An unfamiliar face set the room alight at the Max Mara show in Milan in February. On a runway populated by supermodels old and new – Natasha Poly, Gigi Hadid, Isabeli Fontana – it was the Somali-American former Miss Minnesota USA pageant contestant Halima Aden, in a hijab, who sparked fervent chatter on the front row.
The level of buzz was surprising considering Halima, 19, had only ever appeared on two runways: her debut in Kanye West's Yeezy show earlier that month during New York Fashion Week, and in the Alberta Ferretti show soon after. But she had become a talking point during the AW17 catwalks, a season that, according to website The Fashion Spot, was the most inclusive on record.
'Halima's appearance created buzz for all the right reasons,' says Ian Griffiths, creative director of Max Mara. 'When our customers see diversity in the models we work with, it's easy for them to identify with the collections. Max Mara has a tradition of making real clothes for real women. We wanted to celebrate that by making our runway reflect our reality. If you were to take a stroll down New Bond Street, Avenue Montaigne or any other top-end shopping street, it would be no surprise to see a Max Mara coat worn with a hijab.'
For decades, the fashion world has been the target of enduring criticism for using models who are largely white, waifish and woefully young. But at the shows in February, not a day went by without a refreshing counterpoint to this historical, narrow ideal.
Dries van Noten, Simone Rocha, Dolce & Gabbana and J.Crew celebrated women of all ages by casting models such as 70-year-old Jan de Villeneuve, 73-year-old Benedetta Barzini and 67-year-old Barbara Math to wear their collections. Michael Kors, Prabal Gurung and Osman were among designers embracing more realistic body types with casts that included stunning women larger than sample size such as Ashley Graham, Marquita Pring and Candice Huffine. Meanwhile, more women of colour appeared on runways at the main four fashion weeks, with London, Milan and Paris having their most racially wide-ranging season ever.
Diversity has had a rocky road, thanks to marketers who have used the term to the point of redundancy, turning it into a corporate buzzword. But the need for it remains, and its meaning has evolved significantly in a way that is impossible to ignore. Until recently, diversity referred largely to race.
When I started my magazine journalism career some 15 years ago, in the era when the eastern European model ruled the catwalk, I wrote a story about the lack of black women on the runways and in advertising campaigns. I wrote the story several more times in the runway seasons that followed because the problem hadn't improved.
But this year, the progress in the AW17 shows looked more substantial, and not only in terms of race, as if the fashion world was beginning to recognise in earnest the power of representing a wider range of beauty. The curvy kind, the brown kind, the transgender kind and the older kind.
Generally, people are seeing through yesterday's narrow stereotypes.
Jennifer Davidson, editor-in-chief of The Fashion Spot, says: 'The biggest change I've seen is the definition of diversity.' In 2014, the popular New York-based website began tracking the runways as a way to hold the fashion industry accountable and highlight which brands have a history of ignoring entire demographic segments.
'When we first began, we were really talking about the use of non-white models,' continues Jennifer. 'But in recent seasons, there's a lot more talk about size, age and transgender.'
Could it be that, after all the size-zero outrage, cultural-appropriation debates and underage drama, the fashion industry is finally embracing a more inclusive future? And, more importantly: will it last?
'I'd say we're in a good place,' says James Scully, one of fashion's most notable casting directors. Known for his longstanding working relationships with designers including Stella McCartney and Tom Ford, he's now most famous for calling out model discrimination and mistreatment.
During the Paris Fashion Week shows in February, James shamed Lanvin on his Instagram account for allegedly telling agents not to send black models for consideration in its AW17 Paris show and criticised Balenciaga's casting directors for locking models in a dark stairwell, with no food or water, during the staff's lunch break. The response was immediate: Lanvin featured black models in its show and Balenciaga fired its casting directors. So in a way, mission accomplished.
A growing culture in which people boldly call out bad behaviour is contributing to 'the momentum [around diversity],' says James. 'The activist Bethann Hardison started the fight by calling out discrimination more than a decade ago. Now, you have millennials on social media coming into the business and making their voices heard. In the course of a few years, we've gone from having no diversity to now having not just racial diversity, but diversity of the world.'
The customer is changing, too. According to global business consultancy A.T. Kearney, people over 60 are the world's fastest-growing consumer group (by 2050, its report stated, there will be 2bn over-60 year olds).
'There's a growing awareness of the influence of older women as consumers and [their] purchasing power,' Professor Jenny Darroch of Claremont Graduate University, California, told AdWeek in 2015, when luxury labels including Céline, Kate Spade and Saint Laurent made headlines for casting Joan Didion, Iris Apfel and Joni Mitchell in their campaigns respectively.
It's not hard to avoid accusations of cultural appropriation (a trending topic in the fashion world this year) when you have a diverse group of people, representing different points of view, in decision-making positions.
Jennifer Davidson of The Fashion Spot says the truth is more nuanced. 'Anecdotally, you think it was a great season,' she says, 'but when you look at the numbers, it wasn't so good. It's just that the designers who used [a more diverse range of models] got a lot of attention.'
Across all four fashion cities during the AW17 show season, there were only 30 plus-size models from a total of 7,035, according to The Fashion Spot. To put that alarmingly low proportion into context, one of every five garments purchased in the UK this year will be plus-sized.
Representation of older models is also scant: of the 241 AW17 shows, only 21 included models over 50 years old. There is better news for models of colour: their representation increased from 22.4% for the SS16 season to 27.9% for the AW17 season.
