May 2019

Fashion for All

Designers Employ Models of all Ages, Races, Sizes, and Gender Identities.

Models show the new season Rachel Comey line.

By Rachel Hershkovitz

In 2002, one of Britain’s most recognizable iconoclasts and designers, Vivienne Westwood, pulled another stunt. Her students in a university fashion program would have their designs modeled not by professionals, but by members of a nursing home.

The fashion community would regard the move as another example of Westwood’s many eccentricities. But, she assured her students, the decision was no gimmick: she loved the aging process and felt proud to experience it. “Life becomes richer as you grow old,” she explained.

Nearly two decades later, such a belief wouldn’t make a pariah of a designer. It is now acceptable by industry standards to hire models who exceed the 20s age bracket and to work with agencies representing a diversity of races, sizes, and gender identities. This emerging trend is especially noticeable in the 2019 fall-winter runway collections from designers Eckhaus Latta, Simone Rocha, and Rachel Comey. While lesser-known compared to fashion giants, these designers present a distinct feminist outlook that we can expect to hit critical mass in the next few years.

This seems especially probable in an age where dating apps like Bumble allow only female users to approach the men, t-shirts emblazoned with “The Future is Female” pop up in nearly every department store, and the women of the #MeToo movement can find justice. And if you’re willing to spend $495, you can rock a pair of heels designed by Sophia Webster that say “Boss Lady” right on the toes.

Today, clothes don’t just beautify women and make them more desirable for mates; they’re viewed as secondary to the women who wear them. So it’s no wonder that the industry now encourages models to explore advanced trades and pursue scholarship, like Victoria’s Secret Angel Lyndsey Scott, whose talents in software engineering helped her become a feminist icon on Twitter last year. Flattery will get you anywhere, but recession-proof skills don’t hurt.

No designer better understood this than Phoebe Philo, creative director of Céline from 2008 until last year. Her work with the fashion house resonated with the successful 21st century woman: powerful and practical, with no shortage of sophistication. Céline offered clothing to a woman who loved minimal designs and odd cuts, a character who probably owned an empire but made time for art museums.

Céline carried this concept to its logical end in 2015 when the fashion house included the writer Joan Didion, then 80, in one of its advertisements, with the beloved cultural critic donning massive dark sunglasses and a turtleneck while seated indoors. The advertisement reached cult status, even among those who had never read Didion’s writing, and spawned parodies on social media. Anything that typified chic banality, age, and intelligence could be passed off as a Céline advert.

And for the younger audiences who saw the ad but couldn’t quite relate, they still relished in its glamour. The image of a woman who has achieved material comfort and international success on her own is attractive because it’s still difficult, despite all the strides women have made in recent decades. Likelihood of upward mobility, after all, hasn’t improved much. In a 2016 paper, the economist Raj Chetty described the American Dream as “fading,” pointing to data suggesting that rates of upward mobility have declined since 1940.

For a millennial living in economic precarity, financial insecurity is just another source of self-doubt. Some may even feel like it’s easier to be thin than it is to purchase a house, pay off student loans, or find a steady career. These realities don’t typically exist for the young – they’re the domain of the old. So why wouldn’t the image of a successful, established woman arouse envy, as images of thin, young women on yachts once did?

While The New York Times reported in 2015 that Céline’s decision to cast an older woman embodied a trend exclusive to that year, the interest in unconventional models has persisted. Earlier this year, another Céline made the rounds on fashion websites. Céline Dion, age 51, became the new face of L’Oreal, delighting not just the women closer to her age, but younger audiences, too. Dion had already established herself as a style icon among fashion devotees of all ages. Vanity Fair called her the “undisputed winner” of Paris Fashion Week in January, and Harper’s Bazaar echoed the thought by referring to her as “couture’s unexpected fashion darling.”

Even non-celebrities enjoy more recognition and praise. The popular Instagram account “Advanced Style” has only grown since its start in 2008 and now boasts a follower count of a quarter million. The site features street style photos of geriatric fashionistas, all unique, all fabulous. The blog has published several books and most recently, in December 2018, published “Advanced Love,” a book celebrating elderly couples. Ari Cohen, the creator of Advanced Style, is in his thirties.

But in the fashion world, few have done more to advance the integration of underrepresented, minority models than a handful of DIY-inspired, independent fashion houses in New York, especially Eckhaus Latta, a fashion line named after its two founders, Zoe Latta and Mike Eckhaus. Known for its quirky fabrics, Eckhaus Latta is both earthy and artsy, with an emphasis on high-quality, acid washed denim, as well as for its unusual approach to discovering talent for its seasonal runway. Instead of fortifying its exclusivity in an already guarded industry, Eckhaus Latta holds casting calls for its shows, open to the public.

Eckhaus Latta depends on the judgment of Midland Agency for these castings, an offbeat modeling agency that eschews tradition altogether, preferring artists, dancers, and miscellaneous “cool kids” of New York City. The agency, founded by Rachel Chandler and Walter Pearce, fights the predictable standards (usually ultra-thin, young, and white) which have defined modeling for decades.

Every iteration of woman that is possible has a place on the runway of Eckhaus Latta and Midland’s other clients. For example, Eckhaus Latta thrilled the public when it sent a pregnant model down the runway for its Spring/Summer 2018 show, the model’s baby bump exposed and framed by the deliberate unbuttoning of the dress right around the stomach. The message was clear: women at all ages, sizes, and stages of development are beautiful and welcome. A woman’s value has nothing to do with her availability on the romantic market, and everything to do with her own choices.

Designer Rachel Comey, although not associated with Midland, uses similar messaging and tactics for her shows. She’s a designer established in New York whose designs appeal to eccentric but wealthy Brooklynites. Artists, dancers, and other non-models have walked for her, but her runways more freely embrace women in their twilight years. Her latest collection, Fall/Winter 2019, included not one but multiple women older than 50 or 60. Her Instagram account does the same. One post includes 67-year-old JoAni Johnson, who would be retired if not for her modeling career. Johnson is proud of her age, choosing to wear her silvery hair at waist-length. She makes a perfect representative for a brand known for feminine spunk and confidence.

Each successive addition of an unconventional model has prompted giddy praise from journalists and a sense of hope in fashion’s clientele. Where the industry once inspired envy via unrealistic beauty standards among would-be buyers, fashion today recognizes that consumers feel valued when they see a company make a promise of diversity. It’s a symbiotic relationship: consumers appreciate when they’re properly represented, and fashion houses can market with ease, without accusations of indifference to a changing world.

But there’s another good reason to seek change, one that transcends the transactional aspect. Art should arouse, disturb, and question. If every model fulfills an industry standard of “perfection,” how will the art provoke or shock us?

Fashion may not be the only art that requires human participation to make it living (performance art and dance certainly do this), but it is an art that demands participation from its consumers. To ignore the role that humans play in animating the clothes does the art a disservice, and it insults the women who love fashion when we think of models as just “clothes hangers.” Each woman who expresses herself through her wardrobe has a history, and she imbues that history in the clothes she chooses to wear. If that history is longer or more complicated because of her age, that’s all the better. Clothes may make the man, but it’s the women who can elevate the clothes and make them fashion.

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