With everything going on in the world, it would be fair to say that Fashion Week might not seem like the most pressing topic to be writing about. Sitting in a room with a lot of privileged people looking at runway fashion—however beautiful—feels trivial at best, and tone-deaf at worst. Still, even in a time of unrest, the world of Fashion Week has the potential to shape perspectives; it reflects who we are and how we express ourselves. (And no woman should ever feel guilty for wanting to look at beautiful things.)
But amid the snow and sludge this February, something awesome happened: Fashion got woke.
While protesters gathered in Washington Square to speak up for women’s and immigrants’ rights, designers got political, feminists advocated for better treatment of models, curls were celebrated—not straightened—and the runways got much more diverse. (This season, the runways in New York saw more models over size 12 than ever before. Slow. Clap.)
Of course, work remains to be done. Much like the growing movement to make Hollywood more representative, fashion as a whole also needs to better reflect the people it serves. That’s where these six revolutionaries come in.
We teamed up with photographer Alex Sweterlitsch of the wildly popular Instagram Fashion Instant to bring you a snapshot of a few fashion insiders leading the charge. Change might not happen overnight, but we’re on our way.
“Why can’t I be me and walk in Fashion Week?” asks size-14 model Iskra Lawrence. If her name sounds familiar, it’s likely because you’ve seen the game-changing, Photoshop-banning, curve-embracing model as @iskra on Instagram. While she’s had major success on the social platform (with 3.2 million followers to prove it!) and as a spokesmodel for Aerie, one place she’d been previously iced out is on the runway.
Before the spring 2017 season, the last time she was part of Fashion Week was 11 years ago—and suffice it to say that it didn’t go so well. “I was 15, and I walked only one show,” Lawrence says. “I remember being backstage and nothing fit. The stylist was like, ‘You’re too fat. Why are you here?’ Up until last year I thought if I ever wanted to do that again, I would have to lose weight.” FYI, she was wrong.
Last season Lawrence walked in Chromat’s show, which marked her first time on a New York Fashion Week runway at her natural weight. And for the fall 2017 shows, she did one better and walked for Chromat and Christian Siriano. Come next season, she’s set a goal to be part of the Coach and DKNY runways, since those brands are on the radar of her loyal followers. “I’m always strategizing,” she says. “I want to work with brands—like I did with Aerie—to connect with their consumer and get their sales up. I don’t just want to be in a photo or on the runway, I want to help.”
Her driving force, of course, is the fan base of young women watching her career. “There’s a trickle-down effect,” Lawrence says. “Fashion is completely connected into our subconscious, into our daily decision of how we present ourselves to the world.” And because her followers are connected to her via social media, she can see exactly how her work resonates with them. “When I posted that picture of me walking in Chromat, the amount of comments that I got from girls saying, ‘Holy crap, you got to walk in Fashion Week? People are doing that now? They’re accepting you?’ was huge. I want every single person to wake up every day grateful for the body they have and celebrate [it] by dressing how they want—if seeing me on the runway helps, then I’ve done my job.” Can she get an amen? —L.C.
If you’ve been following Chromat’s New York Fashion Week shows, you know what to expect by now: an opening performance (this season’s was by Uniiqu3), a wicked soundtrack by Discwoman, and a whole lot of diversity on the runway. “I think it’s strange that so many shows are only skinny white women,” says Becca McCharen-Tran, the label’s designer. “We as fashion designers have a platform and an opportunity to open up the narrow standard of beauty. I feel like it’s my responsibility to show and celebrate women of all different shapes, races, genders, and abilities.”
Specifically, McCharen-Tran leads the fashion pack in gender inclusivity, with five transgender or gender-nonconforming models in her fall 2017 lineup. “As someone in the queer community, I’m surrounded by all different genders—androgynous tomboy girls to trans women all the way to high-femme boys—and I want to encourage more people to live their truth,” she says. She’s also ahead of most when it comes to the inclusion of larger sizes. And while many designers cite not having big enough samples as an excuse for not using bigger models, she puts money behind developing plus-sizes from the get-go. “For us to have people who are above a size 10 on the runway, we make different patterns for each of them,” she explains. “That means double the patterns, double the samples, and double all the costs as well. But it’s worth it.”
It’s clear that McCharen-Tran’s forward stance on inclusivity is rare in the fashion industry; so where does one get such a genuine commitment to the cause? Personal experience. “Growing up not being represented in fashion makes you feel like ‘Is there something wrong with me? Why don’t people look like me on the runway? Maybe I should change.’” she says. “And I think that can be really dangerous.” Now Chromat is ever focused on preventing people from being harmfully affected by fashion’s exclusivity. “I felt like I needed to change the industry so I wouldn’t be feeding its cycle of negativity that makes people feel bad,” says McCharen-Tran. “I have to take a stand, be vocal, and fight for what I believe in.” —L.C.
For all the steps designers have taken to make runways more diverse, backstage has largely stayed the same. Which is to say hair and makeup teams are really, really white. This Leomie Anderson can—and will—tell you all about. “Why is [sic] there more white makeup artists backstage than black when black ones can do all races [sic] makeup?” she shared in a series of tweets last year about the disparity. She followed up with, “Why is it that the black makeup artists are busy with blonde white girls and slaying their makeup and I have to supply my own foundation.” Why, indeed?
Since then, things haven’t gotten much better. “That was just one of many times where I’ve had to go to the toilet and redo my makeup,” Anderson says. Of course, that’s only a small part of her concerns. What’s greater to her is that young women feel represented the way they want. “When I was younger, I used to have this anxiety if my hair or my makeup was done incorrectly,” she says. “I never wanted to speak up, because when a black girl speaks up, you’re a ‘diva.’ Do you know how many situations I’ve been in where artists have said, ‘Well, I’ve done Naomi Campbell’s hair….’ It shouldn’t be that if you know how to do her hair, you can do mine. You never hear people say, ‘Well, I’ve done Kate Moss’s hair,’ to a white girl.”
If some of the most talented pros in the world can’t get it right backstage, it sets a poor tone for the rest of society, Anderson argues. “It’s great to see that things are changing and diversity is being accepted,” she says. “We just need more education and conversation.”
Putting herself to task, Anderson recently started her own fashion brand, LAPP (Leomie Anderson the Project the Purpose), which is grounded in intersectional feminism. The word’s getting out fast: Rihanna wore one of her pieces to the Women’s March! Anderson also launched a blog for writers to discuss everything from fashion to race and mental health issues. “There are so many people who have something to say,” she says. “I want to give them a platform.”
As for what’s next? “I’d love to become an ambassador for a makeup brand,” Anderson says. “But I’d be more than just the face. I’d use it to speak up about the beauty industry and work to make sure every young girl can walk into a makeup store and find her shade. Literally, if that’s all I accomplish, it’d make me happy.” —L.S.
—By Lauren Chan and Lindsay Schallon