At Balmain's most recent Paris Fashion Week show, Creative Director Olivier Rousteing was hammering home that you can't expect to build a global fashion brand without embracing global casting. His models, all different in heritage and ethnicity, came from all over the world: Britain (Jourdan Dunn and Lily Donaldson);Tanzania (Herieth Paul); Dominican Republic (Lineisy Montero, Genesis Vallejo and one of August ELLE's cover girls, Ysaunny Brito); Jamaica (Tami Williams); the Netherlands (Maartje Verhoef); India (fellow August ELLE cover girl, Bhumika Arora); Angola (Maria Borges); Brazil (Alessandra Ambrosio) and China (Cong He and Ming Xi), to name just a few of the destinations that were championed. Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, who opened the show and swapped hair colours just for the event, may have grabbed the headlines but the real story was diversity – a topic that's forcing its way to the forefront of fashion today.
Models remain a point of controversy and fascination both within the fashion arena and beyond. Trends may come and go, but the debates and discussions rage on, understandably since the fashion industry has historically had a poor record when it comes to booking models that don't meet a type. Just last season for AW16, critics dubbed emerging Paris-based brand Vêtements' show revolutionary, despite the fact that the cast of models contained only white people.
Demna Gvasalia, founder of Vêtements (and Artistic Director of Balenciaga), seems to be following a well-trodden path. Prada's advertising campaigns didn't feature a black model for 19 years until Malaika Firth was cast in 2013. Before that, the last model to be featured was Naomi Campbell in 1994, the year Firth was born. After taking over in 2009, Céline's Creative Director Phoebe Philo didn't use any black models in her runway shows until SS14. While on the menswear runways it's become normal, fashionable even, to show older models, you'd be hard pushed to find a catwalk where the average age of the women walking isn't below 22, despite the fact the average age of the woman who can afford luxury fashion is well over 35.
And yet we're in a moment where fashion is celebrating individuality and having open conversations about racial diversity and gender fluidity. Those discussions are reflected in the casting. Trans model Hari Nef walked the Gucci runway in a show-stopping all red look. Creative Director Alessandro Michele also handed the reigns of the brand's Snapchat to her so she could record her fashion week adventures.
Model-of-the-moment Ruth Bell's career took off when she bucked trends and shaved her long blonde locks into a skinhead, making her stand out rather than fit in on the runways; McQueen and Saint Laurent have both since booked her to front their campaigns. Another model who's doing her own thing and still winning big jobs is face of Chanel's SS16, Mica Arganaraz. The Argentinian model cropped her long locks into a messy shoulder-length style that covers her face in curls.
Most hairstylists don't bother to mess with it, leaving her to walk the runway with her own look even if the majority of other girls have been groomed into a matching style. Models like these don't fit into trends; some are androgynous, others proudly gamine and girly. Bombshells and all-American sweethearts are having just as much of a moment as tomboys and rebels.
So are times changing? Slowly. An AW16 diversity report from theukfashionspot.co.uk notes that less than a quarter of all the models who walked this season were people of colour. That means that in all four cities combined, 75.25% of the models cast were white – unsurprisingly, as were eight of the 10 of the most-booked models of the season. All of this is a minor improvement from SS16, which was 77.6% white and AW15, which was 80% white.
Casting Director James Scully, who has worked with major labels such as Stella McCartney and Tom Ford, says, 'The overriding look of the moment is still scrawny white girls.' But he admits there has been development. Though the change doesn't come from the designers, the stylists, the brand CEOs or other 'power players' within the industry – the change comes from you.
Thanks to social media, audience responses and reactions are much easier to measure. Twitter and Instagram users were quick to react to the all-white casting at Vêtements, shaming the fashion press for praising the show. It's no longer possible for the industry to turn a blind eye.
The opinion of Sarah Doukas, the founder and Managing Director of Storm Management and the woman who famously discovered Kate Moss in an airport, is that this dialogue is giving power back to the models. 'The landscape is now defined as much by the individuals, their personalities and their relationships with their audiences as it is by the communication strategies of the brands. The medium has become as important as the message.' France Chiacchio, Director of Elite Model Management London wants his clients to feel free to stand out. 'We push our models a lot to voice their opinion and show their colours and views.'
Scully has noticed the shift. 'Social media was a way for models to break the past mould of what was just faceless, bodiless and personality-less, and save careers that were stalling because they were not the flavour of the month. The rise of social media has made people realise they were missing the bigger picture,' he explains.
'The stylist of the moment may want the zombie girl off the Yves Saint Laurent runway but a magazine reader does not and can't relate. Kate Upton created herself on social media, Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid would not exist without it. Karlie Kloss and Joan Smalls extended their careers with it. Social media gave the model the control of her career back that she lost to stylists and celebrities.'
