The problem with 'realness' on the runway

REAL FASHION? Donna Karan celebrated New York by using "real people" in her DKNY runway show.
REAL FASHION? Donna Karan celebrated New York by using "real people" in her DKNY runway show.

Seeing non-model types on the catwalk always warms the collective heart. Rick Owens has done it, not once, but twice, subverting industry conventions with his fierce step dancers and parade of 'real' women and 'veterans' beside present-day professionals at Paris Fashion Week.

Donna Karan from DKNY, whose wares are marketed toward the everywoman made a similar casting decision, transmitting the simple, tactical message of 'this could be you!' to potential 'everywoman' customers.

And Edward Meadham and Benjamin Kirchhoff of sparkly London 'it'-label Meadham Kirchhoff cast their mates instead of models. The would-be clothes hangers walked way too fast, with one accidentally pulling down the tinsel curtain as she went, but the audience couldn't get enough.

There's definite power in the 'real' woman. We're so unaccustomed to seeing a diverse array of beauty on the catwalk, that anything that deviates from the norm is instantly hailed as a positive, revolutionary and reassuring thing. A non-model model with wrinkles and a pot belly? Cue the Twitter accolades and industry-wide high fives.

We take to these displays of realness like we take to J-Law taking a tumble at the Oscars - adoringly. "Real women and - gasp - graying hair on the runway at @RickOwens. Say yay!" tweeted the Wall Street Journal's Christina Binkley from the front row.  

Suddenly, the high-fashion designers who use them in their advertising or presentations become trail-blazing body confidence campaigners without their motives ever being questioned.

Yet what are the implications of putting the 'everywoman' - of varying shape, colour age and height - on the catwalk?

The term 'real woman' is bandied around a lot these days, but is itself problematic.

Once a thinly veiled euphemism for anyone meatier than a size zero, it's become overused to the point of meaninglessness, inserted into press releases and saccharine ad campaigns you're told to watch with your daughter.

Yet if only non-models are 'real', what does that make professional models? - mere holograms?

The phrase also carries the suggestion that us non-model folk need some sort of feeble reassurance that it's okay to be who we are - because who we are is somehow more real.

Do everyday, five-foot-four-inch people even need to walk the runway? Those chosen for this task have always been genetic rarities, whose purpose on the catwalk is to suppress their personality and appear anonymous as to not distract from the clothes.

Since when did the identity of its wearer become a louder statement-maker than the garments themselves? And doesn't the casting of non-models as models devalue the profession as a whole? We can't think of any other job where such outside representation is required.

A lot of the time, non-traditional casting merely acts as bait for coverage and clicks - it's not everyday you see 'glunge' provocateur Rick Owens pop up in the tail end of the 5 o'clock news, but his stomping, scowling, step-dancing sorority got him there.

There are, however, implications in using non-model women to create a runway spectacle.

While the Rick Owens show was progressive and much deserving of its praise ("Ultimately, [the 'real woman's'] personality gives the garments their structure," writes The Cut's Robin Givhan), there's also this tendency for brands to faux subvert industry norms as a way of driving sales and manipulating public perception.

The spike in stunt casting - whether it be the casting of models in wheelchairs by Diesel or the over-seventies set by American Apparel - reflects this and has the effect of suggesting progress without actually achieving change.

After all, actual change would require them to cater to these niche markets in real and practical ways. And looking at both these brands' current catalogues, that looks to be a long way off.

Don't get us wrong. Any steps toward diversity and greater inclusiveness in fashion is worth celebrating, but when the industry's take on 'realness' becomes co-opted as a cleverly crafted trend and a talking point - rather than a turning point - we're right to treat it with a degree of scepticism.

At the end of the day, why aspire to be 'real' when 'relevant' is what's worth aiming for.

- Daily Life