Pin It
Trans LGBTQ visibility in the fashion industry 3

Why genderless casting is fashion’s next frontier

Following a season that saw an unprecedented rise in the inclusion of gender-nonconforming models, can an industry divided by binaries ever really go gender-blind?

At a time when trans rights are more under threat than ever, the spring 2019 issue of Dazed takes a stand for the global creativity of the LGBTQIA+ communities and infinite forms of identity. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here, and see the whole Infinite Identities campaign here.

Within minutes of the lights coming up on Louis Vuitton’s SS19 show, androgynous new faces with cropped hair and razor-sharp tailoring emerged. ‘Menswear?’ went the internet’s kneejerk response. But no, this wasn’t exactly true: these figures, with identities across the gender spectrum, walked alongside industry veterans as a result of the fashion house’s decision to celebrate inclusivity. It felt like a moment of genuine significance – both an important statement on visibility, and an accelerated vision of the future.

Some of the Vuitton models, including Alyssa, a Parisian new face, and Miriam Sanchez, from Barcelona, are androgynous, cisgender women. But Krow, one of this issue’s cover stars, is a trans man, and another, Jessica (or ‘Jay’) Espinosa, does not identify with any gender at all. Travelling from Canada and Mexico respectively to walk, both were cast after Vuitton put word out among agencies globally that it was looking for models beyond the binary, as a way to convey an ambiguity present in the collection through the casting.

Fashion often reflects politics, and the show came at a crucial time for the rights of transgender and non-binary people. Just weeks later, the New York Times revealed that the Trump administration was considering rolling back rights by determining gender by genitalia at birth. Meanwhile, in the UK, a government survey about updating legislation that allows trans people to legally change their gender was met with widespread transphobic backlash.

“Seeing so many genderfluid and queer models being represented and being able to just be themselves is really inspiring,” said Krow after walking the Vuitton show. While he had previously modelled before transitioning, he quit after finding the work to be “a constant reminder that I was acting like something I wasn’t truly inside” – Louis Vuitton was his first runway show as a male model. “Hopefully, more kids will connect to these wonderful people and see that it’s OK just to be yourself without restrictions or limitations.” 

For Espinosa, a fashion newcomer who faced bullying at school and still encounters strange looks from women in public bathrooms back in Mexico, walking in the show was a win for the LGBTQIA+ community back home. “Blurring the line between genders when it comes to clothes says a lot about acceptance and evolution,” says the model, who has so far been unable to get a visa to travel to the US because of a crackdown by Trump’s administration. “Including people who have been ignored throughout the decades is an incredible step. I believe that the fashion industry can make a big change.”

Of course, fashion playing with the visual codes of gendered clothing is nothing new, but spring/summer 2019 was a season that saw major designers turn from established norms of male and female dressing to explore more nuanced ideas. Gucci’s co-ed catwalk featured a male model in a knee-length floral dress and others in fluoro Lycra bodysuits, while at Hedi Slimane’s Celine debut, all of the men’s tailoring in the show was unisex. At Maison Margiela’s electrifying show, models of all genders tore down the runway in dresses and skirts, in what felt like the world’s first truly non-binary show from a major fashion house. The brand also launched its new fragrance, Mutiny, with a campaign featuring Hanne Gaby Odiele and Teddy Quinlivan, models who went public about being intersex (Odiele) and transgender (Quinlivan), in 2017. 

Fashion is an industry that, from clothes to stores and runways, is still firmly and formally divided along male/female lines. But, when it comes to casting, things are increasingly becoming more fluid. According to the seasonal diversity reports put out since 2014 by website The Fashion Spot, trans women and non-binary models were represented on runways more than ever before in the spring/summer 2019 season, “landing a record 91 runway spots… an all-time high for the industry” (although this still accounted for just 1.23 per cent of the total castings). This was up from 64 bookings the previous season, and just six in SS16, when the site first started crunching the numbers on trans and non-binary models’ fashion week appearances.

“It’s not that there were never (transgender or non-binary models) before; I think there are a lot of models who have kept this part of their identity private” – Noah Shelley

Model and actor Hunter Schafer – another of this issue’s cover stars – notched up the most, walking 20 shows including Dior and Rick Owens. Teddy Quinlivan booked 11 shows including Vuitton, Paco Rabanne and Chloé. Massima Desire had 15 runway appearances including Eckhaus Latta and Fashion East, while Ariel Nicholson – Calvin Klein and Miu Miu campaign star – walked for CK, Proenza Schouler and Marc Jacobs. Other highlights included trans model Finn Buchanan opening Maison Margiela’s show, transgender nonbinary model Oslo Grace wearing menswear at GCDS and womenswear at Courrèges, and Hanne Gaby Odiele walking at Margiela and Alexander McQueen.