That's given way to its own pressures. Long gone are the 'supermodel' days where Linda Evangelista wouldn't get out of bed for less than £10,000, as she famously quipped at the height of her fame. Today most brands won't sign a contact unless a girl has more than 10,000, or even 100,000 followers on their Instagram.
Still, the power balance is more complex than before. Look back to the Noughties, pre-social media and comment culture: the look of models was overwhelmingly homogeneous. Doukas explains, 'The early Noughties was the high-water mark of print advertising and the highly photogenic Slavic look predominated. But today, thanks to the element of personality which social media has brought, there is a much greater diversity of looks.
Models now have a real opportunity to be heard, so the road to success has become much broader.' Chiacchio sees that in the models featured on the cover of August ELLE: 'Each and every girl has such a different personality from each other and the most opposed life stories and paths, yet somehow they are all united by one passion. You can feel in the energy they give out in the shoot; it's about more than looks. It's about being a strong individual with charisma and ton of interests. Humour and is what makes the difference.'
Activist Bethann Hardison, a model in the Seventies and later a model agent, was rewarded for her work in championing diversity by the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). Her mantra is simple: 'Let the model model,' she says. 'At the end of the day, that's what we're here for. When we get on the runway we want to show who we are, show you what we've got and show how we can best express the clothes.'
She remembers the rise of the 'Slavic' look Doukas mentions and blames it on two factors: the rise of casting directors who were looking for a 'blank slate' kind of beauty, as well as the increasing regularity of the runway format. 'The power was no longer with the designers or even the model agencies, but with the stylists and the casting directors. Around the late-Nineties, eastern Europe opened up so broadly and the fashion model became this particular image. No one was interested in developing a girl. The casting director's job became just about finding new girls and new faces for the stylists. Eastern Europe offered a constant source,' she explains.
'It started in the mid-Nineties and at the beginning of 2000. It was people like Miuccia Prada – she wanted the girls to all look the same. She didn't want the girls to look glamorous, she just wanted the focus to be completely on the clothes and the collection. It was around the time she stopped using Naomi Campbell [in 1993]. And then that became the thing – everyone wanted to do it like that. To me, that's a presentation; a fashion show is entertainment.'
For Scully, it's women like Hardison who speak out who have helped spark the change and encourage others – including industry figures, fashion fans and consumers – to be more conscious about what they're consuming or promoting. 'Nothing would have moved forward if many of those designers in the early Noughties were not called out publicly for their lack of diversity by people like Bethann Hardison and Naomi Campbell. The people who began to break that mould and change the landscape with a point of view and pave the way for where we are today were Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy and most recently Olivier Rousteing at Balmain,' he adds.
Hardison remembers the glory days when designers and models had lasting friendships. 'Designers never had casting directors or stylists before – they'd cast their own shows with their assistants. So they had muses and close relationships with the girls. They liked girls who could walk and perform. That's why I was a success. Same with Pat Cleveland or Tyra Banks. They wanted you to "do you" – that's why they hired you,' she explains. The concept of 'doing you' is coming back. Today, Anna Cleveland, daughter of Pat, refuses to just walk on the runway – she's danced and posed her way around the catwalk for Giles. Attendees joked that it took her about 40 minutes to make her way round.
Jess Hallett, a casting director who's worked with Olivier Rousteing on Balmain's shows and campaigns and puts together the model line-ups at Alexander McQueen, suggests the focus is increasingly on what girls have to say or offer rather than their ability to fit into a cookie-cutter mould of beauty. To her, this isn't particularly new – the personalities of the girls were just forgotten for a while.
'Even back in the Sixties models sent out their résumé, which said whether they could ride a horse or do ballet or play the guitar or whatever. Those things have always been important,' she explains. 'I think the models with the biggest or best personalities have always been "super". This is what separates them from the rest who almost always have equal beauty and body shapes, but weren't so exciting. Beauty isn't just skin deep; when the two combine, it can be explosive.'
It's the celebration of the combination that is changing the landscape of modelling right now. The women involved don't want to be seen as 'just' a beauty. Karlie Kloss is channelling her energies into encouraging women to code, all while running a thriving cookie business, Karlie's Kookies. Cambridge graduate Lily Cole turned her attentions to technology innovation and founded impossible.com, a social network that encourages people to give their services and skills away to help others.
We expect more of our models today. Would Julia Nobis have stayed so achingly cool if she hadn't maintained an air of mystery by opting out of Instagram in favour of concentrating on her medical degree? Would Jourdan Dunn be so adored if she didn't speak out about issues relating to racism within the industry, and the pressures of life as a working mother?
Sure, some girls may make it because of their famous parents or get a leg-up because of their social media clout but at the same time, slowly but surely, others become adored for their complexities, their differences and their relatability. As women. Sisters. Mothers. Activists. Comedians. Students. Scholars. Feminists. Academics. And so many other things. The talking point isn't that these women are suddenly 'more than just a model', because that's what they've always been. Right now, it's just so refreshing the world is seeing them as such.