New York Fashion Week Breaks Down Beauty Barriers

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Maysoon Zayid, an Arab American comedian and a disability rights advocate who has cerebral palsy, makes her NYFW debut on the runway at the Carrie Hammer show.

Credit: Marc Hall

Maysoon Zayid, an Arab American comedian and a disability rights advocate who has cerebral palsy, makes her NYFW debut on the runway at the Carrie Hammer show.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– Call it a beauty breakthrough. Role models–women of all shapes, colors, sizes and ages– walked on a few New York Fashion Week runways during the Spring/Summer 2016 shows that began on Sept. 10 and wrap up on Thursday night, on Sept. 17.

It’s a sign that the fashion world is becoming slightly more democratic. Fashion’s fixation on twig-thin white female teens as the beauty ideal seems to be loosening up a bit.

Maysoon Zayid, an Arab American comedian and a disability rights advocate who has cerebral palsy, made her debut on Sept. 10 in the runway show of designer Carrie Hammer. The show at the Mercedes-Benz dealership in midtown Manhattan, “Role Models Not Runway Models,” featured 26 powerful women–bankers, CEOs, social activists, tech leaders and entrepreneurs–in Hammer’s sophisticated work and evening clothes. Among them were reform activist Tolu Olubunmi, TED Talks’ executive producer June Cohen and the editor in chief of Cosmo for Latinas, Michelle Herrera Mulligan.

“I’ve been a performer for 15 years, I’ve been on Broadway, and I thought I had done it all. But when I walked out on that runway, I have never felt an adrenaline rush like that in my life,” Zayid said in an interview after the show. Zayid, who is of Palestinian descent, is also a writer and the co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival.

She strutted the runway in a little black dress and open-toed sandals with high heels–cerebral palsy, never mind!– and the crowd went wild.

Transgender women also appeared on the fashion radar this season in greater numbers than ever before — just a few months after Caitlyn Jenner made the cover of Vanity Fair.

IMG Models, based in New York and owned by the company that runs fashion weeks around the world, signed transgender model Hari Nef in late May. In the weeks leading up to NYFW, Mashable published a list of “10 top transgender models who are changing the face of beauty” and scores of other online media outlets followed suit with their own lists of “top transgender models to watch.”

‘A Flash Point’

“Now we’re at a flash point with awareness,” said Andrew Weir, the owner of ACW Worldwide, a New York-based company that casts models for some of the biggest names in fashion. “Of course, Caitlyn has had a lot to do with this.” He added that reality television has helped. “There’s never been this many transgender kids with castings.”

He recalled the confidence of one newcomer from a model casting just before NYFW began.

“She just walked right up” to the table where the casting directors sat and said, ‘Hi, my name is ___. I’m transgender. This is my first season in New York.’ I just wanted to give her a hug. But I didn’t. Transgender girls just want to be treated like everyone else. So I just said, ‘Take a walk.'”

To get the job, a model must walk for the casting directors, and she must fit the designer’s vision or “brief” for the collection, Weir said.

Plus-size models “are more visible, more desirable than ever before,” Weir also told Women’s eNews in a phone interview.

Some of that can be explained by business figures. Sales of women’s clothing size 18 and up totaled $17.5 billion in the 12 months that ended April 30, 2014; up 5 percent from the previous year, according to The NPD Group, a global market research firm.

Wilhelmina model Hayley Hasselhoff, who wears a size 14, walked the runway in a straight-size show on day one of fashion week — a coveted gig for a plus-size model.

It’s been quite a year for plus-size models: Tess Holliday, who wears a size 22, was signed by MiLK Management of London and landed on the cover of People magazine. IMG Models’ Ashley Graham made history as the first plus-size model to appear in a print ad in Sports Illustrated’s popular swimsuit issue.

For the first time, the September issue of Vogue magazine contains an ad with plus-size women. It’s part of the campaign, launched by plus-size retailer Lane Bryant on social media and with billboards near NYFW show venues.

Beauty Diversified

Models of Asian, African American, Latina or mixed ethnic backgrounds get more work now than they did five or 10 years ago.

However, some designers still use only one or two women of color – or less – among their up to 40 models walking in a runway show. In response, Refinery29 cited that it spotted a “form of silent protest” while looking through the #NYFW tag on Tumblr: an audience member carrying a canvas tote printed with the words “BLACK MODELS MATTER” and a top that says “BLACKNESS” to highlight the need for more models of color on the runways.

“There are more beautiful women of color this season,” Weir, the casting director, said in a phone interview just before the start of New York Fashion Week, adding that he has seen several models from Angola and that agencies are investing in casting in Africa.