London-based casting director and founder of AAMO Casting Madeleine Østlie thinks the bigger battle is the issue of a wider range of body types, which requires systemic changes. Renowned for her street-casting work along with her former partner, model Adwoa Aboah, Madeleine has been credited with increasing diversity among fashion publications. 'Compare the current sample size to the Nineties [when] it was a UK size 10. And then an 8 and then a 6. Rather than more plus-size models, we need to see a concerted effort to increase the sample size across the board. There needs to be push-back from agents and the agencies. It's a pattern-cutting issue.'
For Michael Kors, his decision to include Ashley Graham in his AW17 show made perfect sense: 'Ashley is beautiful and she's a strong part of the fashion world. I've always dressed women of all sizes, ages and shapes. And for fall 2017, I wanted the runway to be a heightened version of our reality.' Sample sizes weren't an issue, he says: 'We've always produced our collection clothes in sizes 0 to 16, and we'll continue to include a mix of women on our runway who represent the variety of women that we dress.'
We should represent everyone, but they should be the best of everything.
Jennifer Davidson is sceptical about the chances of improving body diversity: 'It's ingrained in society to see the ideal woman as being thin. And I can't see designers shifting on such a large scale to creating bigger samples.' But does the idea of fashion – a concept built on notions of aspiration and inspiration – by its nature contradict the goal of true inclusivity? Can it represent everyone? Should it even try?
'Our industry is no longer the tiny, private island it used to be,' says Bethann Hardison, the former model and founder of the Diversity Coalition, an organisation that actively works to promote greater representation for models of colour in fashion. 'The industry has become global and accepting of popular culture. I don't think it's a good or bad thing; it's just a sign of the times.'
Fashion has certainly broadened, with brands embracing everyone from transgender people to models with disabilities. But the industry is divided on whether this is a good thing. 'Fashion is not a business that was ever meant to be egalitarian,' Scully adds. 'It has to have aspiration. That's what has hurt the business: there is no cachet. What is the point in aspiring to something when every single person can have it?'
James says it's about the right balance: 'We should represent everyone, but they should be the best of everything. Ashley Graham is gorgeous and just happens to be a woman of size. Regardless of her size, she would have had a career. It's about finding the people who have that X-factor, not jumping on the bandwagon.'
The bandwagon mentality also worries Bethann Hardison, a former model and founder of the Diversity Coalition, an organisation that actively works to promote greater representation for models of colour in fashion. 'The industry has become global and accepting of popular culture. I don't think it's a good or bad thing; it's just a sign of the times.'
'It sometimes feels like diversity is becoming a word that covers everything that was unacceptable in fashion, in order to stay ahead of popular culture,' she says. 'The reason we need racial diversity gets lost in the conversation. We can't afford for race to become a temporary topic.'
The rise of street casting is welcome: it doesn't rely on box-ticking. Madeleine, whose clients have included Marc Jacobs, Marni and Estée Lauder, says the diversity in her work was a by-product of her going out a lot in her twenties and meeting a 'wealth of people'. When LOVE magazine editor-in-chief Katie Grand first hired Madeleine to cast a project in 2013, she and her collaborator Adwoa Aboah looked to their social circles: 'Social media and Facebook was how I built the casting.'
Nicci Topping, the British casting director who handpicked the unknown faces in Gucci's pre-fall 2017 Soul Scene campaign, used a mix of models and 'real people' from the UK, US and Europe. The all-black cast was criticised by The New York Times as 'diversity drag', yet few knew that Nicci herself is black.
'Those that question the authenticity of the campaign were missing the point. Yes, the northern soul audiences were predominantly white and working class, but the music was largely produced by black Americans. The influence of black culture on trends is often under-acknowledged, so Gucci should be applauded for promoting this in such an innovative way.'
From the business side, we really must examine fashion executive talent search. Diversity is still not present in a meaningful way at the executive level.
Controversies aside, thanks to street casting, the ruling class of influencers, including Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid and Bella Hadid, has given way to more diverse, outspoken and socially conscious girls, including Adwoa Aboah and Slick Woods. 'A lot of these kids, if they don't feel themselves represented, they just go out and do it themselves,' says James Scully. 'That's why we have brands like Off-White and Fear of God. That's why these voices have become so powerful in the industry. The nice thing is that this movement is heavily represented by models of colour.'
Importantly, their voice and point of view fuel their popularity. In Halima Aden's case, it's her willingness to speak out about her experiences as a Muslim American that resonates with her 228k Instagram followers. No doubt the fashion corporates have awakened to research such as the Reuters and Dinar Standard report that claims Muslim people's spend on clothing will double to £357 billion by 2019.
'Generally, people are seeing through yesterday's narrow stereotypes. We will see more diversity in fashion media and on the runways,' Ian says. Also, social media has given every consumer a powerful platform from which to voice their approval or otherwise. No business can afford to get it wrong when backlash comes so fast and furiously, as shown by the hard lessons learned by Balenciaga and Lanvin in the wake of James Scully's revelations.
Ultimately, though, the key to maintaining an organic and authentic level of diversity within the industry is encouraging greater inclusivity behind-the-scenes, not just in front of the camera.
'From the business side, we really must examine fashion executive talent search. Diversity is still not present in a meaningful way at the executive level. It won't be until it is demanded. Fashion executive diversity mirrors the homogeneity of the banking, tech and auto industries. How dreary and dry is that?' says the New York-based brand strategist, Geoffrey Payton, who is vocal about the topic on social media.
It's not hard to avoid accusations of cultural appropriation (a trending topic in the fashion world this year) when you have a diverse group of people, representing different points of view, in decision-making positions. In the words of Scully: 'If you're not getting into diversity, you're going to get left behind.'