For several years, I have been a loyal follower of the local fashion scene and the wonderful designers that are featured in each season’s show. As one of the most well-known industry events on the West Coast, VFW consistently brings together some of the best designers, make-up artists, hairstylists, runway coaches, photographers, and models. VFW has also recognized the ways in which ordinary people, out in the streets of our beautiful city, embody fashion and style through the Lookbook and FashionFriday initiatives.
I am beginning by telling you how much I have previously appreciated your events and ongoing promotion of style and fashion in Vancouver, because I need you to understand that the criticism that is to follow is from someone who was a loyal consumer of the VFW brand. You also need to know that I am not simply a disgruntled outsider to the fashion industry. I have intently followed fashion and design for nearly fifteen years, am a self-taught photographer and artist, and am pursuing a career as freelance model. I am also a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia: my extensive training in cultural studies and gender theory means that in addition to my own research, I am also passionate about activism in fashion and modelling, especially its effects on women. I have the great pleasure of knowing many wonderful artists and models in Vancouver, and I am always especially thrilled when I see one of my friends or acquaintances walking in VFW. This letter, then is not about individuals: this is an informed critique about the culture of fashion and modelling as a whole, and how VFW can position itself to be a game-changer.
Each season, VFW posts casting calls on its Facebook page, seeking models to participate in the runway shows that are at the centre of the week-long event. While, predictably, VFW conforms to industry standards by seeking only those models who are, in the women’s division, 5’8”-6’0”, with measurements that only veer slightly from the desired 34-24-34, there are consistently comments posted by women who wish that they would be able to participate. They wish that they were taller. They wish that they were thinner. While I don’t presume to be a mind-reader, I think they wish, as I do, that VFW was not so predictably invested in adhering to the problematic culture of thinness and tallness and pervades the fashion industry in this moment. Not all the women commenting may, indeed, be ones who, like me, have actually tried or want to pursue a career in fashion. Ultimately, as I want to point out, the concern is less about those who wish to model for VFW, but the ways in which consumer attitudes are shaped and affected by the body type that VFW chooses to use exclusively.
This is not to say that there is anything wrong with tall or thin models, and I think that it is extremely unfair and discriminatory to body-shame the individual models who participate in events such as VFW. What troubles me is that a local industry event, which has the power to be a pioneer among fashion weeks, does not appear to seek designers nor cast models who promote anything but the fashion status quo.
VFW is not yet like New York Fashion Week, London Fashion Week, or many of the other major industry events with longer histories in the world’s fashion hubs. This is not an event where, for instance, Karl Lagerfeld will be complaining that “the only people who criticize the trend of skinny models are fatties.” Those events, and the designers who participate in them, already have such a extensive base of financial and public support that they have no need to change. Most importantly, I think that people no longer expect them to change.
Until a few nights ago, I had hoped that VFW would be open to listening to criticism, but also open to the encouragement given by people (like me) who see potential.
VFW posted their latest casting call a couple of days ago. I commented, asking if VFW’s designer ever seek petite models (5’7” and under). Less than an hour later, this status was deleted, and a new casting call was posted. The first few comments on the new post were by other young women, who expressed sentiments of wishing they were taller, or thinner, or had slightly more conformist measurements. Another individual expressed disgust and concern about extremely thin models, which was responded to by a tall model who attempted to put some context into the critique, namely that not all thin models suffer from eating disorders. Finally, I offered a comment, in which I said that individual models cannot be blamed, and that while there are problems with the fashion industry, I wanted to remind all the women who posted that their bodies are beautiful just the way they are. In my last sentence, I expressed hope that VFW would possibly consider using more diverse models in their shows, and that I was hopeful that it had the power to be a trailblazer in this regard.
I returned this evening to find that all comments save for those by the women who commented about not being tall/thin enough were deleted. I wondered, initially, why those comments had been left up. A friend of mine pointed out that leaving these comments by women who “aspire” to be a part of VFW might also work to point out that being a model in VFW is indeed a hugely aspirational goal. It reinforces, sadly, the exclusivity of such an event.