“We owe a lot to Bethann Hardison for the acceptance of African American women on the runways,” Weir said, referring to the fashion model honored by The Council of Fashion Designers of America in June 2014 for her fashion activism. “She’s the frontwoman for the cause.” Weir added that supermodel Naomi Campbell also is outspoken on this issue.

This season, Weir said he also saw a few women from Mexico as modeling agencies extended their recruitment efforts there.

Winnie Harlow, a Canadian model of Jamaican descent, didn’t let vitiligo, a skin pigmentation disorder that has left white patches on her warm brown skin, keep her from realizing her fashion dream. She was discovered by Tyra Banks and competed on “America’s Next Top Model” in 2014 as Chantelle Brown-Young. In February, she made her NYFW debut on the runway for Desigual, a big clothing label based in Barcelona. And now she’s a cover girl. Ebony magazine put Harlow and five other black models on its September cover, which proclaims “And We Are Having a Badass Black Model Moment.”

‘Nothing to Wear’

Too many American women still lament that there’s “nothing to wear” when they look at the runways or shop for clothes. That’s the frustrating legacy of fashion’s obsession with tall and thin.

“Most models are genetic freaks,” said Stephen Cirona, the former creative director of Tommy Hilfiger, who attended the Carrie Hammer show to support his friend, Gwen Greene, a vice president at JP Morgan Chase and Co., and the chairwoman of She’s The First, a charity that provides scholarships for girls in low-income countries. Greene walked the runway in a black pleated dress.

He praised designer Hammer for her decision to show her Spring/Summer 2016 line on women who have achieved great success with their careers and social activism.

“It’s putting the focus on the power of the woman instead of on the mannequin,” Cirona said.   

Zayid, the comedian and disability rights advocate, wore a double-breasted black coat-dress.

“She created this dress just for me,” Zayid said, referring to Hammer. “It opens in the front. I have cerebral palsy so zippers or buttons in the back wouldn’t work for me. Who would have thought of accessible fashion? It’s hard to find clothes that work when you have a disability.”

However, La Neice Collins, a communications adviser at the United Nations’ Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sexual Violence in Conflict, said recent trends for more diversity in fashion still fall short of what women want and need.

“I want to see someone who’s 5 feet 3 inches with hips on the runway,” Collins told Women’s eNews. “They talk about diversity. But it doesn’t matter. We see these girls” of various ethnic backgrounds and “they’re all 6 feet tall and 100 pounds. I want to see the clothes on someone who looks like me.”

Jess Weiner, the CEO of Talk to Jess LLC, a branding and media consulting firm, was one of the most confident women in the Carrie Hammer show as she walked out on the runway in a black knit dress with a wide belt that hugged her curves. Weiner is also the author of two books, “A Very Hungry Girl” and “Do I Look Fat in This?” A day after the show, she Tweeted: “Wherever you are in life — let’s all just take our place on the runway and WORK IT!!”

Runway Revolution

Hammer said her goal is “to start a runway revolution” with her selection of role models to show her easy-to-wear clothes for work and evening.

“In my own personal life and my business, my mission is to change the global definition of beauty,” Hammer said in an interview after the show. “It’s 3-D: power, passion and accomplishments.”

Hammer’s vision has produced a couple of fashion firsts: In February 2014, her show featured Danielle Sheypuk, a clinical psychologist who became the first model to appear at NYFW in a wheelchair. This year, for her February show, Hammer hired the first model with Down syndrome to walk at NYFW: Jamie Brewer, an actress in the FX Networks’ Emmy Award-winning “American Horror Story.”

This week, Madeline Stuart became the second model with Down syndrome to work the New York catwalks. Stuart appeared in FTL Moda’s packed runway show on Sept. 13 in Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Station. Stuart, a teenager from Australia, attracted a blitzkrieg of media coverage in her NYFW debut. Every story mentioned her quest to erase the stigma of Down syndrome. FTL Moda’s partner for the show was Global Disability Inclusion LLC, a consulting business owned and operated by women and people with disabilities.

Among the other models with disabilities who walked in FTL Moda’s NYFW runway show was Rebekah Marine, known as “the bionic model” because she wears an advanced Touch Bionics prosthetic arm. She was born without a right forearm. Marine, who is from New Jersey, is also an ambassador for the Lucky Fin Project, a charity that helps people with upper-limb differences. She is also a motivational speaker and a fashion blogger who “hopes to introduce the world to a new form of beauty,” according to her website.

“Perfection is only a perception” is the tagline on Marine’s website.

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