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The modeling industry may look different than it did 60 years ago, but it still has work to do — particularly when it comes to gender diversity and inclusion.

For transgender and gender non-binary models, entry into the upper echelons of fashion runways has been limited, and many models in this cohort have felt forced to conceal their identities in order to land jobs or succeed in the industry.

In recent years, some progress has been made, with openly transgender models increasingly featuring on runways, in ad campaigns, and on TV shows, but the fashion industry has a way to go when it comes to transgender representation. And there’s a need for greater education about what it means to be a transgender or gender fluid model. 

“I believe that the world is confused in general about everything; we have lost the line that defines the difference in between ‘who I am’ and ‘who I want to be.’ None of them are wrong, but you need to accept who you are first in order to become that person you want to be. But accepting is not understanding, and that is the problem,” said Mexican model Jay Espinosa.

A Look Back

When English model April Ashley first stepped onto the scene in the Sixties, she was credited as the first successful transgender model, having appeared in editorials for high-profile magazines such as Vogue, working alongside notable photographers like David Bailey and walking in various runway shows.

But her career was cut short when someone sold the story of her identity to tabloid newspaper the Sunday People in 1961, and although she would continue to suffer prejudice and discrimination in the decades that followed, Ashley was recognized for her tireless work on behalf of the transgender community and was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire in the 2012 Birthday Honors for services to transgender equality.

Similarly, before her identity was disclosed during a photo shoot in the Eighties, Tracey “Africa” Norman was the first Black transgender model to achieve notability in the fashion industry as the face for Clairol during the Seventies. Though the news set back her career, Norman later appeared in notable fashion magazines and worked with beauty brands like Avon and Ultra Sheen, making them both pioneers of transgender modeling.

So what has changed in recent years?

“Trans Tipping Point”

Many have attributed today’s increased acceptance, though minuscule in scope, to a “trans tipping point” within pop culture, driven in part by things like the release of the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” featuring transgender actress Laverne Cox as one of its main characters and former Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner identifying as Caitlyn Jenner in 2015. Most recently, the Emmy award-winning show “Pose” has added to the conversation, featuring an array of transgender actors, including Indya Moore (who most recently walked the Jason Wu spring 2021 show) and Dominique Jackson (who closed Los Angeles-based brand Marco Marco’s spring 2019 runway show in New York City, designed by Marco Morante — which was comprised entirely of transgender models and activists).

Hunter Schafer in her role in HBO’s hit series “Euphoria,” began her meteoric rise to fame as a model, having walked shows for brands like Miu Miu, Dior, Marc Jacobs and Rick Owens. Blurring the line between genders when it comes to clothes says a lot about acceptance and evolution, so it’s little surprise these moments in popular culture have catalyzed a separate conversation within the fashion industry about gender fluidity. 

“When I started it was very much about the androgynous qualities and gender topics, but I think now people are starting to see me more as an artist and not just the fact I can be man or woman, you see, I even hate saying that because it feels wrong to say either or,” said model Bryce Anderson, who sits on the men’s board at model management firm The Society and on the women’s board at Supreme Management. “I do wish that the qualities of either gender could exist together and not have to have so much separation. I mean we make it such a thing all the time but it really is so natural. It’s human nature.”

Fashion, despite recent year’s genderless lines and efforts at fluidity, remains is still very well firmly divided along male/female lines, but the industry won’t be able to avoid or ignore what has become a revolutionary shift in culture. Transgender and non-binary models have been vocal and using their platforms to shed greater light on gender inequality, sexual harassment and body shaming, aiming to redefine industry views on what it now means to be a supermodel. 

And some in the industry are taking the cues.

Designer Alessandro Michele from Gucci has infused gender fluidity since he assumed the role of creative director in 2015, playing with ambiguity when it comes to gender and ideas of gender dressing. This summer, Gucci also launched a non-binary, gender-fluid section of its e-commerce site, called Gucci Mx. The inclusive space gives its visitors the opportunity to browse and purchase selects looks and accessories from the pre-fall and fall 2020 collections without having to comply with a female/male distinction.

Casting’s Shift

Some of these changes can be attributed to how casting has become more fluid, too.

European fashion designers have often been accused of conservative casting practices, favoring young white models in their campaigns and on their catwalks. There is, however, at least somewhat of a shift underway.

At Louis Vuitton, creative director Nicolas Ghesquière, has shown a commitment to inclusivity in his shows and ad campaigns, having featured talent such as Theodora “Teddy” Quinlivan (discovered by Nicolas Ghesquière and the first transgender model to be the face of Chanel Beauty’s ad campaigns), Krow Kian and Jay Espinosa (the first Mexican model to have walked a Louis Vuitton women’s show).

