New models rewrite runway rules
It was 1998 when Alexander McQueen sent athlete and model, Aimee Mullins, down the catwalk in intricately carved wooden prosthetic legs. The whole industry gasped, not only because he used a double amputee in his show, but because Mullins, and those legs, were mesmerising.
Then 2000 came and went and everyone went back to their narrow ideals of beauty. Mullins now quips that owning 12 pairs of designer legs is far more interesting than just the one pair but, up until recently, who could name 12 fashion designers who embraced diversity with their models?
Aimee Mullins on the McQueen catwalk.
And by diversity we're not only talking 'not thin', or 'not white', or 'not young', but those with albinism, cleft pallet, muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome and with missing limbs. The kind of conditions that have never been entwined with notions of beauty in our culture. Being shunned by the fashion world may seem trivial, but it's not. If your skin is different, you're in a wheelchair, or you have one arm, then you get one message from the media, loud and clear: you're not worth looking at.
But a handful of models are rising up and challenging how the world views beautiful. Many of them didn't wait around to be discovered, they created their own brand, working with makeup artists, photographers and filmmakers to build up a portfolio and fan base. Because if you want to be a successful model these days then you need a good following on Instagram (and a photographer friend who can follow you around taking pictures).
In May this year Instagram ran a campaign #RunwayForAll working with LA's albino model Shaun Ross, black English model Londone Myers, French plus-sizer Clémentine Desseaux, Haitian amputee Mama Cax, and fashion blogger and model Jillian Mercado who has muscular dystrophy and is in a wheelchair. Together they got a lot of traction.
In Mama Cax's post (750k likes) she said, "#RunwayForAll means any teenager feels represented when they open a magazine or watch a fashion show.
"The majority of humans do not look like the mainstream idea of beauty. One of the greatest barriers is not belonging. Through modelling I hope to show that beauty does not always wear a size zero and beauty does not always walk on two limbs."
Clémentine Desseaux, a plus-size model from France.
Their work, along with Melanie Gaydos who has ectodermal dysplasia (no hair, can't sweat), Madeline Stuart who has Down syndrome, amputee Viktoria Modesta, and Geena Rocero, a transgender model, is making the invisible visible.
Shaun Ross, 25, is an international model of African American descent who has agencies in Milan, Paris, London, New York, Berlin and LA. He's modelled for British GQ and Italian Vogue, featured in two Beyoncé videos, Tyra Banks' show and Lana De Ray's Tropico. Ross is an albino but he'd prefer to be called a muse.
He's striking to look at. Everything about Ross is unique, from his skin and hair to his distinct style but being the only white-looking child out of a school of 300 black kids was not easy. "Powder", "Ugly", "Test-tube baby" were some of the insults thrown his way. "Kids used to come up to me, grab my arm and make me feel like I had a disease," he says in a video project called What's Underneath. "I had to explain why I was black and not black."
Even though Ross's family told him he was beautiful, he never considered himself model material. "I don't have the most perfect nose and in the past I even asked my parents if I could get an operation. I used to wear sunglasses to cover that up. In my eyes, or rather the way society painted it for me, I was completely wrong, unacceptable." Feeling wrong didn't stop Ross from cultivating his talents, creating his own YouTube videos and fan base. His videos caught the attention of fashion photographer Shameer Khan.
International top model Shaun Ross. is an albino, but prefers to be called as a muse.
Modelling, Ross admits, helped his confidence. It came with the travel and being able to do what he does, exactly as he is. He walked his first runway in 2008 and says acceptance in the industry "took a while, a long while", which he struggled with, but now thinks "Really, I shouldn't give a f***. I am who I am."
His strength in himself is captivating. There are no apologies. "I have to remember what I worked hard for. I don't owe you any explanation. This is me." Once Ross saw a shift in perceptions towards his look he felt it was time to speak up. He wants to see more people with albinism in the public domain, "People with albinism are not ghosts but human beings." He's tackling fashion's diversity divide with his 'In My Skin I Win' movement to encourage self-acceptance.
Geena Rocero (33) was a successful model in New York for 10 years building up her portfolio and Instagram fans. With her perfectly proportioned swimsuit body and dark tresses, she was in heavy demand but every time Geena left an audition she feared her secret would get out. While identifying and looking like a female, she was born a male. "I was always afraid," she says in an email from New York where she now lives.
Rocero was born and raised in the Philippines and parents were very accepting, but all the same she felt huge societal pressure to dress and behave as a boy. "I always expressed my femininity but I came from a very religious country and was always told to be a boy." As she got older, the insults began, such as "bakla", which translates to "gay boy" and is meant to bring a sense of shame.
When Rocero first moved to the US at 17 she didn't see her identity as a trans woman represented. And when one of her idols, Bond girl Caroline Cossey, came out as one, and was heavily criticised, Rocero was petrified that she'd attract the same response. "Dehumanisation of trans people in the media made me feel ashamed."
