Model Revolutionaries Rock Fashion
By Isabelle Lee
In June, Victoria’s Secret announced it would completely redesign its brand, starting by doing away with calling its models “angels.” It has also ditched it’s glitzy fashion show in favor of “redefining sexy.” These moves some say, are too little, too late. Lingerie brands like Aerie from American Eagle have already been featuring models of different weights, ethnicities and abilities for years.
So, if these moves by the lingerie giant really are little more than window dressing, then who has taken up the mantle? What new forces are defining the future of modeling?
Join us for a close-up look at the models creating their own catwalks, read how virtual modeling is an actual thing and dive into the incredible innovations set to upend the fashion world as we know it.
future of modeling: the pathbreakers
The 23-year-old Somali American grabbed headlines by becoming the first model to don a hijab and burkini for the cover of Sports Illustrated. Aden is a genuine trailblazer. She had negotiated a contract that would see her only work with agencies that let her wear the hijab and work only with female stylists. It worked, but only temporarily: Last year, she quit modeling to protest the industry’s exploitative practices, “taking one for the team,” she says, to help others feel more comfortable about speaking up. Industry issues aside, Aden still hopes to represent Somalia in the Miss Universe pageant. While it would be a first for a contestant to compete while wearing a hijab, that doesn’t scare Aden, who has made a career out of breaking down barriers.
When the latest swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated dropped last month, it created history by featuring Leyna Bloom, its first transgender cover star. “The idea of me being the first person of color . . . [and] of trans experience, to be in that magazine, it was truly like the universe coming full circle,” she recently said on The Carlos Watson Show. She’s not just a knockout in the glossies; she’s also tackling the silver screen this year with a role in Port Authority. What is Bloom looking to take on next? Hopefully more acting roles, further redefining beauty and increasing representation for trans youths.
In a country where fair skin is an obsession among many, this dark-skinned beauty is going down a different road entirely. Seema Hari is confronting colorism in India’s modeling industry with full force as an ambassador for the advocacy campaign Dark Is Beautiful, a social media presence and as a writer. Growing up, Hari faced bullying and harassment for her dark skin tone. But she didn’t let the naysayers dim her light. Instead, she shines as a model, DJ, activist and engineer. Her Instagram is a gold mine of content celebrating dark skin tones while addressing issues such as India’s caste system and transphobia.
The designer of the iconic lingerie brand Srta. Peel discovered Victoria Ripa at a circus in 2014 in Montevideo, Uruguay. But don’t worry, no animals were harmed in the making of her modeling career. She was rocking out at the circus-themed fundraising event with her band, Croupier Funk, when spotted by Srta. Peel founder Loreley Turielle. The day after the event, Ripa had booked her first campaign with the brand. As a size XL, Ripa told OZY that she was at first hesitant to take on modeling as a career because she rarely saw her size or body type represented in South American fashion or advertising. Yet, she has become a celebrity in the world of plus-size modeling.
At CES 2021, the future of fashion events was front and center in discussions between industry leaders, including Moschino Creative Director Jeremy Scott and Balenciaga CEO Cédric Charbit. Under Charbit’s direction, Balenciaga debuted its fall 2021 collection with a video game in which players embarked on their very own fashion adventure. Players walk past avatars of models wearing the collection on a city street and make their way to a secret rave in a forest. The game was an inventive solution to pandemic restrictions that have made in-person runway shows impossible. According to CES panelists and Charbit himself, audience members should now be seen as the focal point, rather than as inactive viewers. Placing audience members in the show and letting them consider how they would wear the couture walking by them is a departure from the fashion elitism synonymous with luxury brands.
What the heck is a virtual model? Well, they are digital avatars that look a lot like real people, but are actually created on a computer. Avatar models such as Shudu, the world’s “First Digital Supermodel,” Miquela and others have made waves on platforms like Instagram, where their creators have landed lucrative sponsorships and work with designer brands. They are essentially money-making machines for the people behind the screens controlling them. Miquela has 3 million Instagram followers and has worked with brands like Calvin Klein and Prada. She earns her creator $8,500 per sponsored post, despite her inability to live and breathe as real-life models do.