For his spring 2019 show, Ghesquière recruited Kian and Espinosa and featured them in mostly tailored looks, initially confounding guests and setting social media ablaze as the public wondered whether the designer had ventured into the realm of men’s wear, despite the looks being part of the women’s wear lineup, as the looks were worn by both transgender male and androgynous female models. The moment helped mark the validity and power of inclusive casting.

“Walking for Louis Vuitton’s women’s show showed me that being transgender didn’t limit my capabilities and opportunities as a model,” Kian said. “Head designer Nicolas Ghesquière personally made sure I was comfortable with not only my clothing, but my makeup also. He even went as far as making sure I had a private change room. There have been many other clients like Balmain, Valentino, McQueen, Alyx, that have been as supportive and taken into account me being a male model, regardless if I am walking for a female line.”

While there have been several milestones that have changed the view of casting, one worth noting is the appointment of Brazilian model Valentina Sampaio. She became the first openly transgender model for Victoria’s Secret in August of 2019, and the first transgender woman to grace the coveted Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue — a modeling institution that has elevated stars like Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks and Ashley Graham to household names — ushering a new chapter for the transgender modeling community.

“I would love to see people, brands and companies more open to fearlessly embracing the trans community with compassion and respect,” Sampaio said. “I believe there is enough room in the world for all of us to exist in our own unique way — as long as there is respect and humanity. I hope that in the near future it will no longer be taboo, news, as something new because we have always been here and we will always be.” 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the spring fashion week season was certainly unlike any other, with many brands holding virtual runway shows and creating digital look books and fashion videos to showcase spring 2021 collections. But many still embraced inclusivity in their casting.

In New York, Aaron Philip represented Collina Strada, R13 enlisted Ella Snyder, Eckhaus Latta featured Hari Nef and Maya Mones modeled for Chromat. London included Gareth Pugh, which cast non-binary model Finn Love and transgender model Sakeema Crook, as well as drag queen Georgie Bee. Riccardo Tisci enlisted his muse Lea T to walk for Burberry, which held a livestreamed runway show in a forest outside London. Milan featured transgender model Valentina Sampaio for Etro, and in Paris, Koché picked transgender models Dustin Muchuvitz and Venus Liuzzo, and Balenciaga went with Gigi Hari.

Designer Christian Cowan assembled a cast of LGBTQ allies such as Lil Nas X, Amanda Lepore, Teddy Quinlivan, Chella Man and Parker Kit Hill, for their ongoing work to push queer representation in the mainstream media.

“The experience has been so natural for us. We are a brand born out of a queer community,” Cowan said. “There really isn’t an excuse for brands to not be inclusive anymore. The population needs to be more educated than ever and appreciate a diverse brand. While America and the U.K. are better at this, I feel Europe has a long way to go.” 

Transgender and non-binary models only experienced a slight uptick in representation for the spring 2021 season. According to The Fashion Spot’s diversity report, the total rose from 10 appearances for fall 2020 to 11 for spring 2021. The relatively flat growth proves almost a regression coming from a much more significant 36 appearances for the spring 2020 season in New York.

In Europe, appearances topped at 20 for spring 2021 total versus 21 in the fall 2020 season.

“After many seasons of keeping track of diversity across race, size, age and gender in the industry, it often feels like we take a step forward only to take two steps back,” said Morgan C. Schimminger, managing editor of The Fashion Spot. “Take gender diversity which showed a steady increase up until spring 2019 when it started swinging in the other direction. There needs to be a consistent increase if the industry ever hopes to be truly inclusive.” 

The Road Ahead

The question now is, how does the industry continue to improve from here?

“Change takes time and a lot of brands are stuck in the ways of the old guard,” said Jeanna Ridout, director at IMG Models, the agency responsible for Chella Man, the first deaf, transgender model to be signed. “As we move forward and consumers evolve, brands really need to ensure they too are evolving and adapting.” 

The fashion industry must recognize that transgender and gender fluid models are not simply a trend to monetize for several seasons and then move on to the next topical thing. Embracing all genders in modeling and casting will mean coming from a place of authenticity when it comes to prioritizing representation.

“It looks like the fashion industry and global advertising companies have hung on the issue of inclusion, racism, and minority rights to keep the capitalist consumer system,” Brisa M. Alvarez, agent for MM Runway and casting director at Cast Partner Mexico, said. “However it seems that the only reason why they really care about it is still about selling and the inclusion is more a matter of money than human rights.”

