A case for diversity in fashion

The Ryerson School of Fashion hosted the panel “Marketing vs. the Market: A case for diversity in fashion” last Thursday on March 8th at Ryerson University. The discussion explored the fashion industry’s lack of diversity when it comes to race, weight, and age.

The event, hosted by the School of Fashion and its chair, Robert Ott, ran from 6-8 p.m. Ben Barry, the CEO of modeling agency Ben Barry, moderated the event, while noted guest speakers included designer Brian Bailey, Zoomer editor-in-chief Suzanne Boyd, and Dr. Brynn Winegard, an assistant professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management. Speaker Dr. Jaqcui Gingras, an assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Nutrition, was supposed to speak but cancelled her appearance due to an illness.

The panel discussed the challenges to, opportunities and strategies for, achieving diversity in fashion.

“We at the school of fashion have a role to start the discourse and discussion about diversity. It requires us to perhaps be critical about the industry who we supply students for,” said Ott, “however, at the same time, I think we have to have a broad understanding of what the issues are.”

Touching on recent news, the panel began with a discussion on 63-year-old Meryl Streep’s cover of Vogue. Barry noticed that although the magazine took a positive step in putting the actress on the cover.

“Blogger ‘Bryanboy’ said of the pictures: ‘It’s interesting how Vogue didn’t Vogueify her too much.’ I think what he was getting at was that, unlike most Vogue cover subjects, she wasn’t given the usual Vogue treatment,” said Barry. “The styling and photography was soft and very natural.”

Boyd, whose magazine is targeted at a 45+ age demographic, has noticed certain exclusions and treatments of older age groups in the fashion industry as well.

“A lot of people think that once you’re a certain age you give up on a lot of things, like high fashion or looking current or wanting to be attractive. And obviously we reject that. I think that is a stereotype,” said Boyd. “You see it in advertising, where if it’s a financial product or it’s about retirement – sure, they’ll have older people in the ad. But for fashion and beauty, even if it’s a so-called ‘anti-aging product,’ it will be a much younger model who obviously doesn’t need it – especially as she’s retouched most of the time.”

The panel also touched on fashion’s tendency to alienate certain races and weights when it comes to models and sizes.

On an advertising and marketing note, Winegard noticed that the fashion industry will often include different races and weights but will treat them as fads or trending topics when they really should be norms.

“One of the things we know that reigns love is novelty. And that certainly is here in fashion, you’re constantly thinking about new ideas,” said Winegard. “The problem with novelty is that it’s temporary and frequency-dependent. It doesn’t last forever, it’s not going to be novel forever, and if everyone did it it’s not novel at all.”

Boyd has seen this treatment of diverse models, as ‘others’ or novelties, on the runway as well. She believes that although the inclusion of different skin and weight types is a positive step forward, the industry has to stop treating them like ‘others’ in order to truly and effectively achieve diversity. To accept them rather than glamourize them.

“What’s happened now is that you get the odd person of colour, the odd asian, the odd bigger model. The problem with that is that often these models are used as fetish objects. Their not treated as real women,” said Boyd. “It becomes another insult in a way.”

As a fashion designer who proudly offers plus-sized clothing, Baily shared his insight from the feedback he’s received from both the media and clients. He believes a strong clientele for plus-sized clothing is out there, that there aren’t much choice for them, but that the media will also often overshadow his work by focusing too much on his sizing rather than the work and detail he’s put into his collection. He, too, believes people glamourize the notion of ‘plus-sized’ clothing.

“In my first season in Canada, I did about half a million dollars in women’s plus size clothing. And of course the press went crazy and they wrote about my plus sized clothing, but then forgot about my regular sized clothing,” said Bailey. “So I was a little annoyed. It’s very trick to please everybody.”

Zoomer’s Boyd agrees with the sensationalism of plus-sized models. While being the editor-in-chief of Flare magazine, she actually received complaints over the use of heavier models instead of praise – which showcased not only sensationalism but a shock-factor towards including models other than a size two: “When I was at Flare, sometimes when we had models who didn’t look as thin we would get complaints from readers saying ‘why is that model so big?’ I was stunned by that. I didn’t understand how readers could write in with this whole tyranny of the size.”

Panelists also believe the public shouldn’t stress too much over the size of models on the runway. Although the models can be scary-thin at times, which is not a healthy image for anyone in any industry, panelists believe people should realize the clear distinction between real life and fashion life. In more assuring terms, they wanted to stress the fact that runway clothing is often altered for ready-to-wear, which makes collections available in larger sizes for retail.

“There is ready-to-wear, and then there is runway. Ready-to-wear is the stuff you’re going to buy off the rack. It’s the stuff the size four, the size eight, the size twelve, the size sixteen is going to buy,” said Bailey. “Runway is a fantasy. Runway is the designer’s catch-all of what they’re really trying to put forward to capture your mood and your excitement.”