When Rejina Pyo began brainstorming her much-hyped debut SS18 runway show in London, she was certain of one thing: half the cast should be non-models. “My customers come in all ages and all ethnicities. Why not show that in my casting?” The line-up, which included artist Conie Vallese and creative director Maria Lemos, was sourced via an open casting call on both Pyo’s and stylist Alex Carl’s Instagram pages the week before.

“I don’t understand why diversity is not simply a given. Fashion should always be a reflection of our world,” said Pyo’s casting director, Ben Grimes.

Rejina’s runway inclusivity shouldn’t be so surprising, but it wasn’t long ago that a “diverse” cast meant two or three non-white faces in a show; something many deemed lazy tokenism. The wealth of women on the catwalk this Spring 2018 season (older women; trans women; women of color; women of different body sizes and shapes; a woman in a hijab; a pregnant woman) feels ground-breaking.

New York Fashion Week’s casting was the most diverse it’s ever been this September. Tome’s Spring 2018 collection was presented on an assortment of people not typically featured on the runway. Their clothes were featured on transgender model Stav Strashko, “plus-size” models (“plus-size” being an industry-accepted term I find as odious as I do nonsensical), male and female dancers and three older women, one of whom was in her seventies. For designers Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin, it is simple: “If you cannot reflect your woman and the world around her, are you actually doing your job?”

At Eckhaus Latta, a brand known for making statements (their SS17 campaign featured couples having bonafide coitus), the pregnant artist Maia Ruth Lee strode down the catwalk in a long pink cardigan, buttons left undone at her midsection to reveal a beautifully fulsome belly. Instagram went wild for this soon-to-be-mama. “I’ve been going to fashion shows for 21 years and I’ve seen a pregnant model on the runway exactly one other time,” wrote Vogue.com’s Nicole Phelps. “Something to think about.”

While Christian Siriano’s September runway included agency-backed models — supermodel Coco Rocha among them — he remained dedicated to his mission of inclusivity within fashion. “This season I wanted to show that it’s not only about size,” Siriano told Glamour in an interview that ran before the debut of Spring 2018 collection. “It’s also about color, race, and gender. … If you’re out shopping and you love a dress, it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl or whatever.”

On Christian Siriano’s SS18 runway, Precious Lee and Candice Huffine (“plus size models” according to industry vocabulary) walked alongside Avie Acosta, a gender non-conforming model.

When it comes to this multi-faceted interpretation of diversity, it is the young designers — often those anointed “edgy” and/or “cult” — who are readily embracing it. “I was surprised by the overwhelming response to my casting,” Rejina Pyo told me in the aftermath of her show. “I guess a lot of fashion is still so traditional.”

There is the question, though, of whether this season’s alternative casting represents a groundswell and shift, or if it’s more of an ephemeral reflection of the moment. Those more cynical might even call it Instagram bait. Elizabeth Paton of The New York Times tells me, “There is a degree of attention-seeking behavior to ‘alternative’ casting,’ but we are pushing for greater diversity; and this is a good way to do that.”

When it comes to the kind of diverse runway that fans of fashion have long been demanding to see (one where race, dress size, gender, age, religion and ability are represented), this first phase of a shift is meaningful, but it’s the continued practice of more inclusive casting season after season that’s key. Agency-signed pro or “non model” doesn’t matter so much as the message: there isn’t one single kind of beauty. And what I hope is that these changes, however minutely, will help to change fashion’s narrow view of the ideal.

Feature collage by Edith Young with photos via Vogue Runway and Heritage Images/Getty Images. Slideshow images via Vogue Runway. 

Get more Fashion ?
  • Alexia

    I’m glad that the runway is becoming more inclusive but I don’t think fashion on the whole will be inclusive until the people that run the show–not just the designers and editors but investors and publishing CEOs (of big groups like Condé Nast) also reflect the diversity that exists in this world.

  • Andrea Raymer

    My first time attending a Christian Siriano show is one of my most memorable fashion week moments for precisely this reason. As someone who’s body has always hovered around the size of a plus sized model, fashion has always been my way to compensate for my feelings of being less than all of my peers because my body was a bit more than theirs. I see people on Instagram that looked like me being hailed as beautiful, but it still felt so separate from the reality that I experienced. The first time I attended a Christian Siriano show I was awestruck by all of these women of all shapes and sizes and colors that only made the clothes they were wearing look more sunning. It was the first time I ever felt validated by the industry that I had grown up using as an escape from my insecurities.

    • I went to his show for the first time this year (what a way to pop a NYFW cherry), and it was so exciting to see the diversity! I’m a cis/white/sized woman, but there’s just something about presenting clothes on a variety of silhouettes and against a variety of skin tones that makes fashion seem more attainable. Everyone has something they’re insecure or judged about, but they can still look beautiful and powerful even in these “hallowed fashion halls” that were once reserved for tall, white sample-size women.