Look, I get it. VFW is a brand, one that represents numerous other brands (of designers) by proxy. Like various companies, you need to protect yourself, and criticism on your Facebook page doesn’t reflect well on the event. The problem is that it’s clear that such criticisms exist, and you are simply trying to brush them under the rug, instead of addressing them. Rather than sending a private message with something along the lines of “VFW appreciates your comments and your concerns…” you simply chose to delete my comments, and those left by others. I realize that you might not care. VFW does have a fairly steady support system, and after all, it may seem that a few stray comments only reflect a handful of consumers.
What VFW is neglecting, however, is the harsh reality. Research shows that real women (the people who are buying tickets to the event, liking the Facebook page, and who might be purchasing the clothes featured by the designers) are more likely to support a brand or purchase products if they see themselves represented in the models that are featured. Dr. Ben Barry, a phenomenal pioneer in the field of fashion diversity, recently wrote his doctoral dissertation on this very issue. (Dr. Barry is also the founder and director of the Ben Barry Agency, which is committed to representing diversity in fashion).
While there are many designers whose clothes I would have loved to have purchased, on principle, I find it hard to spend my money when I have no way of knowing if the clothes might possibly fit my 5’2” frame. I have a hard time supporting designers who claim to design for “all women,” yet who only choose the same silhouette for both their runway shows and their lookbooks. The claim that clothes simply “look better on a tall, thin frame” has been echoed so often that it now rings hollow. From fashion weeks, this bleeds over into the kinds of mannequins used in clothing stores, the kind of models featured on company websites, etc. This is a systemic problem.
We know that eating disorders and body image disturbances are not caused solely by the fashion industry, but the cult of thin models is readily apparent, not least obviously, by the plethora of fashion models who are pasted all over pro-anorexia “thinspiration websites.” Not all models have eating disorders, clearly, but even models such as Sara Ziff (who has recently founded The Model Alliance) and Coco Rocha have spoken out about the insidiousness of unreasonable expectations in the industry. That these expectations then filter out into society at large is hardly surprising, despite our best attempts to ignore the types of media and images that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. It is not enough to tell people just to ignore them: if you love fashion, art, or even if you simply need to shop for an outfit, you will be exposed to them.
I have many friends and family members, and friends in the industry who express the same sentiments as I do. We are not alone. Across the world, the call for change is becoming louder and louder. Agencies such as Models of Diversity, Bella, and the Vancouver-based InspirationALL, are doing amazing work to increase the visibility of disabled, ethnic, petite, plus-sized, and mature models. Websites such as Truth + Fashion and Diversity in Fashion not only showcase beauty, but echo the call for responsible action. The need for change will come, one way or another, and I think that it is both ethically prudent and economically savvy to be ahead of the game.
I know that being a high fashion, editorial, or runway model requires skill (as do all the other kinds of modelling). I am not suggesting that the industry should not still have standards as far as the hard work that is required to be a runway model: walking, posing, facial expression, charisma, fierceness, etc. Yet, one’s ability to model is no more related to one’s natural height than public speaking ability is related to being born with a great-sounding voice. Being a successful model is a combination of genetics, natural ability, and hard work.
I will conclude my letter to you by saying that despite the anger and sadness I feel at the moment, I still believe that the fashion industry in Vancouver has potential, and I certainly do not hold you solely responsible for the problems of the industry. I believethat local agencies can break the mold and find work for plus-sized, petite, mature, and disabled models. I believe that designers can make sample sizes and designs that are able to fit a wider range of bodies. I believe that diverse representation can extend beyond the use of a token black or plus-sized model in each show, magazine, or lookbook. It takes time. But it also takes deliberate, hard work, and a willingness to change. VFW is a unique, highly visible, and public platform, and any event, agency, or person in that position can choose to wield their power for better or for worse: there are many others in Vancouver, Canada, and the world at large that I would also call to do the same.
I will likely never be a runway model. I’m okay with that. I’m also not going to give up my love of fashion yet, because when I see the artistry and pageantry of collections like Chanel, Dior, Jean-Paul Gaultier, or, my absolute favourite from VFW F/W 2012, Xsenia and Olya, I fall in love with clothes. I fall in love with art. What I want is for my love not to also be tinged with hurt, the hurt that comes from never seeing myself, my friends, or my family’s beautiful bodies represented in that world, and knowing that we would all be told we were too ugly, too fat, too short, too dark to wear them.
Change does not always come from the top. Change comes from smaller, local communities coming together. The call for change in the fashion industry is becoming louder: I hope that VFW and others will hear it and respond.