A number of things have been on my mind recently, probably due to a number of factors. The first was my decision to (finally!) buy ‘Lolita’, a book that I’ve been meaning to read for years and was also one of the only English books I could actually get hold of in a French bookshop. The second was a conversation that I had with my friend Hamza, a long conversation about how the media manipulates social views of beauty and uses certain types of women to sell certain kinds of products. The third element has just been actually meeting and chatting to people that have been to model castings and hearing their experiences – for example, one found that the designer never actually spoke to him personally, instead using her assistant to communicate despite being in the room, whereas another girl (undoubtedly one of the most strikingly beautiful girls I know) was apparently ‘too fat’ for the job – bearing in mind she has a figure that most women would kill for.
|Promo poster for 'Girl Model'|
All this combined with a great documentary I recently came across (Girl Model, 2011) compelled me to write about the subject in more detail – I still can’t decide whether I’m writing this to spark debate (it certainly already has on tumblr) or just to articulate to myself my own feelings on the matter. Maybe the most important thing to establish is that I love fashion. As an industry it provides so much – it is creativity, it is escapism, it is fantasy and it is a tool to make people feel like they’re being the person they want to be. Editorials, couture, extravagant runways – these are the things that I love about fashion; the spectacle, the displays of showmanship and the feeling that you can engineer the ways in which the world views you via your wardrobe.
However, the inner mechanics and the real ideologies of the fashion industry are enough to leave even the most avid fashion fans cold. I am an idealist in the sense that I don’t particularly think about fashion from a commercial standpoint, at least in terms of things such as model castings and ad campaigns. For me, my interest lies more in the clothes than the models themselves, and if I ever do have a ‘favourite’ model it’s usually due to editorial, meaning that it is a distorted image as opposed to an achievable goal. I essentially see models as a canvas – a blank canvas to be painted with lashings of couture and enhanced with ethereal backdrops. Models are essential in terms of creating fantasy via editorial, but in that sense they are only as essential as the stylist, the photographer and the post-production.
|Mark Fast S/S 2010|
I’ve found recently that just by going on nights out and socialising in general, it’s difficult to bump into anyone here that a) doesn’t work in fashion and b) doesn’t want to work in fashion. In a sense it’s a great thing to meet these people (I know a girl that works at Prada – the rumours are true) but it has made me question the industry more than ever. Runway models are generally expected to be 5’8 or above but also to fit into size 6 sample sizes; a size that is unattainable to most except either the genetically blessed or the less-genetically blessed that exist solely on a diet of black coffee and menthol cigarettes. The excuse often given is that these women are essentially walking clothes-hangers – rake-thin mannequins on which the latest collections can hang exactly, no bumps or Spanx to be seen. Although different designers have different preferences in terms of models (Yamamoto and Margiela, for example, are renowned for using street-cast models), designers can rarely get away with using models above a certain size due to too much attention being put on the model choice and detracting from the collection. The first examples I can think of are Mark Fast S/S 2010, Rick Owens S/S 2014 and Issey Miyake’s ‘Octogenarian’ collection, all three of which have been labelled lazy PR stunts on numerous occasions.
Although it does bother me to an extent that modelling remains such an unattainable profession, the most unnerving thing is the use of sexual imagery in fashion. To clarify, I am all for provocation and (as you all know) am extremely liberal – one of my favourite photographers (Paolo Roversi), for example, specialises in nudes, and overt sexualisation is fantastic when done right. The kind of thing that I am not criticising is, for example, Rihanna being surrounded by pole-dancers whilst wearing a denim thong in her latest video. Kristen McMenamy’s XXX-rated shoot with Juergen Teller (I swear I’ve seen her ‘private parts’ in more detail than I have ever seen my own) remains one of my favourite shoots of all-time. As one user on Tumblr (maligma) underlined, “Fashion is art in most cases and not just about practicality. Nudity or revealing cuts are a part of artistic expression within fashion”. I agree with this statement completely – Galliano’s transparent chiffon gowns are still one of the most incredible things I have ever seen on a runway, and Simone Rocha’s use of latex isn’t practical but certainly is beautiful. The kind of thing I am criticising, however, is the fact that underage models are (albeit occasionally) part of this provocation. Ever since Calvin Klein chose a 16-year-old Kate Moss as the topless face of their denim brand, the lines have become blurred (and NO this isn’t a pun/ reference to middle-aged man/great big pervert Robin Thicke) in terms of what is ‘too young’ for fashion.
Models are generally known to start their careers at a young age. Kate is obviously one example, but even current faces such as Karlie Kloss, Daphne Groeneveld and Lindsey Wixson are barely out of their teens yet they have almost a decade of experience in the industry between them. The obsession with the waif-life ‘gamine’ figure that is always on-trend is worrying. The kind of pre-pubescent proportions that are occasionally demanded lead to a number of girls being coerced into modelling at a young age at the hope of making a career – a trend which is especially popular amongst Eastern Europe, a weirdly-acceptable form of human trafficking. Law is still surprisingly loose around this subject – in general explicit sexualisation is completely prohibited, but a number of questions are still relevant. For example, sexualisation doesn’t have to be explicit. If no nipple is shown and the model is just covering her chest, is this OK? What goes on behind the scenes is also unknown to a certain extent, and it is worrying to consider how far a starstruck teenager would go to ‘make it’ in her chosen profession. The best example of this is alleged sex offender (see just some of the allegations here and here) Terry Richardson – one of the most respected photographers in the industry, who has recently been hit with a barrage of publicity for apparently offering to photograph an unknown model in exchange for a quick fuck.
Once again, I want to re-iterate my love for the fashion industry, but it sometimes feels like the love one has for an abusive lover. Or one that disappoints you but then buys you dinner (or in this case, supplies you with a magnificent editorial). Of course these kind of backstage rumours are second nature to every industry, and sexualisation of our culture can actually be useful in terms of opening dialogue about sex – it shouldn’t be a taboo subject and nudity should be celebrated, not shamed. But our desensitisation has to have boundaries; the worrying combination of a conveyor-belt of young, willing models and experienced yet exploitative industry insiders are starting to mean that we don’t even recognise a problem when we see it. Self-exploitation, sex in exchange for power and even body manipulation are all choices to a certain extent, but it’s important that the people making these decisions are both old enough and savvy enough to make them for themselves.
|Terry Richardson. Being creepy. with Rihanna.|