Come As You Are

What is beauty? The question is as old as civilization, but in the fashion industry its definition has mostly been shockingly narrow. Now, as the world demands fairer representations of real people, casting agents and designers are finally responding. This season, New York saw a wide range of models of various skin tones, gender identifications, religions, and body shapes. We spoke with Karen Diamond, director of London-based agency Models 1, about the new shifts on the runway. 

MANSUR GAVRIEL FW18 show in New York. Photo by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION.

How do you explain the increased taste for diversity on the runway? 

First, we must remember that fashion has always had an appetite for the new. As a model agent I’d like to think we are influential, but in reality we’re not. All we really can do is to present to these clients and they book. As agents, we are conduits; we try to respond to the trends. I think it’s social media that has really pushed this movement forth. Before, we were all fed images that were pushed by a small group of people who were the editors, stylists, and photographers. Now social media has blown that open and encouraged diversity. As an agency we try very hard to cater to the industry, but you cannot please all the people all the time and you have to provide a living to these young models. In the UK we’ve had forward thinking publications like The Face and i-D, but sadly on the editorial side and on the side of fashion shows there isn’t a huge amount of money. When you look at models booked for big campaigns, I think the selection is still pretty conservative. As agents, we’re not able to change that. 

How has your curve division evolved? 

We started our curve division 6 years ago. America was always ahead of the UK in terms of curves and it was the beginning of the movement with Ashley Graham,the first curve superstar, and Crystal Renn, who I always thought was more beautiful when she was heavier. It was a trend that coincided with social media, which gave the curves movement a voice. Now we have 30 curve models in about 450 total. But curve girls are still fit!

Samples are also still size zero… 

Traditionally, we didn’t present curvy girls. They didn’t get booked because the samples aren’t the right size. The samples for fashion shows fit a tiny percent of people. I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve seen it worsen; before, designers had more time to get ready for shows and fit the samples to the models rather than the other way around. When you look back to the supermodels, they were all different shapes and sizes; the samples were made to fit them. Now you have these armies of girls wearing one look. In a way, we’ve become more conformist than twenty years ago. Curve models are still challenging to book because designers are not asking for it. They still have this idea that they want to show the clothes in a very straight way. Someone like Westwood has always shown clothes on curvy women, but there are still designers who like that boyish aesthetic. 

ALEXANDER WANG FW18 show in New York. Photo by Regis Colin Berthelier for NOWFASHION.

Do you think that casting real-looking models will have a lasting impact? 

I think this new desire is healthy because we are all different, and who are we to decide what’s beautiful and what’s not? If we show different types of people, then people will feel less alone. If you’re a cancer survivor, for example, it’s not something that should be hidden. But whether these models can have a career is a different question. If a model has had a mastectomy, that doesn’t mean that it will affect her ability to be a model. If she’s the right shape and size and has the right face, she will continue to model. If someone has only one leg, then it’s different because it might be harder to have the versatility to work with lots of different clients. Real people may be cast for shows, but not for global campaigns yet. Maybe emerging brands are casting them because they don’t want a traditional view of beauty. But beautiful people are still aspirational and sell a lifestyle on a subliminal level. The catwalk takes a long time to translate into a mainstream modeling career. 

The male models still seem to conform to traditional ideals, however… 

There’s much more money in female fashion because a lot of guys let their wives buy their clothes for them. There’s more ethnic diversity for men’s, but not as much diversity otherwise, other than street casting. We are seeing a ‘big guy’ trend but they have to be fit like footballers or rugby players. Also, men are able to last much longer because they seem more distinguished, whereas women are getting old. Now, thankfully, the age gap has been taken down. There’s a market for older models and we work with them. Our oldest model is 87. 

AREA FW18 show in New York. Photo by Guillaume Roujas for NOWFASHION.

Do you believe this shift towards broader representation is mostly motivated by business imperatives? 

Yes, I think it’s business. As an agency, we work on commission only. We can’t represent someone who’s not going to work. Most agents will supply what clients are demanding. Now the public is choosing to follow the people and brands that represent them and that they can relate to. When you look at fashion magazines twenty or thirty years ago it was a very small group of influencers, but now everyone has an opinion. There are new markets like China and now they have more confidence in their own look and beauty. Same for the Middle-East and headscarves. We’ve crossed that bridge. Wearing a headscarf has been normalized.