Fear of rejection got mixed up with the elation of being recognised as beautiful. "[Growing up] as a dark skinned Filipina I wasn't considered beautiful. When I became a fashion model I found my outside finally matched my inner truth."
Rocero carried her secret until 30, when she decided to share her truth in the most public of ways: in her heavily viewed TED talk on International Transgender Day, 2014. "I'd had enough of fear and depression. I decided I had nothing to be ashamed of."
She now works mentoring transgender youth, was part of the Beautiful As I Want To Be web series with Caitlyn Jenner. She also set up Gender Proud, a worldwide organisation that stands up for the rights of transgender people.
Gender, Rocero believes, is fluid, like beauty. "Gender has always been considered a fact. Immutable. But we now know it's actually more complex and mysterious." And likewise: "People's ideas of beauty have expanded; it doesn't just come from heteronormative, white, cisgender standards. The world needs your most authentic self."
Amputee Viktoria Modesta is challenging assumptions of what models and pop stars look like.
Viktoria Modesta, 29, calls herself the world's first bionic pop star. As an amputee she's challenging perceptions of what a pop star, model and artist can be. Her music video, Prototype, won a Silver Lion at Cannes Film Festival and blew up after premiering in the X Factor finals in the UK.
In Prototype, directed by Saam Farahmand and funded by Channel 4, Modesta scrapes a pointed metal limb over red ice and then smashes everything you've ever thought about needing two legs (and feet) to be exotic, powerful and a dancer. Further on in the video, a prosthetic leg lights up, light sabre style.
Modesta's creativity slaps you in the face. She dares you to stare and marvel. There's nothing to feel sorry for as she treats her amputeeism as empowering, and uses it in thrilling new ways. But it wasn't always empowering. As a youngster in the post-USSR Latvia, Modesta spent a lot of her childhood in hospitals, trying to fix a lame leg. In between 15 operations, she spent her time on crutches and in a wheelchair. When she moved to the UK, at 12, she was bullied for her limp and lack of English. "But I think that really toughened me up and forced me into more creative circles of people and lifestyles."
Three years later she was modelling. "If anything," she emails from London, "I think the issues with my leg made me over compensate in other ways, like developing my personal character and style."
After encountering the work of film-maker Matthew Barney, who has collaborated with Mullins, it seemed "bonkers to keep my natural leg and continue the struggle when I could explore the extension of my body as a form of art and performance."
It took her five years to convince doctors to remove her leg. "There was a massive uncertainty about how many more surgeries I needed to have and most importantly, was anything going to improve my situation." The operation was a practical decision for her to walk better, to wear what she wanted and be more playful. "If your reasons are grounded, a physical transformation can be a positive thing."
After the operation Modesta documented herself with a series of works, which were nominated for best portrait at the National Portrait Gallery.
Like Ross and Rocero, Modesta doesn't like labels. "Whether it's sexual orientation or where you come from, I don't really like the idea that there is this scale in which one's abled-ness or disabled-ness is decided. There are so many factors that indicate how enabled you are as a human being. If we are talking about something very basic like an anatomically correct body as opposed to a different form, sure thing, but I think 'disabled' implies somehow being less than ideal. There are plenty of people out there totally un-engaged with the world and themselves who are not considered disabled. Everyone is an individual with their own special capabilities."
Everything about Modesta is radical, and her artistry caught the eye of IMG models who signed her up in 2015, but this year she decided to leave. She's busy creating projects such as a short film, Shakespeare Re-Imagined, with the British Council, and her new EP, Counterflow, is due out next year.
Modesta thinks it's positive that there are more diverse types of models out there but says, "For now it's still a token position. Someone with [skin condition] vitiligo, or whatever distinctive thing they have, is still promoted and booked for that."
Jack Eyers, the first male amputee to walk New York Fashion Week last year with indie Italian designer Ilaria Niccolini, told The Guardian that he still doesn't think, "people are viewing [models with disabilities] as attractive."
Jillian Mercado: "If you're different, that's sunlight in somebody's world."
Yet, perhaps the only way to change the attractive scale is to see more images of people with disabilities/differences in magazines and on catwalks, because fashion is one of the main ways that our culture shapes its notions of what's attractive.
In the early 20th Century, it was fashionable to walk with a limp and cane because the then Princess of Wales, Alexandria, had developed a limp after the birth of her third child. She was one of the most adored fashion icons at the time. Fashion doesn't always make sense, but it has enormous influence.
Whether it's avant-garde shock value, tokenism or genuine artistry, the rise of diverse models is powerful. Recently, as part of the What's Underneath film project (in which people remove their clothes while discussing their body image), wheelchair-bound Jillian Mercado summed up the potential impact a photograph of an unconventional model could have on a person with desperately low self esteem: "If you're different, that's sunlight in somebody's world."