Average read time: 10 minutes.

It is not that long ago when advocating for the inclusion of black models on runways caused an outcry. It’s slow progress since Donyale Luna became the first black supermodel nearly 50 years ago to Naomi Campbell becoming a household name.

The fashion industry had mainly used white, skinny, young and female models on runways, magazines and in varied brand campaigns. Yet, the last decade has seen a gradual shift in the representation of people of colour, varying skin types, different body types, and more recently non-binary and transgender models, as well as models of advanced age (think Elon Musk’s mother Maye Musk) in the fashion and beauty industries. This has paved the way for models like Winnie Harlow with her skin condition of vitiligo to challenge the conventional perceptions of beauty. No longer unsightly but unique.

These achievements have not happened in isolation. They are a result of concerted efforts of engaged activism. Social media has had a hand in this. While the hashtag #activism continues to be criticised for being fleeting noise made by armchair activists, it has proven to have the power to bring about real change when backed up by real transformative action. Think of #ArabSpring, #MeToo and the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter movements as just some examples.

The words diversity, representation and inclusivity run the risk of being fads where certain brands and institutions consider them only at superficial face value without interrogating their meaning, implications and the brands’ role in assisting with true and sustainable change.

In a Glamour SA article looking at representation, structural inequality and silent advocacy in fashion, Jason Alexander Basson asserts, “brands may portray inclusivity in the images they use, but that doesn’t mean they employ black people in senior roles, as an example. Who holds these brands accountable and who protects you from what is essentially false advertising?”

The risk of empty advocacy will always be there, but there is comfort in knowing this may be checked by a society that is seemingly going through an evolution and awakening.  Subverting old belief systems, calling out discrimination and unlearning with hopes of reinventing the wheel. The Millennial generation has partly been at the forefront of this shift that is unfolding.

This movement is influencing culture and creating pertinent socio-political dialogues. Through the body positivity movement, we continue to see the gradual representation of plus-size and albino models such as Ashley Graham and the local Thando Hopa respectively.

The rights and plights of the LGBTQI+ community have risen and given light to issues of gender identification and deconstruction. And where education is needed, the presence and representation of the LGBTQI+ community is helping.

Recently Victoria’s Secret hired its first openly transgender model, Valentina Sampaio, who is also the first transgender model to appear in Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue among other similar feats.

Now more than ever, the globe is experiencing the continued rise and focus on gender fluid/gender-bending/gender-neutral design and culture. This has a direct effect in de-gendering influential fashion events from London Fashion Week to our local South African Fashion Week (SAFW), making them much more inclusive.

Internationally, British American fashion designer, Harris Reed is a loud voice for fluid fashion and beauty, even amidst criticism for dressing Harry Styles in a skirt suit for American Vogue. What Reed emphasises is that fluid fashion is not about clothes, it is a way of life. And this rings true for many.

This nuanced video of his latest collection: For Now, Unexplained, captures his message precisely and poetically.

Since 2017, South African designers such as Nao Serati, Rich Mnisi and Lukhanyo Mdingi, have heralded gender-neutral fashion. Such as “Gay as Fuck” becoming a description that Serati has welcomed, being used to describe one of their collections.

Designers Jacques Bam of The Bam Collective and Michael Hittinger of the Michael Ludwig Studio are continuing this culture, which they see as a reflection of their true selves.

Hittinger is non-binary and with their label, they advocate for gender identification. Their SAFW Spring Summer 2021 collection was inspired by De-Gendered Geometry focusing on how shapes and identity play into one another.

See the collection below, and check out our previous story on Ludwig here.

“One of the main objectives of the Michael Ludwig Studio is to educate our buyers about different genders. With non-binary, it is not about identifying with the sexual parts that you’re born with, or the gender you’re assigned at birth. It’s more about when you wake up in the morning, do you feel more masculine or feminine? And whichever way you want to present yourself to the world, we want to help inspire people’s choices. Society is evolving and the binary way of being and dressing is outdated. After our De-Gendered Geometry showcase, which played with the masculine and feminine hues of pink and navy, we noticed a 5% increase in sales from cis-gender males, trans-gender males and female customers, which was incredible,” Hittinger says.

