As the owner of a womenswear brand one of the most important decisions I have to make is the choice of model for our marketing campaigns. Aside from the ethics of our brand, as a woman, I am forever conscious of not wanting to present unrealistic body images.
I've written about this previously - how we started with faceless models before transitioning to non-model models. Overall neither choice has been well received.
With so much debate about body image and insecurities I have found myself questioning the best approach and particularly now given we are in the throes of preparing for the launch of our Spring /Summer 2016 campaign.
What I have come to realise is that I need to meet the needs of two parties - the industry and the customer - and that the two are, in many ways, disparate.
My analysis of the industry over time has led me to conclude that there are various instances when the industry seems to be disconnected from and acts independently of the customer. This is never truer than Fashion Week.
Fashion Week is a time when designers showcase their vision, inspiration and creativity via collections for the upcoming season. As far as the industry is concerned this is less about clothes and more about the presentation of art, to its inner community, in as pure a form as possible. It is only later that crystallised and diluted aspects of this art form the ready-to-wear collections and trends we see later on the high street and in department stores.
What I believe the customer sees during Fashion Week is the exhibition of a product, lifestyle and body image that they are being encouraged to adopt - and all in a literal sense. It is not uncommon for people to view catwalk designs with incredulity and describe them as ridiculous and unwearable. They perhaps do not realise that what they will end up wearing is a much more filtered down version of what is displayed at a show.
What garners more attention, however, is the focus on a designer's choice of models. It is during Fashion Weeks that condemnation of ultra-thin models is at its loudest.
While I in no way condone the use of very young, very thin models I do believe that for designers the models they choose are not being presented as women but rather as mounts or fixtures for their art. And creating an art that is unique or different is becoming progressively more and more difficult. This is evidenced by the ongoing repeats of historic trends, e.g. SS15 was dominated by the 1970s while AW15 is seeing the return of the 1980s. So ultimately designers are looking to create an art that stands apart and is no way detracted by the model. Perhaps with this in mind it is not surprising that catwalk models are becoming less and less personally significant and disappearing, almost literally, before our very eyes.
This is all in sharp contrast with the models of previous decades. The 1990s is a particular case in point as this period coincided with the beginning of the end of original fashion and the zenith of the catwalk model - the supermodel, none of whom was unhealthily thin. While the term supermodel has now become somewhat hackneyed, at the time it encapsulated a hitherto unseen elevation of the fashion model. Quite literally, models such as Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell et al and later Kate Moss, were often much bigger stories than the clothes they were wearing. In some respects it was the last hurrah.
Supermodels are now a rarity for designers other than for Victoria's Secret (where models, although still very slim, are promoted as paragons of heath and fitness). Cara Delevigne, and perhaps Jourdan Dunn, are the main celebrity models today but the potential for others now seems limited not least because there has been displacement of fashion models by A-list movie and music stars, such as Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, Marion Cotillard, Michelle Williams, Rihanna etc. The competitive landscape for a model has been transformed. This is underlined further by increasing representations of gender fluidity. In order to stand out models, male and female, it would seem, need to meet broader and broader definitions.
Caroline Nokes MP, Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Body Image and campaigner for the 'Be Real' campaign, also makes an interesting point with regard to the stances models now assume in photo shoots. She protests against the submissive poses that have become all-too-frequent, e.g. lying on the floor. Such images are certainly incongruous with some of the more empowering images of the 1980s/1990s, a time when women made great strides in securing personal and financial independence. This regression is an interesting phenomenon given women now have more opportunities than ever before.
So far I have managed to resist the pressure to change. But this is becoming more and more difficult. I need the industry, more importantly the fashion press, to endorse the presentation of our product. What I have found is that non-conformity is generally considered unacceptable especially by small brands such as mine which sit low in the overall established hierarchy. The industry is highly fragmented and we are simply neither large enough nor influential enough to drive major change.
But I do think there is a solution, one which can help reconnect the industry with the customer. And it is one which needs to come from the top. It is the big names in the industry that set the tone and direction for the rest to follow. If long-term industry dignitaries, such as Karl Lagerfeld or Anna Wintour, were to advocate and commend the use of healthier looking models the industry would, without a doubt, follow suit.