It’s clear that the idea of a transgender or non-binary model walking a major show is not as rare as it was just a few years ago. Casting director Noah Shelley says that it’s important to see this as part of a wider shift towards representation that has dominated the industry over the last few years – meaning that 2018 was, according to the numbers, the most inclusive year in fashion to date. 

“It’s a much bigger conversation about inclusivity that we’re addressing,” says Shelley. “It’s not that there were never (transgender or non-binary models) before; I think there are a lot of models who have kept this part of their identity private. The world is changing and I’m dedicated to working in an environment where these conversations are happening more – the reason we’re seeing these numbers increase is not only because people are being honest about who they are (now), but also because they are being respected and celebrated for that. It’s exciting!”

“I have definitely seen a more positive shift towards inclusivity of various gender identities,” says Teddy Quinlivan, who has a long history of working with artistic director of Vuitton womenswear Nicolas Ghesquière. “When I started modelling I knew of one transgender model only: Lea T.” T’s casting by friend Riccardo Tisci in a Givenchy campaign (because, as the designer touchingly revealed, she needed money for her gender confirmation surgery) made headlines in 2010. Described at the time as a “controversial face” by The Guardian, her casting was, then, a genuine rarity, evidence of fashion’s ability to start conversations around representation. “At this point, Andreja Pejić hadn’t even come out publicly as trans, so there was definitely a lack of trans representation. Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for it.”

From Laverne Cox hailing a ‘transgender tipping point’ on the cover of Time to Sean Baker’s acclaimed film Tangerine, (imperfect) media portrayals like Transparent and Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, it feels like the world has, to borrow Quinlivan’s phrase, become ready in the nine years that have followed T’s Givenchy campaign. But while the industry is much more open to receiving models of different gender identities today, this shift in attitudes clearly hasn’t reached everyone.

In November 2018, on the eve of Victoria’s Secret’s annual lingerie catwalk spectacular (which claimed to have a viewership of one billion in 2017, making it the most-seen runway show in the world), the brand’s longtime patriarch Ed Razek gave an interview with American Vogue’s website. In response to a question about what a younger, Instagram-savvy generation might demand from VS, he said bluntly that he didn’t think “transsexuals” should grace its runway, “because the show is a fantasy”. His meaning was clear: to be anything other than cisgender (and very thin, and able-bodied) would jar with the (presumably male, presumably sexual) fantasy of a Victoria’s Secret Angel. 

After widespread outrage both on social media and from the press, Razek backtracked. But despite the apology, his words revealed a schism within fashion. On the one hand, it’s an industry with a reputation for being LGBTQIA+ friendly, a place with openly queer people in positions of power, where brands are increasingly using global platforms to look beyond limited ideas of beauty and drive representation forward. But it’s also an industry where, for the most part, the old white guys in suits still call the shots – and, in the case of Victoria’s Secret, are both personally bigoted and unwilling to do anything to offend their mainstream, middle-American customer and put profits at risk.

“I always thought fashion was a safe zone for queer people. I was dumbfounded when I was told to be less limp-wristed (when going to) see a designer who was openly gay” – Marc Sebastian Faiella

At a time when rights are under threat, fashion can be levied to support more progressive views. Still, it exists within established beauty standards and, while a greater range of gender identities might be featuring on the womenswear runways, it’s hardly surprising that it’s mainly thin, white people being represented. When it comes to men’s fashion week, cisgender figures continue to dominate. “There are plenty of slim trans women and non-binary people with an ‘ideal dress size’,” says model Oslo Grace. “It’s harder to be assigned female at birth and fill out men’s clothes appropriately. Hyper-masculinity is important to a lot of designers even today, and people born female may not always have the right facial structure and shoe-size.”

That idea of hyper-masculinity could be key to explaining why few trans men are cast, even when designers and stylists themselves are LGBTQIA+. They could be muscular, all-American boys or skinny skater kids, but designers are well-known for having ‘types’ when it comes to casting for shows and campaigns. Whether they themselves are male or female, straight or gay, they select models who epitomise a particular vision of masculinity they find inspiring or desirable. So far, it would seem trans men are largely excluded from this.

