There has been a lot of discussion among WORN staff lately about the issues surrounding diversity of models in the fashion world. It is a loaded topic, encompassing such controversial areas as manufactured diversity, political correctness and the effect of one predominant choice of model on women’s concepts of beauty. Mainstream fashion’s obsession with the skinny white girl has superseded trendiness, and although history is full of a variety of idealized body types, I think many people are beginning to find fashion’s preoccupation with size-zero and blank stares a little stale. Exclusivity is a selling point in fashion, but when intelligent women begin to question themselves for being healthy…well, it gives you some food (no pun intended) for thought. (Please note – I am not claiming all mainstream fashion supports size-zero culture, or that all women even take note of it, I am merely noting its current dominance.) This is why I was so excited to have the opportunity to observe FAT (Toronto Alternative Arts and Fashion Week)’s open-call model casting process, which stipulated that it would be looking for a diverse group of unconventional models.
FAT’s model search is in preparation for its four day festival in April, which will showcase “fashion design, photography, installation, video, performance, music and dance, in an effort to push forward and redefine our perception of the fashion phenomenon”. In this spirit, FAT encouraged models of all size, ethnicity and age to try out. I was intrigued to see how “unconventional” would be defined in the context of a festival promoted as “alternative”. The name “FAT” suggests a dramatic departure from mainstream ideals, but also seems like it could be an oversimplification. Intrigued, I asked festival Director, Vanja Vasic about it. She describes FAT as meaning, “full of life, energy and meat” (as well as being the backward acronym for “Toronto Arts and Fashion”). Fair enough, but the name is only the tip of the unconventional iceberg…
The FAT model judging panel, including Ben Barry (famous for his work advocating for “real women” in campaigns such as Dove’s Real Beauty) claim they are looking for models who possess an engaging personality and well represent Toronto’s diversity. Despite this, most of the models I saw were mainly in their 20s and on the medium to slim side. This however, probably says more about the perceived requirements for modeling in our skinny white girl obsessed world, wherein modeling outside of those boundaries seems fairly limited.
The casting did seem to bring together a unique group of individuals from a style perspective; including one woman, decked out in head-to-toe pink, who strode around the room in platform PVC boots and sparkly blush. Chatting with her, I learned she is a nurse and does modeling on the side. She came to the FAT open call because the nature of the event spoke to her love of the avant-garde, referencing McQueen, Dior, and Westwood as inspirations. Another model I spoke to was an 18 year-old design student (with fabulous white eyelet ankle boots), who hoped to gain insight into the industry. There was certainly a range of hair colours – neon blue isn’t a mainstream runway staple – and exposed tattoos and a black cat-suit/corset combination drew compliments from the judges instead of the requisite raised brows.
Vanja proposes the selection process for models is simply “choosing people who are great, who can bring something to the event” and that choosing people on an individual and not stereotypical basis brings a natural range in the models. Making shows more inclusive and engaging for the audience excites me, but going to the casting, I was aware of the inherent potential for things becoming too politically correct – like when you see a department store ad with three girls of different ethnicities hanging with a “nerd” and a “jock”. This kind of attempt to appeal to “everybody!” can feel contrived and insulting. Are consumers really simple enough to think, “Oh look, someone of my race/size/age likes pink cardigans, I guess I should too”? I am sure on some level, this process does happen, and it’s true that on the other hand mainstream shows often leave me feeling inferior, but is it possible to cultivate authentic diversity in an industry that thrives on distinctions?
FAT believes it is up to the challenge, and frankly, I think they could be onto something great. FAT seems genuinely out to find the most enthusiastic participants to bring the clothing to life, and not to fill preordained age, race or size quotas. It is inclusive-yet-informed efforts like this that will hopefully push the mainstream towards a more accepting stance. I can’t help noting how ironic it is that alternative fashion week is out to relate to the majority of people… and I look forward to seeing what FAT has to offer!
- Esme Hogeveen