On what they would like to see going forward, Hittinger affirms, “I’d like to see the removal of gendered clothing in stores, and most importantly, the acceptance of all the genders that there are.”

The Bam Collective is known to work with non-binary as well as gay models, and Bam himself dresses fluidly. For him, it’s about representing his community.

“It’s important to have diversity in your brand. For me as a queer individual, I find that we don’t really have representation. The only time I started seeing my community represented was in shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. The movement is slow locally. I started using ‘alternative models’ since last year. I think it’s important to represent your own community. I want this to be a safe space,” Bam says.

Yasmin Furmie
Yasmin Furmie

His alternative models also include people of mature ages like Johannesburg style guru, Yasmin Furmie, who became a fashion icon at the age of 52 after previously being a social worker.

Ageism in fashion (the preference for models younger than 20 and ignoring those over 40) is still an issue, but there have been movements that have made efforts for diversity – like H&M Studio’s 2016 showcase in Paris and Jun Takahashi’s show which boasted a diverse cast that included the iconic supermodel Sylvie Gueguen and Hannelore Knuts.

Before ageism became a talking point, South African fashion pioneer, Jacques van der Watt of Black Coffee had long cast older models in an unforgettable show in 2006 titled Black Coffee Develops with Time.

“This was held at the Synagogue in Wolmarans Street in downtown Joburg. The show had a specific mood because I had used elderly models. A few people after the show came to tell me that they were moved to tears… It’s the only time that has ever happened in my 22 years in the business. It remains one of my favourite collections. I travelled with it to San Francisco and included a few of my elderly models there as well,” Van Der Watt fondly recalls.

Developments for diversifying the fashion industry are encouraging, however, people living with disabilities are still largely under-represented.

Laura Ashleigh Meyer is a fashion student and model living with a spine defect that causes her to walk with crutches. She is fiercely and gracefully advocating for the visibility and inclusion of consumers with disabilities in both fashion and modelling.

“Both industries, with great influence, have seemingly left a gap when it comes to being more considerate of our needs as a target demographic. I’d like to eventually start a clothing brand that is catered to meeting the needs of consumers with disabilities. I really want to empower consumers with disabilities and get the message across that you can’t always choose the body that you were born into, but you can choose how you would like to feel in it,” Meyer says.

Her presence in the industry has already seen her feature in an inspiring campaign with South African jewellery brand, Lorne and dressed by fashion label, Selfi.

“I’d love to see more people with disabilities brought to the forefront in all sorts of mainstream media (TV, radio, magazines). I would also like to see more fashion brands considering people with disabilities as a target group with different needs to mainstream society,” says Meyer.

If the fashion industry continues its upward trajectory for representation, diversity and inclusivity, she may just get her wish come true.


Writer | Kgomotso Montsho-Maripane @kgomotsomontsho
Editor | Nikki Temkin @Nikki Temkin
Images |

Title image:  Nao Serati x Adiddas 2019

Laura Ashleigh @for_lorne
Photographer: Armand Dicker  @armanddicker
Styling: Anthony Hinrichsen  @antdane
Hair and makeup: Amy Louise Tourell @amylouise_makeup_
Dresses: @___selfi
Models: Imaan @imaan_higo,  @asia_george, @laura_ashleigh_

Nao Serati:
Photographer: Michael Oliver Love
Styling: Neo Serati Mofammere
Models: Innes Mass and Fallou Gueye

The Bam Collective:
Images: Courtesy of SA Fashion Week
Creative Director: @chloeandreawelgemoed
Photography: @uglybruv
Photography Assistant: @retang_sebeka
Model: @yasminfurmie
Styling: @chloeandreawelgemoed
Hair: @urban_mimz
Make-Up: @tammimbambo

Black Coffee: Courtesy of SA Fashion Week