Fashion and Beauty Go Digital
The pandemic has forced brands to put away their runway seating and turn instead to virtual shows to release their collections. But fashion shows weren’t the only events driven online. The Miss Venezuela pageant, which has produced seven Miss Universe winners since 1979, was held virtually last year. Contestants completed a six-month training process to become pageant ready, including interview prep and walking lessons, entirely over Zoom from their homes. Then, each was filmed individually onstage at the television studio. The separate components were assembled by pageant producers to create the final show, marking the first time that the 67-year-old beauty contest has been produced virtually.
change is coming
Designer Iris van Herpen sent shock waves through the fashion world when she released her autumn/winter 2020/2021 collection Earthrise last month. Why? Because she sent champion skydiver Domitille Kiger hurling through the air modeling one of her dresses. The result is an utterly stunning demonstration, perhaps a redefinition of modeling itself. But it’s not the first time van Herpen has pushed the fashion envelope. The Dutch designer uses 3D printing, laser cutting and futuristic elements such as artificial fire opals in her designs. Standing at the pinnacle of high-tech couture, if Earthrise is any indication, she isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
Amplifying Their Voices
In her time as a model, Joleen Mitton has experienced firsthand photographers’ desire to lighten her skin tone, as well as offensive comments made in her direction. The modeling industry can be an extremely hostile environment for Indigenous models. That prompted Mitton and photographer Patrick Shannon to establish the first all-Indigenous modeling agency in the world. Based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Supernaturals represents 15 models who hail from all over Canada, from the Shíshálh Nation to the Cree Nation. The company’s mantra is “Representation is good, but good representation is better.” The idea is that while featuring more Indigenous models is a good start, how those models are treated behind the camera and how they are portrayed are equally as important.
Tech and Fashion
Virtual reality dressing rooms you can use to try on clothes. Artificial intelligence that tells us where fashion trends are heading. Sound crazy? Well, these innovations are less far out than you’d think. Amazon is working on a project using AI algorithms to determine whether a product is stylish or not and to recommend clothing. Companies such as Stitch Fix are looking at AI as an integral part of the fashion life cycle, using it in their design process and inventory management. AI can even allow customers to input preferences and then, based on that data, determine a design for a clothing item, manufacture it and send it in the mail.
Gamers as Models in China
These days, it seems like video gamers can do it all — join a professional sports team, win millions and now even run a modeling hustle on the side. Luxury brands are looking beyond Instagram influencers and focusing on video gamers for their next potential pool of brand ambassadors because of gaming’s rising popularity. At the 2019 League of Legends World Championship in Europe, the winning team from China was presented with a trunk and some custom goodies from Louis Vuitton. The team, FunPlus Phoenix, instantly became ambassadors for the brand.
Who Gets Forgiveness?
When Dolce & Gabbana released a campaign featuring a Chinese model struggling to eat spaghetti and pizza with chopsticks in 2018, all hell broke loose. The model, Zuo Ye, later recounted that the campaign almost killed her career. She spoke out in 2019 on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, saying her hands were tied while working with D&G and that she felt the dream opportunity had turned into a nightmare. Since the incident, the brand has been on a public relations crusade to get back into consumers’ good graces, donating to the NAACP and COVID-19 research and partnering with The Trevor Project. It is even working on reestablishing its brand in China. All this begs the question: Has D&G ever met a controversy it didn’t like?
America’s Next Cancel
Let’s face it, America’s Next Top Model was a mess, from forced makeovers to photo shoots where models darkened their skin to pose as people of different races. Participating models including Lisa D’Amato have spoken out about the strange experience. In a January video, she slammed host Tyra Banks and the show’s production team for unlivable conditions and using contestants’ traumatic past experiences as fodder for entertainment. D’Amato isn’t alone. When Victoria’s Secret announced it was revamping its brand, former “angel” Bridget Malcolm took to TikTok to eviscerate the company for the switch. The video post reveals how unhealthy and underweight she had become while modeling for the fashion behemoth: She holds a size 30A bra to the camera and shows footage from a 2016 fashion show in which the bra is disturbingly far too big for her frame. Both Malcolm and D’Amato are part of a wave of models exposing the hidden horrors of the industry.
Many fashion brands promised more diversity during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, but have they delivered? An investigation published in March by The New York Times yielded mixed results. Some companies declined to share their diversity and inclusion data and instead made vague commitments to anti-racism. Others did better. Twenty-five brands shared spring/summer 2021 lookbooks that included Black models. But while the number of Black models featured in campaigns, lookbooks or runway shows had improved from previous years, there was still a lack of representation behind the camera and behind the scenes.
- Isabelle Lee, OZY Author Contact Isabelle Lee