Hari Nef on why this all-trans campaign matters

The model, actress and activist gives us a primer on the cis gaze as & Other Stories reveals images created by an all-trans team

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& Other Stories capsule collection
& Other Stories capsule collectionPhotography Amos Mac

Over the last year we’ve seen a sharp increase in trans models – just look at the blossoming careers of Hari Nef and Andreja Pejić, and the launch of the first trans-only modelling agency in LA. So a campaign starring trans models isn’t a wholly new idea. However, one created by an all-trans team just might be.

For AW15 & Other Stories not only cast Nef and Valentjin de Hingh but also recruited photographer (editor of trans magazine Original PlumbingAmos Mac, stylist Love Bailey and make-up artist Nina Poon. It’s a powerful idea: that trans people are not only represented in fashion imagery but also empowered to create those images themselves.

Sara Hildén Bengtson, creative director of the H&M owned brand, explains more: “The fashion world is embracing transgender models and we think that’s great. But we couldn’t help to ask ourselves how the traditional fashion gaze can change if we keep the same normative crew behind the camera. So we invited five amazing creatives, all transgender, to make our latest story.”

The concept of the ‘gaze’ emerged out of second-wave feminism in the 70s. The term ‘male gaze’ was coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey, referring to the way women are represented (and objectified) by men in film. Since then, the term has been used in other contexts such as ‘cis gaze’, which describes how transgender people are represented by cisgender people in fashion imagery. 

We spoke to Nef to find out more about the concept, the shoot itself and the importance of gender diverse casting in fashion.

Can you explain the concept of the cis gaze?

Hari Nef: The cis gaze looks at trans people. It just looks. It looks at our bodies. It doesn’t hear, it only sees. It makes its own conclusions and associations based on its own experiences – which are, of course, cisgender. The cis gaze takes a trans person and scoops out everything that makes them unique. Within the cis gaze, the trans body becomes a paper doll to be posed, superimposed, dressed up, dressed down. The cis gaze asks what the trans body can do for it.

“The cis gaze looks at trans people. It just looks. It looks at our bodies. It doesn’t hear, it only sees” – Hari Nef

What was the best thing about working with an all trans team?

Hari Nef: I want to focus on the positive, but a better question might be “What’s the worst thing about working with a cisgender team?” Almost every time I show up on set, I prepare myself for misgendering, clothes that don’t flatter my body, problematic moodboard references – the list goes on. When I work with trans folks I don’t have to think about any of that because we’re all thinking about it. I can just work. I cherish every collaboration, but collaboration doesn’t necessarily entail sympathy, empathy, or mutual understanding. With a trans team however, it’s all there.

Can you explain a bit more about about the importance of gender diverse casting?

Hari Nef: Diversity is everything. Inclusion leads to understanding, demystification, destigmatisation. Fashion has the power to glorify bodies and identities – to include them in a narrative of luxury and beauty. I’ve only worked in the industry for a few years, but I know it well enough to conclude that an appeal to social justice and civil rights via fashion casting will fall on dead ears. The fashion industry does not care about these things, and it probably never will. It does, however, care about what’s new and contemporary –because that sells. It cares about consumers.

“I cherish every collaboration, but collaboration doesn’t necessarily entail sympathy, empathy, or mutual understanding. With a trans team however, it’s all there” – Hari Nef

The internet has exposed a generation of consumers to luxury which in no way resembles the fashion audience of the past. There are people of colour buying luxury; there are trans people buying luxury; there are disabled people buying luxury; there are plus-size people buying luxury. They’re out there, they have a million followers, and they deserve to be reflected in contemporary fashion imagery. Why do I wear Eckhaus Latta, Vejas, and Hood By Air? Because the clothes are great, but also because they use transgender models. Do the math.

Watch The Gaze & Other Stories exclusively below:

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