assault from photographers—“he literally just grabbed my nipple,” “nobody told me that it was gonna be topless”—and preying on the young. “When I was young, I shot with someone who went to jail for pedophilia.” remembers Stella Duval. “That was really difficult to hear, because he shot a lot of young women.”
Models and feminists and feminist models have been saying some or all of this for years, and so perhaps that’s why the prospect of Fashion Week feels so exhausting: we can continue praising young labels like Chromat, Gypsy Sport, Eckhaus Latta, and Luar Zepol for casting models who don’t fit the stereotype—and for designing for them, and including them, and thereby us—and we should praise them. But shouldn’t that just be the standard? And yet, the mainstream fashion industry carries on with the same old bullshit. Well then, no wonder it’s flailing. “I don’t want this shift to be commodified as a trend,” says Elsesser. “I want it to be a reality.”