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One Size Does Not Fit All

For decades, the fashion world followed stereotypical standards of beauty. But in recent times, ranks of new faces have entered the industry – and made diversity the name of the game.

By Marianna Cerini
August 25, 2022

As recently as ten years ago, the word ‘model’ would have conjured up a very specific type of woman (or man) for most people. In our collective imagination, models were young, tall, and thin. They had long limbs and narrow hips, symmetrical facial features, and sinewy silhouettes. Save for a few exceptions, they were mostly white.  

Fast forward to today, and the images that come to mind are increasingly different. ‘Model’ is Jamaican-Canadian Winnie Harlow, who has turned her vitiligo into a symbol for diversity and progress, and walked the runways for everyone from Victoria’s Secret to Elie Saab. ‘Model’ is Somali-American Halima Aden, the first woman to appear in Sports Illustrated wearing a hijab and burkini. ‘Model’ is Irish writer Sinéad Burke, who made history as the first little person on the cover of British Vogue in 2019. ‘Model’ is Puerto Rican Sofía Jirau, who back in February debuted Victoria’s Secret first ‘angel’ with Down syndrome. ‘Model’ is Hong Kong-born Suzi de Givenchy, who has taken the fashion world by storm two years after walking her first show – at almost 50. 

Slowly but surely, ‘model’ is becoming synonymous with a varied cast of talents, diverse in their ethnicity, size, age, and disability. And the fashion industry is all the better for it.  

Photo: Louis Vuitton Cruise 2023

The shift has been a long time coming. While for much of the 20th century models were supposed to fit into a certain, decidedly Eurocentric aesthetic ideal (think Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell), the past decade has in fact seen a growing wariness of conventional beauty and so-called ‘perfect bodies,’ both on and off the runway.  

Social media has played a pivotal part in this process. Platforms like Instagram and TikTok have helped change expectations around who gets to be seen and how. But so have communities around the world that have been advocating for representation across all aspects of life and raised important concerns about racial injustice and discrimination based on gender identity or expression, from LGBTQ+ groups to people of colour and differently abled individuals.  

And then there’s been the expanding roster of agencies, casting directors and brands – players such as Valentino, whose Spring 2022 couture show featured a beautifully diverse cast of models; Gucci, which hired Down syndrome model Ellie Goldstein for its beauty line in 2020; and Victoria’s Secret, which signed up plus size TikTok star Remi Bader among others as an ambassador earlier this year – that have been making strides in championing diversity.  

Photo: We Speak

If once looking stick-like was considered aspirational, now realness and relatability are what many – consumers, above all – feel more drawn towards.  

“A lot of people are finally coming to realise that diversity is the way forward, and that beauty simply means being comfortable in your skin,” says Marc French, chairman of the London-based Ugly Agency, an alternative modelling agency that’s been hiring ‘unconventional’ models since 1969, and plans to soon expand in Hong Kong and Japan.  

“Twenty or thirty years ago, most brands often did the bare minimum to appear inclusive, often using just one token ‘different’ model in advertising campaigns,” he adds. “Now, I’m seeing more and more brands eager to try something new, and experiment with faces from all walks of life. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but we’re finally getting to see a whole diverse side of the world. It’s an exciting time for the sector – and for our models.”  

Photo: @goodamerican

Briauna Mariah, founder of US-based We Speak, another agency with a diverse catalogue of models that aims to break stereotypical beauty standards, agrees. “More and more people across fashion and beauty are pushing for change – not just in terms of visual representation but ethical, too,” she says. “Companies are coming to understand that when they embrace inclusivity in their campaigns, they get a better response from consumers.” While some labels are embracing diversity only to improve profits, she says, “others are genuinely seeing that strength lies in differences.” 

The data confirm this. Since 2017, women’s ready-to-wear shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris, for example, have steadily increased racial diversity, with the number of non-white model appearances climbing from 40.6 percent for fall/winter 2020 to 41.3 percent in spring/summer 2021 (a meagre uptick, but progress nonetheless), according to a diversity report by industry website The Fashion Spot.  

