Size diversity within the fashion industry has become an increasingly vital topic of conversation, and one that’s actually creating change: During the last year, we’ve seen designers like Christian Siriano, Prabal Gurung, and Michael Kors expand their casting to include plus-size models. The spring 2018 round of shows—showcased last September—was a record breaker for curves on the runway. By our count, 208 women were above sample size throughout the season, which made advocates hopeful for a more inclusive industry.
While body-diverse representation hasn’t been quite as widespread during the fall 2018 shows so far—which kicked off last week in New York—it’s absolutely been present and accounted for thanks to a cluster of young labels that treat diversity as a nonnegotiable part of their DNA, not just as an industry trend.
Take Chromat, for example. Started in 2010 by designer Becca McCharren-Tran, the New York–based brand has been unwavering in its commitment to casting a range of people that—as the designer put it—”explodes our historically narrow ideal of beauty.” In Chromat’s case, this means showcasing a range of different bodies, yes, but also varied ethnicities, races, ages, and ability levels across the gender spectrum.
“If you never see anyone that looks like you in [the] contexts of fashion and beauty, it makes you wonder: Is there something wrong with me? Am I not considered beautiful?” McCharen-Tran says.
For shows, the brand works with casting director Gilleon Smith to bring a true range of individuals into the room, usually via an open call—a strategy that a growing number of young labels are adopting.
“I do my casting by reaching out to people on the street and on social media, about three months before a show,” says Rio Uribe, the founder and designer of Gypsy Sport—the New York brand that bills itself as “independent and inclusive.” From there, he’ll bring everyone together at a big party, and whittle down the list from “300-plus people to 30,” with the help of Anthony Conti, his longtime casting director. The results pay off: The label is one that consistently pushes the boundaries of a traditional “fashion show” with its disruptive mix of models.
“It’s important for me to see people of all sizes and colors on my runway,” says Uribe. “I want young boys and girls of all genders, sizes, and races to see a Gypsy Sport show and know that there’s a space for them in this industry.” During his fall 2018 presentation at New York Fashion Week, he brought along model and trans activist Munroe Bergdorf, reality stars the Clermont twins, 10-year-old “drag kid” Desmond Is Amazing, among other interesting talent as part of a diverse, sensational showing. “My collections are always a reflection of my friends,” the designer explains. “Style and individuality are way more important to me than fashion or trends.”
The idea of casting people that resemble your group of friends might seem a little inside-baseball, but it’s actually a pretty powerful tool in today’s social-media-obsessed world, one in which we’re all hungry for authenticity, in all its forms.
“I subconsciously look for girls I would be friends with,” says designer Alexia Elkaim of It Girl denim brand Miaou. “Someone with charm and attitude; a [wink] of confidence…. I want Miaou to be the brand I wish I had growing up.”
Before launching her label, Elkaim’s background was in casting, so she’s seen exactly how the industry evolved as far as how it books its models. Now it’s more about personality than look, she says, with brands hungry for individuality—a trend she describes as “inspiring and modern.”
For designer Hillary Taymour of New York ready-to-wear label Collina Strada—a brand for “independent humans embracing a positively fluid attitude,” per its website—casting her fall 2018 show began with “a specific concept”: a runway wedding. For it to come to life, she needed her models to “feel real”—as if they were actual bridesmaids, flower girls, grandparents, and babies attending someone’s nuptials. “I start by calling in the biggest, [most] diverse range of humans to see what we can find and then decide from there,” she says. “Diversity is always a big factor when we decide on the cast.”
In past seasons, Taymour mounted a show dedicated to Black Lives Matter, and one featuring all male models, to dismantle ideas about gendered clothing). Not only is it a helpful storytelling tool; it also—crucially—“helps relate to a different customer base,” she says. “I also think it just looks more real and interesting.”
The optics of having a diverse runway can have a deep impact outside Fashion Week too. “As a kid, I thought I was too brown and too poor to be part of the fashion industry—now I have a chance to dispel those disillusions for the next generations, and I’m intent on breaking down barriers however I can,” explains Uribe, but admits the chase for authenticity is one labels need to be cautious with. “In the last few years, bigger brands [have been] catching on, but there’s a lot of token casting. [I] don’t want to name any brands—at least they’re trying.”
Elkaim says that for Miaou, having a diverse group of women represent the brand isn’t “a conscious effort I make in trying to check boxes.” Since its first Fashion Week presentation, the brand has shown its collection on a range of bodies, both sample-sized and not. “People were pleased to see the diversity in the castings—it commodified inclusivity,” she says. “We aren’t a brand that tries to make a statement about it as much as we do what feels natural. We had a really positive response about how ‘natural’ the casting felt. Elkaim also says she carries an assortment of sizes in her samples, “so I can cast a wide range of body types.”
For Chromat, casting has been incredibly valuable to the brand’s visibility, especially when it introduced curve models to its spring 2015 runway. “At the time, no one was doing it,” McCharen-Tran says. “Now there are more plus models [at Fashion Week], and I hope runways continue to become more inclusive and reflect the beauty in diversity.”
For Taymour, casting diversity across the board is a positive movement that’s starting to feel less like a trend. “It’s no longer a shock to the audience, and I think we’ve come a long way to make it more apparent, especially during Fashion Week.”
Still, as always, there’s room to grow, and it’s up to young labels to continue to push forward. After all, opening the doors of your brand to a wide range of people—of different body types, of different experiences—isn’t only beneficial for your bottom line (it’s good press, and good business), but it can also expand your creative scope.
“I’ve learned a lot as a designer [over the years, and the castings have helped [with that],” says Taymour. “I love meeting new people, making new friends, and bringing them into our small Collina Strada family. Being able to portray an image or feeling with another human with my clothes is the best part [of designing]—for me, when a look comes alive on someone in a fitting, [that’s] the best feeling.”