The Genteel
March 7, 2021



It's a Saturday afternoon in some loft in west downtown Toronto. Fashion Week in the city is officially over; the "international" model talent has dissipated, editors have gone into hiding, but the industry's fringe is just starting to come out for their turn to play.

I drop in on a casting for FAT, Toronto's antidote to the official mainstream / corporate week that just ended. Next month, the fashion and arts festival will welcome young and diverse designers to mount mini-productions of their collections in everything from traditional runway to multimedia presentations. All this, of course, needs models. But FAT Toronto is but a slice in the country's fashion-industry-at-large. It's a group effort that values its grassroots uniqueness as much as it does its autonomy. The talent pool, in turn, depends on a combination of professionals, amateurs, and everyone in between that come through their own choice (no agents) during the one-day, six-hour casting. In a word: it inspires diversity.

"It's important for us to include different types of models - shapes, sizes and ethnicities," says Vanja Vasic, FAT's executive director and founder. "We also want to include men as women, and women as men." Vasic says that this year was particularly interesting in terms of the types of people that came out and that there are literally no rules or restraints on the type of people the casting committee is willing to see.

Crystal Renn - before and after.

Although it takes a bit of effort to become conscious of the implications and connotations of the intersection of race, ethnicity and identity, I'll admit that the last place I began to constructively think about these ideas was in the context of fashion. I also admit that I'm not quite sure why. I mean, I know diversity - shapes / sizes / ethnicities / gender expression and reversal - when I see it, but it quickly flutters through my awareness. It's either because I know the moment is fleeting, or that the norm - the non-diversity - will come around mere seconds later. Depending on the show or its theme, issues about race and diversity on the runway might even register as a gimmick. And yet, I am still hesitant to believe that we've made any serious strides in modifying the representations on the runway, and whom we see in magazines.

At the end of New York Fashion Week last month, Jezebel reported that the runway featured predominately white models and, overall, had seen the least mixture since 2008. (It's probable that this was a direct response to the economic crisis that saw designers wanting to dress every woman in their collections so every woman would want to buy them.) But the stats from last month's NYFW were downright abysmal: "137 designer runway shows and presentations, and 5,269 different fall outfits were presented to the world's retailers and press. Of those 5,269 looks, 4,468 - an overwhelming 84.8% - were modeled by white women," wrote the online cultural watchdog. "801 of those looks were given to models who aren't white. Black models were used 384 times. Asian models were used 323 times. Non-white Latina models were used 79 times. Models of other races only made it onto the runways of New York City - one of the most racially diverse places on this planet - 15 times."

If a designer uses all white models in a runway presentation, well then that's just the status quo. If a designer exclusively uses models of colour in a runway show, then is that a gimmick? 

And so how does this happen? Whose responsibility is it to promote, or enforce, a quest for more diversity? If a designer uses all white models in a runway presentation, well then that's just the status quo. If a designer exclusively uses models of colour in a runway show, then is that a gimmick? Does a tactic like that then lose its effect almost immediately after because the next designer will go back to the norm? Sometimes, when dealing with race, it's better to ask questions, but then who's going to answer to them?

I'm reminded of the now two-decade-long debate about model age, eating habits and size diversity, something staunchly explored by fashion's illuminati like Anna Wintour, Michael Kors and others. The topic of diversity, then, often seems to end up becoming a question of physical appearance more than anything. There have been roundtable discussions, workshops, videos, and interviews, and yet this issue still seems to gravitate and remain in the realm of the size of the "white woman."

In this video shot by New York magazine during the city's most recent fashion week, sort of "plus-size" international model-cum-crusader Crystal Renn discusses the issue of size diversity, but it still circles back to the same idea of "industry standards" (streamlining a sample size for publication use, societal beauty ideals). Renn lists off the changing standards of size throughout the 20th century, almost oblivious to the fact that she may encapsulate all of them and thus still feel unrepresented because it's all one note, much like the majority of customers who adore fashion. Renn is subject to constant speculation about her weight, having dropped dress sizes considerably since her career has taken off (reports say she's gone from a 10/12 to a 6/8). And yet, she stands almost alone as one woman of a skewed representation.

I can think of very few non-white, plus-size models with a visible platform like Toccara Jones, an America's Next Top Model alumni who has gone on to amass a devoted following and launch develop a sizeable portfolio. In this interview with Plus Model magazine, Jones, who has also shed some pounds, still proclaims that she is a plus-size model and is better able to articulate the multi-dimensional issues surrounding true diversity. 

If we hope to make palpable strides, models of colour, or even size, cannot just be showpieces.

In Toronto, fashion week is as diverse, even more so, as I've seen on any runway. But it's not enough to say that's a product of circumstance and location because look at the melting pot that is New York. "Typically, on the mainstream runway, you see white, skinny models," elaborates Vasic. "[With FAT], we can go out of the realm a little bit, but there's no such thing as a perfect model. It also becomes difficult because designers look for certain sample size figure." This, she says, is also a result of production costs and garment patterns, especially tricky for an independent designer. Vasic also notes that this year's theme surrounds German designers, who will be showing "androgynous collections" that required the casting crew to seek out males who could walk in heels. One applicant even put N/A under gender and was "absolutely fantastic." You'd rarely get away with such a bold feat at any other Toronto casting, especially not with an agency-managed model.

Toronto's Sunny Fong, designer of VAWK, is really the only designer who consistently shows featuring "real people" - from age to size to colour. (And, yes, age is another thing, but refer here.) It's similar to the idea of what FAT is doing, using members of its own community to effectuate a transfer of power from the idealised to the reality, if even by an inch. It's something not restricted to Toronto, of course, but we're not exactly a fashion capital so there’s still room to play and explore and propagate better ideas. More importantly, there is still the space to set our own rules if we want to. But the mastheads of our fashion magazines are still one note, and we have yet to produce a "supermodel" that isn't white and - let's face it - thin. But is a designer eventually responsible for his or her own choices of going with, rather than against, the current? Should a designer who isn't "white" be responsible for casting shows that are more representative as part of some innate desire?

Even at FAT, Vasic can cast to meet her expectations of model diversity, but, in the end, designers have the final say in who will model their collections when callbacks happen, choosing by their own standards. Still, it's looking better than it has, and Vasic notes in particular "a spike" in Asian models. "Typically, only one or two come out, but this year 20 per cent of those we cast were Asian."

I can't speak to whether the change is near or not. It feels that way, but the numbers don't add up most of the time. At the end of the casting, a hopeful tells me that it's all the same, and that the diverse and unique "models" may book a few shows, but the "tall, thin, and gorgeous" will reign supreme. If we hope to make palpable strides, models of colour, or even size, cannot just be showpieces.





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