When it comes to making women feel good about their bodies, the fashion industry is not exactly known for massaging our egos. But one woman wants to make a change. Friday sees Caryn Franklin launches Snapped on Friday night; an evening that celebrates fashion, beauty and diversity at the National Portrait Gallery.
Along with model Erin O'Connor and PR guru Debra Bourne, Franklin is co-founder of All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, an organisation that aims to readdress the imagery coming from the fashion industry by celebrating individuality.
Shot by Rankin, the event on Friday will showcase the work of eight cutting-edge designers on eight professional models aged between 18 and 80, sizes 8-16. The stellar line-up of designers participating in the project includes Vivienne Westwood, Alice Temperley, Antonio Beradi, Giles Deacon and Stella McCartney.
In addition to the unveiling of Rankin's portraits, the evening will include a debate chaired by Franklyn, with participants including Erin O'Connor, Susie Orbach and Lynne Featherstone.
We caught up with Caryn to find out more.
How did the All Walks concept come about?
I've always been vocal throughout my 29-year career about the industry's lack of understanding and empathy where body image is concerned. My own personal work has always been in celebration of women's bodies. It started with a question about whether it's possible to showcase cutting edge fashion on a range of bodies.
It was then a case of looking into LDA funding to create a vehicle that was fashion industry literate, and allowed us to work in a way that we could bring in really happening young designers and introduce them to the idea of working with a range of bodies other than the standard catwalk models. The fashion industry is a powerful communicator to women about their bodies. I don't really think that the industry as a force has grasped that yet.
Have there been obstacles along the way?
Yes indeed! Often the first question from the industry was "why do you want to do this?", and the second question was "how can you be sure that you're going to make this look any good? Won't it look like a great big mess?" When we were pitching the All Walks idea, a lot of people told us that although they agreed with the concept, but British fashion wasn't the right space to be working out body image issues, when it's a space for promoting great British design. Coming together as co-founders around Debra's kitchen table was kind of an exciting adventure, but we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for.
And what was your reply to the doubters?
To say that as an industry we're not capable of flattering women who aren't catwalk models with great fashion is a pretty tragic state of affairs. I personally believe we do have the skills and that we should be promoting them.
What's been the highlight so far?
There've been so many! The one I'm personally most proud of is going into education and being able to change the curriculum and change the way that fashion is taught at degree level, which we did at Graduate Fashion Week when we pulled together over 60 heads of department from across the country.
Why is it important to focus on teaching fashion design?
Fashion design is generally taught using a size eight tailored dummy, so most students of fashion have no experience of working with a body that is anything other than an undemanding size eight - and consumers come in a huge range of sizes. In education, this has to come in right at the very beginning. Learning to design for mass production is so different to training with individual bodies. We know we can't give them an exhaustive understanding, but to give them the experience of working with a range of different bodies.
What else have you got planned?
We don't just want to look at design, we want to look at fashion illustrators; the teachers of illustration all encourage this elongated silhouettes. We also want to talk to image makers; stylists, photographers and journalists. There is always a default setting that operates from size eight and six feet tall being right, and anything else being lesser.
Are you seeing changes?
The fashion industry has definitely begun to widen its message. Someone like Marc Jacobs doing a range for larger sizes is a huge deal. It's people who are defining what is cool that can make the most change quickly. There are an awful lot of lemmings in the fashion industry and I take a really dim view of that – what are you doing in such a creative industry?
Mark Fast is another example of someone who took the message [infamously sending curvy models in body skimming knitwear down the runway] – and he has benefited financially. It's not all about earnest good will for the consumer. He really saw the opportunity and he really used it for his own company's advancement. And Vivienne Westwood has done this, especially by appearing digitally unmanipulated in her own campaigns. We all need to see amazing, beautiful older women. Every young woman needs to see where she's going; the idea that she glows brightly for a few short years is not really comforting for any 20-year-old.
Is image manipulation core to the problem?
One of the things we really want to flag up is an increasing tendency for people to measure themselves up against the lens of fashion photography – but it's really about fantasy. Portraiture is about reality. The two disciplines are so different and they are to be enjoyed differently, but we cannot look at fashion photography to validate ourselves. There is a good place for fashion and fantasy, but I want transparency. I think that there should be some understanding the level of manipulation that goes on. If I see an advert for a skin foundation, and I'm shown a model so thoroughly manipulated that it is a false claim, then I'm not happy as a consumer. Advertisers should be brought to bear because they profit from people buying into a product that is effectively being illegally advertised.
Is there a concern that the kinds of attitudes that Alls Walks is promoting will be treated as a fad? How do you plan so give the campaign longevity?
There is a concern that it's temporary narrative for journalists. Fashion is great at picking up new ideas, but it is guilty of dismissing anything that it feels it has already covered. We're using the sustainable fashion model as a kind of pathfinder. It was new, but now it's firmly embedded in people's understanding and perception of what is good fashion design. It's a slow process, but there are changes being made. I do think that in recessionary Britain it does make sense to appeal to a wider set of consumers. It's not rocket science. Alienating women with money, who are generally older, just doesn't make sense. Neither does alienating curvy women with money. Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, shade and ages.
Snapped, including a panel discussion entitled Is Fashion Imagery the lens through which we evaluate identity? takes place tonight at the National Portrait Gallery.