Why We Need Older Women on High-Fashion Runways
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s good not only for women’s self-esteem, but also for companies’ bottom lines.
The author is the former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine and a former fashion reporter for The New York Times.
Fashion and beauty love youth. This is nothing new. But perhaps the industry is beginning to break off that love affair. Given the lead-up to New York Fashion Week, we may be about to see an important new trend emerge. Is fashion at last about to witness an “older woman” moment?
Judging by some of the new advertising campaigns and from the perspective of an insider, the answer may be yes. It’s long past time for fashion to finally find a balance between the reality of who can actually afford to buy designer clothes — older, established women — and who they put on runways — a fantasy of teenage models wearing high-fashion styles that only a 16-year-old could don with a straight face, let alone afford. It would be wonderful to see more diversity of ages on the runway as the biannual fashion flag is hoisted in New York this week and unfurls in London, Paris and finally Milan. It would be a defining moment for the way we think about beauty. It might also at last vault big companies ahead, letting them reap the rewards of devoted buyers… who want to buy something they can actually imagine themselves wearing.
The well-lived, womanly look has already whipped up steam in the last few months. Influential brands have launched advertising campaigns featuring women like writer Joan Didion, 80, in ads for the brand Céline, Ricky Lauren — Ralph’s wife of 50 years — with classically patrician looks in his company’s images. And then there was Barneys New York, which chose a still steamy Stephanie Seymour Brant, 46, to seduce us. It goes on: Iconic models Iman, 59, and Naomi Campbell, 44, joined forces with Rihanna on behalf of the French house of Balmain.
To realize just how revolutionary a move this is, consider that the height of a female model’s career occurs when she is between 16 and 26 years old. Brooke Shields made the cover of Vogue at the tender age of 14; Carmen Dell’Orefice at 15. On the other hand, the average age of Vogue readers is 38.5 years old. The average age of the luxury online shopper in the United States is 46 years old, and around 37 in new markets like China. My educated guess of the average age of the models showing luxury clothes on the runway is about 18. Might a more relatable face on runways or magazine covers recruit a more loyal customer base?
The suggestion matters even more for runways than magazines, though, for the simple reason of exposure. There are about 800 photographers and scores of videographers, not to mention Instagrammers, at New York Fashion Week. A much better global dispersal than a single magazine cover.
And what message does all this send to young women, anyway? Not a good one for either models or their captive audience of young women who mimick their eating, makeup and clothing habits, say the Council of Fashion Designers of America, who, in its biannual letter to the fashion industry offered a cautionary epistle about the dangers of hiring too-young models. The organization’s president, Diane von Furstenberg, and CEO Steven Kolb argued that models younger than 16 should not be used on the runway, out of concern for their “emotional and physical well-being of these women.”
So there are a number questions to ask as the runways bloom over the next several weeks. How many of these mature models who have recently graced magazines will appear strutting their stuff? And what will the impact be on a given brand’s goodwill — not to mention sales?
Of course, not everyone believes the trend should extend from the pages to the runways. Veteran casting director James Scully, who is casting shows for Tom Ford, Stella McCartney and Carolina Herrera, says that, sure, “in theory” it’s a nice idea. But, he amends, “it would seem like a gimmick.” He adds, “I don’t want to see these women on the runway. Joan Didion is certainly not going to come down the runway. I don’t want to see Joni Mitchell on the runway.”
Then again, there’s one well-lived woman who elicits more cheers than any of the above. The ultimate in poise — Michelle Obama.