For real change to occur, it also needs to be tackled at the brand level.

“In the past five years, look at the difference in the castings of fashion houses. Inclusion has grown so much in terms of body types, ages, skin color. But the change cannot be only in the window displays. It has to be reflected in those fashion houses as well,” said Donat Barrault, president of Supreme Management New York. “The major players in the industry should look into their own staff and introspectively see if inclusion is really applied, I’m talking as well in their highest positions, in their board of directors and key positions in their organizations. That is as well a game changer.” 

Another aspect of the scouting and casting process for LGBTQ models has been centered around the topic of respect toward understanding how to properly market and manage the models’ careers.

Models have long been associated with perfection and ultimate beauty, but as an industry, it’s also vital to acknowledge that these notions have become outdated and need to be evolved to reflect inclusion and the diversity of the world today.

“We are in a pivotal moment in our evolution, and we all have personal accountability in restructuring an outdated, divisive paradigm,” according to Christiana Tan, managing partner at The Lions Management. “Beauty is not a formula; it is time for all industries to reflect back the expansive nature of beauty.” 

Many of the top model casting agencies continue to operate with very distinct men’s and women’s divisions, leaving a gap as to where LGBTQ talent lay in the overall spectrum, and leaving agents and managers alike with the task of placing queer models onto these specific boards, whether or not they identify with either gender.

For men’s agent Jordan Morris of New York Model Management, it has been a challenging issue.

“I’ve scouted a cisgender female model who was masc[uline]-presenting and wanted to only model men’s wear. I’ve also scouted a non-binary model who prefers men’s wear but who will also model more masculine women’s wear. I work on the men’s board so by default those models end up being presented on the men’s board with me, even though neither identify as men,” Morris explained. “I think agencies need to restructure and rethink these strict gender constructs and open a space for gender queer models where they can feel more appropriately marketed.”

And some agencies are working to carve out that space.

Increasingly, modeling agencies geared toward nurturing LGBTQ talent have been popping up, like New Pandemics, a casting and management agency in New York City. The agency was founded to increase LGBTQ visibility in the fashion and entertainment industries, and Trans Models (New York), credited as one of the world’s first transgender modeling agencies, founded by Peche Di in 2015, an accomplished transgender model in her own right, and operated by a diverse team of transgender individuals.

Education for the Future

As with most things, education and acceptance will be key to greater inclusion and fashion still has things to learn.

“I hope that the fashion industry will become a safe place for queer people to work. I hope that all trans models will no longer be misgendered or asked invasive questions while working (and outside of work as well),” said model Juno Mitchell, who was recently featured in Marni’s spring 2021 look book and in one of a hundred covers from Vogue Italia’s September 2020 issue, “100 Covers, 100 People, 100 Stories.”

And a lack of inclusion going forward won’t come without a cost for companies that don’t get it right.

“In this day and age, you’re going to fail in business and personal life if you aren’t inclusive because, more and more, people are growing up and educating themselves and want to see diversity and inclusivity, in the media they consume, magazines they buy and brands they want to support,” model Casil McArthur said. “You’ll end up being left behind in the world of fashion if you don’t stay current with the obvious shifts that are happening globally with culture inclusivity and awareness.” 

Brands like Chromat, Gypsy Sport, Wales Bonner, Brother Vellies, Helmut Lang, Self-Portrait and Pyer Moss, are among the notables on the ground and are connected with purpose to inclusivity — the designers themselves embody this, and have made it part of the brands’ DNA.

“The industry has the ability to change and shape lives through its influence in our culture and societal norms. Every piece of clothing we buy represents a personal choice and it is this intrinsically human relationship between us and our fashion that makes it political,” said Asian transgender model Dominique Castelano, who has appeared in ads for Maybelline and is the new face of Marc Jacobs’ latest clothing line, Heaven, which aims to celebrate polysexuality. “The history of the sex binary has been deeply embedded in the fashion industry and it should be our mission to deconstruct these sexist and racist narratives. We need to work together to reclaim our own individual gender expressions in the fashion world.”

Fashion has a long way to go in achieving a realistic and comprehensive standard that is representative of the diverse world we live in, and these representations mark but small victories for the transgender community, in particular, who are still fighting for their lives every day. 

“Everyone should be entitled to present their most authentic self. I hope the industry embraces more trans/non-binary/gender-fluid talent,” said photographer and creative director Kevin Amato, who also served as Hood By Air’s casting and brand director (2007 to 2016). “It’s the future of fashion and actual reality so I’d hope they get on board for their businesses’ sake.” 

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