During last September’s New York Fashion Week, data platform Tagwalk observed that body representation was up 366 percent, with 27 brands including curvy models at their presentations. Similarly, on the fall/winter 2022 runways, Saint Laurent, Max Mara, Chloé, and Prada all used models from across a broad age range. 

Photo: Ellie Goldstein (@gucci)

The trend seems to be here to stay: at the Louis Vuitton Cruise 2023 show in San Diego in May, the parade of models included the musician Lous and the Yakuza, runway vets Julia Nobis and Sasha Pivovarova, the track and field star Dalilah Muhammad and skier Eileen Gu, both of whom are Olympians, and Lauren Wasser, a double amputee who has long raised awareness about toxic shock syndrome, who wore head-to-toe metallics with a silver coat and shorts that showcased her gold prosthetic legs. 

“The concept of what makes a model is evolving before our eyes,” Mariah said. 

 Even in Asia, where features like big eyes, a petite frame and a fair complexion still reign supreme when it comes to defining beauty ideals, the body positivity movement has started to catch on.  

Photo: @princejoyce

Last year, model and singer-songwriter Yumi Nu, who is of Japanese and Dutch descent, made history by becoming Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’s first “Asian curve” model. This May, she was again chosen as one of the cover stars for the magazine’s Swimsuit Issue. 

In Hong Kong, Canto-pop star Joyce Cheng has become an advocate for diversity and inclusive beauty over the past few years, and collaborated with the likes of Dolce & Gabbana, Charlotte Tilbury and Benefit, for which she was named ambassador in 2021. “Hong Kong is really starting to have more of an open mind towards what is considered beautiful, or what is considered ‘okay,’” she expressed in an interview about the ambassadorship. “Growth is happening.”  

Meanwhile, Asian brands such as Finix Wear, Claudia Li, Ahluwalia and Supriya Lele have also helped shape the discourse around diversity by pushing for gender fluidity, inclusiveness, and a broader vision of Asian femininity through their collections.  

Photo: @thesineadburke

Body diversity still has a long way to go before becoming the norm. Despite representing change, both Nu and Cheng have been openly bullied for their appearances, for instance, and faced several struggles for simply being themselves. “So many opportunities weren’t available to me until very recently” Nu said in an August 2021 interview. “Within Asian culture, there is this pressure to be a certain size and the generational pressure of body shaming from our grandmothers and mothers.”  

P.S. Kaguya, a second-generation Korean-American plus-sized model and advocate who has worked with Nike, Sephora and Apple, among others, concurs. “The industry is still not looking at representation from a 360-degree perspective. As far as it has expanded, it’s only done so to an extent that is considered ‘safe.’ 

“We are seeing more plus sizes on the runways, but there’s still so much body shaming and fat phobia, and a preference for societally attractive curves” she continues. “Even when it comes to Asian casting, a lot of the same girls are getting booked, and most of them are half white. So yes, there have been positive developments, but there’s also a lot of room for improvement.” 

Photo: Valentino Couture Spring 2022

Showing true diversity – be it through skin colour, height, disability, or body type – “is a way of showing respect, and consequently acceptance,” she adds. “We’re not quite there yet.” 

As the fashion and beauty industries move forward, more inclusive rosters of models are needed so that more can see themselves represented in the media. Recall how well Crazy Rich Asians resonated with audiences because of its diverse representation. For many, the film validated Asian stories, and proved they matter. Models can have the same effect for everything from clothing labels to make-up brands.  

But the system might be ripe for a shake-up. “If we’re not seeing different types of beauty everywhere yet, it’s because the people that are actually in the [position] to make it happen aren’t making it happen,” says Ugly Agency’s French. “But the good news is, we are all talking about it. It’s got people’s attention. And sometimes, that can be the greatest catalyst for change.”

Originally published in ECHELON Issue 8