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Why NYFW’s trans casting is more than a trend

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This season in New York, a community of designers and models broke fashion week’s glass ceiling – they tell us why it’s about representation, not tokenism

“Trans folks are going to rise up for their moments and their money!” So prophesied model and actress Hari Nef at the end of 2014 on what the year ahead had in store, and judging by New York this week, her prediction was quick to become a reality. With the casting of transgender models at a chain of shows and presentations, it certainly felt like a glass ceiling had begun to develop some serious cracks – that a group of people were claiming their own space in an industry that had largely ignored them when it comes to representation. “I wouldn’t have made a statement like that if I didn’t know it would come true,” says Nef. “Trans folks are way too strong, beautiful, intelligent, and powerful to stay unseen and unpaid for much longer. This week was a snowflake on the tip of an iceberg.”

Eckhaus Latta, 69 WorldwideVejasGypsy SportTelfar, the VFiles team. These are only some of the names that make up a new generation of designers who stand out – and resolutely apart – from a largely commercially-driven NYFW schedule. Whether staging impromptu (and a little bit illegal) shows in Washington Square Park, or crowdsourcing teams from the internet, they do things on their own terms. For AW15, this collective manifesto simultaneously pushed the topic of gender to the fore, with transgender muses – including Gisele Xtravaganza, Juliana HuxtableIsis King, Hari Nef and Mz DeSe Bae Escobar – taking to their runways. Following the shows, designers, casting directors and models used words such as “kinship,” “family” and “community” during interviews about those decisions. “I feel immensely supported by my community,” says Nef. “My only bookings this week came from within my friends. Trans people have been central to New York’s art and fashion scene for nearly as long as those ‘scenes’ have existed as we know them. It’s about time that this reality was represented on the city’s runways.”

It’s easy to draw parallels with other high profile media portrayals of trans people, but what happened at NYFW felt different, perhaps more distinctly DIY than when Barney’s cast trans models in their 2014 campaign, or when Laverne Cox landed the cover of TIME. Instead, it was about young designers saying: these are our friends, we’re giving them representation because this is the actual world we live in. What makes attending a Vejas, Chromat or Gypsy Sport show spiritually energising is that it’s a celebration of real cultures and communities; they are genuine affairs that promote unity, respect and inclusion – much unlike the endless parades of homogenised mannequins walking up and down countless fashion week runways. “At some shows, I look and it’s all pale, blonde, white women and I mean, that’s not representative of our culture today,” says Chromat’s casting director Gilleon Smith. “Becca (McCharen, Chromat’s designer) is like, ‘Let’s make a difference, let’s make it fresh’ and then you have other designers who are extremely stagnant in their aesthetic.”

“Trans people have been central to New York’s art and fashion scene for nearly as long as those ‘scenes’ have existed as we know them. It’s about time that this reality was represented on the city’s runways.” – Hari Nef

Designers like Eckhaus Latta and Vejas Kruszewski choose to be on a first name basis with their catwalk stars – they select models not only for their charisma or physical qualities, but because ultimately they pose as powerful and inspiring visual messengers for their brand. Might it be too soon to say that personality is surpassing celebrity, beauty or size when it comes to modelling? “Vejas, Mike & Zoe, Adam – they don’t use me because I’m trans, they use me because I’m me,” Nef says. “I want to see more trans women on the runways and in ad campaigns not because they’re trans, but because they’re gorgeous, talented, smart. For me, transness is embodiment. I work hard to embody myself, so it’s not difficult for me to help with embodying a brand.”

Upon speaking to the designers, it becomes clear that the decision to cast trans models is less about making a grand statement than the desire to accurately reflect the community they are designing for. These clothes are created by and for those who are switched on to these issues and yearning to move beyond them. The Gypsy Sport show kicked off with the emcee announcing, “Welcome gypsies and genderless!” Rio Uribe, the brand’s designer, explains: “It’s important because all of our friends are like that. It used to be ‘Is he straight or is he gay?’ and now it’s like ‘Are they a girl, are they a boy?’ – I want to get past all of that and just dress a person.”

Inspired by the idea of the last girl left at the end of a horror film, designer Vejas Kruszewski found the resilience he was looking for to embody his AW15 collection within his diverse group of friends. “Clothing is constantly evolving, so that should be parallel with casting decisions. We only had about four trans girls in a cast of around 16 so it wasn’t really about making a statement,” he explains. “It didn’t matter if it was a boy, a girl or a trans girl – it was about their persona.” Becca McCharen had a specific woman in mind for her collection: “Casting is the way we tell the story of who the Chromat woman is. This season we cast a lot of trans women because for me, that’s the epitome of strength – to go out into society and evolve yourself to be the truest self that you know you are. All these women are so inspirational to me and the most strong, powerful, brave, don’t give a fuck kind of woman there is.”

A designer friend who once studied fashion under Howard Tangye (the esteemed Central Saint Martins tutour who taught GallianoChalayan and McCartney) once said that the most valuable advice he ever gave her was that: “A collection should always look like a group of friends, a community of people.” And while these young New York designers are already personally committed to mirroring the actual realities and communities they live in, mainstream and high fashion brands may be a long way from following suit and making those same casting decisions. “I’ll be honest: most major designers aren’t sending out runway casts that I can aspire to, let alone relate to,” says Nef about her future modelling plans. “Like, would I love to walk for Prada? Of course I would, it’s Prada – but I’ll never be 5’11” and a size zero. My ribcage will never be small enough to fit into a Nicolas Ghesquière runway sample because my ribcage developed in a body with a Y chromosome. All said: a girl can dream. I’d love to work with Marc Jacobs, Giles DeaconHedi SlimaneJean Paul GaultierRiccardo Tisci, or even Karl Lagerfeld. From what I can tell, these designers aren’t afraid to take risks with their castings. I don’t see myself as ‘a risk,’ but I know that’s what I am in the context of the high fashion market. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that no one will want to work with me until someone big decides it’s okay to do so.”

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