While runway representation is at a high, very few trans and non-binary models are getting booked for campaigns. Krow scored a spot in Louis Vuitton’s SS19 ad, lensed by Collier Schorr, but in AW18 imagery trans and non-binary people were the least-represented category, when tracked against race, size and age, according to The Fashion Spot. “Only six of the 530 models to appear in the fall 2018 ads – in other words, 1.1 per cent – were openly trans or non-binary,” the report revealed. Shelley puts this down to the tension that exists between the creatives and marketing execs in fashion companies. “I think it’s much easier for a brand to put any type of inclusiveness in a 40-person show – where you don’t get a lot of corporate intervention – and feel good about themselves,” he says. “But when they have to market their campaign to the world, they fall straight back on a blonde girl with blue eyes, because the corporate structures that they have to answer to aren’t nearly as creative or open-minded.” 

As well as being a face of Mutiny, Quinlivan has appeared in campaigns for companies like Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs Beauty, but she remains candid about the fact that brands don’t always take risks on being progressive when generating revenue is the ultimate aim. “We are definitely in the beginning stages of inclusivity,” she says. “It’s clear that designers and brands are going to cast who they like and who they think sells product over simply casting a trans person just for the sake of appearing inclusive.”

When it comes to sexuality, Cody Chandler, founder of entirely LGBTQIA+ New York agency New Pandemics, says that gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer models still face pressure to remain in the closet in fashion. “Some agents will insist that models remain closeted for ‘mass marketability’, fear of otherness, internalised homophobia – (because queerness is at odds with) an aesthetic and culture that has been created and reinforced for decades in campaign imagery – or because they work for a homophobic agency owner,” he explains. “These are all potential real-world examples but also all invalid excuses. Why? Because they’re all fear-based, and many of those factors put profits over people.”

“It’s not exactly outward homophobia. It’s the internalised homophobia that runs rampant through the industry,” says Marc Sebastian Faiella, a model and activist with NY-based LGBTQ+ group Voices4. When he started modelling back in 2012, he was told to “butch up” and consider carrying around his skateboard by one agency. “I always thought fashion was a safe zone for queer people as it’s quite literally run by them. I was dumbfounded when I was told to be less limp-wristed (when going to) see a designer who was openly gay.” Things are changing, though: “I think previously, it was common for agencies to tell male models to ‘masc’ up,” he says. “Over the years I’ve definitely seen a massive change… I just sent a friend who is genderneutral in to my agency. That wouldn’t have happened when I first started.”

“The (fashion) industry collectively decides what is aspirational, what is beautiful and desirable… It’s mutually beneficial to both the industry and society as a whole if they represent the world as it is” – Teddy Quinlivan

As more transgender and non-binary models continue to enter the industry, cisgender people must see it as necessary to educate themselves in how to treat their colleagues with the respect they deserve. “I am constantly being misgendered,” says Grace. “Lack of education about non-binary pronouns is a big problem.” They point out practical things that need to change as well, such as “not forcing a typical undergarment on models – we might have different bodies than one would ‘expect’ based on appearance. This can be a very dehumanising and humiliating experience to go through.” Private changing areas on set and backstage – which remain the exception rather than the rule, despite campaigning from the likes of Edie Campbell – can also provide models with a more inclusive working environment.

The allegations against high-profile figures including Mario Testino and Bruce Weber at the start of 2018 proved that fashion still has a lot of work to do to ensure the safety and dignity of all models, regardless of gender identity or sexuality. According to Quinlivan, “The biggest challenge at the start of my career was just proving myself as a model and dealing with the sort of bullshit cisgender women have to go through, like unwanted sexual advances at work and being dehumanised and objectified as if I was just a body and not a human.”

One thing that’s clear is that fashion has a responsibility to drive forward positive change, especially in today’s political climate. Chandler sees right-wing political shifts as an opportunity for companies to come out proudly against regressive government policy. “I think it’s time for brands to pick up where our politicians have continually failed us as they have something really valuable – exposure through advertising,” he says. “When utilised for good, advertising is a medium that can offer reassurance and change our perceived notions of the ideal. This requires that companies stop relying on algorithms and impressions and put humanity first.”

“Fashion is an industry of image,” adds Quinlivan. “The industry collectively decides what is aspirational, what is beautiful and desirable… It’s mutually beneficial to both the industry and society as a whole if they represent the world as it is.”

To Faiella, that representation hasn’t gone anywhere far enough, and it’s important to move beyond the box-checking tokenism that gives brands a chance to look progressive, without really meaning it. “Start using more queer people of colour, gender-nonconforming individuals, disabled queer people, intersex people, people outside of the traditional cis gay/lesbian box,” he says. “Start booking people because you like who they are and what they stand for. The world is a hellscape right now; it’s time to have models be seen and heard.”

“I think what we have to understand is that we are humans before anything else,” Espinosa, the Vuitton model, says. “This is not only about being a girl or a boy, it’s about being free.”