  • Alison

    I love the writer’s optimism. The thing is … Christian Siriano is always the designer mentioned in these kinds of articles: he’ll make a dress for Leslie Jones when others won’t, he’ll dress all kinds of bodies and genderfluid categories. Lots of designers are inspired by human diversity: http://www.manrepeller.com/2017/09/why-these-american-designers-are-showing-at-new-york-fashion-week.html.

    So, where’s the rest of the industry?

    • Lil

      Also to add on to this, when one or two “plus sized models” (horrible term) are cast in a show or ad they’re usually barely a size 8 and have coke bottle proportions. Fashion should reflect the real world and in the real world if you walk into a room, you don’t see twenty size 0’s and then one size 8 woman. And actually usually size 0’s are preteens so why does fashion strive to emulate a body type that’s extremely uncommon?

  • Cate

    I would love to agree with the sentiment here, but I just can’t. When you say that NYFW had its most diverse season ever, you need to consider the ABSURDLY low bar that had been set by prior seasons. Additionally, smaller brands, like those above, have always been more willing to change – that’s not the problem here.

    Fashion always seems to like to name-check a few select brands and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. But the reality is that the major, game-changing shows (Chanel, Dior, Prada, etc.) – they’re not changing much. They throw in a black model with natural hair for one season and say “great, look at us such diversity!” But that is not diversity, that is tokenism.

    I also – and I want to be clear that I love this blog and read it every day – want to…gently call attention to the fact that this congratulatory article is being written by a straight-sized white woman. Even the world of new fashion media still really skews white and thin (…and that’s not even getting into Hearst, Conde, etc.).

    • Pandora Sykes

      Agreed that it’s an absurdly low bar – but we *have* to believe that improvements will keep on happening season after season (they are small, but they are certainly happening.) Agree that it’s still happening on the mainstream, as I say with the ‘edgy’ and the ‘cult’, but the fringes are definitely narrowing inwards.

      RE: me being the writer. I completely understand what you are saying about me being white and straight-sized. But isn’t it better I wrote it, than not at all? I can’t change what I look like – and I am undoubtedly, hugely privileged – but I *can* try and change the kind of stuff that gets written about the fashion industry.

      • Nia

        The question isn’t really whether you, as a white woman, should be writing about diversity in the fashion industry or not. But when you write an article like “‘Runway Model'” Isn’t One Type of Woman Anymore” it does come off as congratulating the fashion industry on a change that hasn’t actually occurred. As a black woman seeing models who look like me in smaller shows but none of, as Cate pointed out, the “major” shows it still feels like “runway model” does mean a certain kind of woman.

        • Pandora Sykes

          I don’t mean it to come off as congratulatory as I do think the industry has a long way to go still. Diversity is something I fairly regularly write about in the UK, and I’m SO with you that it’s absurd how slow many designers are being. But I wanted to celebrate those, like Rejina, who were making bolder and necessary steps.

          (Also I specifically addressed me being white and straight sized because Cate hand pointed out that I was. I wouldn’t have suggested it was relevant unless I was answering a previous comment.)

      • I have to say I really disagree with your statement that “we *have* to believe that improvements will keep on happening season after season”. I get that we need to acknowledge improvements when they happen, but I think we also need to be cognisant of how ‘trending’ diversity is right now and the underlying cynicism driving a lot of these business decisions.

        Social justice progress backslides ALL the time. Look at reproductive rights in Trump’s America. Vigilance is necessary and I am not willing to give the fashion industry the benefit of the doubt at this point. They categorically have not earned it. I agree with you that these small steps are steps in a good direction, but the fashion industry has behaved so heinously I – also a white straight sized cis woman – am not about to tell it ‘job well done guys’.

        I appreciate you highlighting this and you’re a great writer whose work I love, but I also think that privileged people’s complacency following tiny steps forward is an impediment to real progress. If those with a lot of power decide that that battle is won the moment things become comfortable only for them then nothing will ever really change, and when writing about subjects like diversity us white girls really need to consider how skewed our own perspective may be.

        • Mck

          Best thing I read all day.

  • Akosua Adasi

    The most encouraging thing about seeing increased diversity is seeing unknown models that are diverse. While it’s awesome seeing people like Candice Huffine and Ashley Graham on catwalks, they’re also popular models that designers can use to get an audience but don’t always necessarily demonstrate that desire for more diversity! That’s what makes the smaller designers and brands so much more significant.

  • Lil

    Kudos for the progress. It’s slow progress, but better than nothing!
    Can’t wait for the day when Chanel has models of various races, religions, and body types.

  • D

    Are you going to start showing us a more diverse group of women on this website? Almost everyone you show pictures of is very thin (and mostly white) even though they aren’t professional models. I’ve mostly stopped reading here because of that.