As we dive into a new era of inclusivity, the LGBTQ community is finally getting the attention and recognition it deserves – most prominently in the fashion/modeling scenes. We are in the midst of a groundbreaking milestone for models. African-American model Donyale Luna paved the way for this anti-discrimination movement after appearing on the cover of British Vogue in 1966 – and we’ve seen previously discriminated ethnicities and genders rise to the top ever since. A recent example is the May 2019 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine: Halima Aden models with her hijab, making her the first ever Muslim-American model to grace a cover.
Having come out as trans in 2013, Andreja Pejić became the first openly transgender model to be profiled by Vogue, paving the way for the rest who came after her. What’s especially interesting about the recent emergence of trans women in the industry is how many of them are occupying spaces in very controversial brands. Valentina Sampaio made headlines late this summer when she was cast as Victoria’s Secret first-ever transgender model. Sampaio was not new to the fashion industry, as she was featured on the cover of Vogue Paris in 2017, and had been modeling in Sao Paulo long before then. Her spread for the Victoria’s Secret catalog gained nationwide media attention. Before Sampaio joined the VS team, Ed Razek, Chief Marketing Officer for Victoria’s Secret, made questionable comments about transsexuals being in a VS show in an interview. He declared the show is meant to be a fantasy, implying that because transgender women are not looked favorably upon by the male gaze, they cannot be fantasized about.
Trans women who want to make a career out of modeling are arguably the very definition of fantasy: they are able to imagine and desire something that many powerful voices in the industry deem impossible. Fashion is not known for being hyper-inclusive; racism, ageism, ableism, as well as discrimination against plus-size bodies is nearly always present at castings. Any woman, especially a trans woman who was not born with the features of the female body that many “women-oriented” brands are looking for, still struggle to be booked for jobs, simply because the competition amongst models is intense. It’s extremely impressive that trans women like Sampaio are able to persevere in such an exclusive industry long enough to make it into the shows and catalogs for internationally-known brands. There are many other trans women modeling at the same level as Sampaio who deserve to be noticed for their immense strength, advocation and talent.
Maxim Magnus made her debut at the Paula Knorr show during London Fashion Week in 2017 and went on to act in Gucci’s “Second Summer of Love” series in 2018. Gucci gained attention this year for making several insensitive and tone-deaf design choices that were marketed to the public as fashion statements, namely attempting to sell an $800 turban at Nordstrom, and a black balaclava with red lips that many believed made those wearing the sweater appear to be in blackface. Some might argue that the brands Magnus and Sampaio have gained international success from are simply using these women as a way to rectify their image. Magnus, a staunch advocate for the trans community, disagrees.
“What was amazing about Gucci was that no one spoke about the fact that I’m trans, I was just one of the models. Even though it’s important that people know for educational purposes, it’s amazing they didn’t use this as tokenism,” Magnus stated in an interview with Paper Magazine. She did admit that minorities in the industry often receive the wrong representation, and the only ones who are supported are cis, gay, white men. Magnus declared that the industry needs to focus on inclusion instead of trends because they’re shaping young minds with media. She launched a video campaign for #TransIsNotATrend, in which she declares that hiring women who are trans should not be used by fashion brands to be “cool.” Trans women are women and deserve to be recognized as such. Although fashion as a whole is beginning to recognize how important inclusivity is, many brands still need to move away from the idea that they’re being trendy by highlighting diversity.
Teddy Quinlivan became the first transgender woman to be in advertisements for Chanel beauty this year. This is a monumental “first” for the brand, but many have still not forgotten about the missteps Chanel has made in the past. In 2014, Karl Lagerfeld staged a feminist protest at his autumn/winter presentation for Chanel, and stated after the show he “could care less if people are for or against it,” and he liked the idea of viewing feminism as light-hearted, causing many people to be outraged at his insensitivity to important movements. Women’s rights and trans rights are not light-hearted issues, as they impact a large amount of the population around the world.
A gender studies professor at Columbia University, Jack Halberstam, claimed it’s important to be skeptical of the way in which trans bodies are made visible. “It’s great that there are trans bodies visible in the world, but one should be careful about what it means beyond that and about making claims politically. All visibility doesn’t all lead in a progressive direction. Sometimes it’s just visibility.” With that in mind, there are trans folks out there who must make political claims to ensure their visibility makes a lasting statement.
Indya Moore, a non-binary trans person who goes by the pronoun ‘they’, was named one of Time’s most influential people of 2019. They began their career working for Dior and Gucci and currently stars on the FX tv show Pose. Although Indya doesn’t define themselves as a man or woman, because she is seen as a woman she is often subjected to the same scrutiny and surveillance as other people who identify as women. They went into fashion so they could take back their power. They believe that it’s not only unfair, but wrong, that women are held up to such strict standards.
Harper’s Bazaar published an article on the transgender models dominating the fashion industry, but the women featured only showed that the industry still has a long way to go when it comes to fully-inclusive representation: all of the models on their article were white except for one. There is still a lack of visibility for black and brown models who don’t fit the gender binary, or who have transitioned. Thailand native Peche Di created her own modeling agency, Trans Models, for that very reason. This is New York City’s first agency to only represent transgender models.
Trans Models agency began in 2015 from a desire to help the community find their place in the modeling world. Di books plus-size clients, as well as models of all different races and ethnicities. Di recognizes that models are looking for more than just professional opportunities when they sign with an agency. It’s important to have a supportive community to help people through the challenges that come from being a model, even when you find success.
The rise of transgender models raises important discussions in mainstream media about the importance of representation and inclusivity. These models prove that showing their bodies isn’t a superficial act, which is what many people consider modeling to be. In fact, it’s a way of making the statement that bodies of all kinds deserve to be seen as valuable, beautiful, professional, and worthy of the same recognition as highly-privileged models like Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid get. The door to the possibility of representation is now wide open – it’s intriguing to think about where the modeling world will go from here.