Elton Ilirjani is an activist who literally walks the walk. Beyond their decades of philanthropic work on behalf of women and the LGBTQ+ community, Ilirjani can now be found walking runways around the world for some of fashion’s most high-profile designers. As their historical track record has proven multiple times over, Ilirjani’s work as a model is driven by a singular motive: to change the fashion industry – and by effect, the public’s perception of beauty – from the inside-out.
It may sound like a tall order, but Ilirjani’s resumé is full of the kind of revolutionizing that once seemed impossible. Their non-profit, the Dignity Global Foundation, is the creator of the Employment Equality Index, the corporate system first established in 2002 that ranks businesses by their treatment and inclusion of women and LGBTQ+ members of the workforce. They’ve spearheaded international protest movements, spoken at the UN, and continued to elevate the meaning of “equal rights” by showing us that a more inclusive world is indeed possible.
The Untitled Magazine sat down with Ilirjani after Seoul Fashion Week to talk about their work as a genderless model, their vision for a better fashion industry, and the countless other initiatives they have taken to make equality a reality for as many people as they can. Read our interview with Elton Ilirjani below.
In 2006, you became the first gay man to come out publicly in Albania. What were some of the factors that inspired such a historical decision? What impact do you feel that had on the community?
It is our time to seek justice because every human being on earth deserves it. We will fight tirelessly for equality, peace, and betterment. It was time for me, and when I spoke out, many others followed.
Your non-profit, the Dignity Global Foundation, works to protect the rights of women and members of the LGBTQIA+ in the workplace. What are some of the ways that the foundation does that?
It led me to founding the Dignity Global Foundation for inclusion in the workplace and during the job interview. It was mainly focused on equal rights to employment for the LGBTQIA+ community and women. Seven years ago, I also started two big protest movements, the Lipstick Movement and Nobody is Straight Movement, both of which focus on equal rights for transgender people of color in the US. This group of people is most discriminated against and violated, and in some cases, murdered in some southern states in America. They are suffering the worst and are a target of all kinds of harassment, abuse, and homophobia, which is used by some politicians who use political homophobia to win electoral power. Fashion is the next step in acceptance, and not only for the LGBTQIA+ community, but also for women and non-binary people. “Freedom” in the fashion industry is so controlled and most of the time, it creates the wrong perception to the public, in relation to beauty and style. The Dignity Global Foundation promotes equal opportunities for every human being anywhere on earth. This program was founded in hopes of fighting injustices we see every day. These injustices are what gave us the idea of the program and made us take urgent action.
Can you tell us about the “Employment Equality Index” that the organization founded?
Our focus is women’s rights and the LGBTQIA+ community’s rights, and our great team of research experts collected data for the Women’s Employment Equality Index and LGBTQIA+ Employment Equality Index. For the index, 70 companies and organizations from a number of industries were included in the survey after expressing their willingness to participate in this research. It looked at human resources in countries like Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Cyprus, and North Macedonia, thereby creating the LGBTQIA+ Employment Equality Index. The index ranks companies that protect and support the rights and dignity of LGBTQIA+ jobseekers and employees. It rewards companies that [are devoted to] diversity in the workplace. The index also represents a great opportunity for companies, job seekers, and legal authorities to promote best practices in the employment sector. It’s an opportunity to provide concrete information about education and awareness-raising against discrimination in the workplace. We have created the index to contribute more specifically to improving the lives of citizens in the LGBTQIA+ community. We reward companies for their efforts to include LGBTQIA+ people in the workplace and encourage companies to receive ever-higher ratings, year after year.
You’re perhaps best known for your work in the fashion sphere. What initially motivated you to get involved in the fashion industry?
In 2019, I discovered the 3NY concept store in New York City. That’s how I discovered South Korean designers; I bought their clothes and modeled them on Instagram, tagging them. They
reposted my videos and we developed a friendship from there, and eventually, they invited me to walk in their runway shows. That led to my first runway show, walking in the September runway show for South Korean brand BESFXXK as part of the Concept Korea runway show at Spring Studios. That led me to walk for other South Korean brands at Seoul Fashion Week in March. It was just an expression of my style.
What has your experience been as a genderless model?
Fashion is the best tool for moving forward with human rights, in general. Fashion is the fifth biggest influence on people’s perception of pop culture, right after the media. Now more than ever, fashion has a powerful influence due to social media and influencer culture. Fashion is
part of our everyday lives for millions of people all around the world. It has our maximum attention, and it’s growing every day. So, a message is better transmitted through fashion rather than TV, and this is known by the ones who control fashion.
How would you describe your personal style?
My personal style is eclectic – it’s an extension of my exuberant personality. I love to mix high and low-high fashion with things considered lowbrow. It brings the high fashion items even higher, and it elevates lowbrow items into the high fashion realm. I love mixing and matching brands like Fendi, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and my personalized Gucci purse, which has my name written on it. I love sequins and asymmetrical pieces by Maison Nica, BESFXXK, and MMAM.
Are there any designers that you love wearing or that you would love to work with?
I would love to work with Chanel and Cheng Peng, who shows at Paris Fashion Week and specializes in genderless fashion. My goal is to someday create a better society for us to
live in, where dignity and equal opportunities for all are not seen as benefits. Every human deserves to live in peace and prosperity.
You just walked five runways at Fashion Week in both New York and Seoul. Can you share some of your highlights from past fashion weeks?
MMAM was the final show of the first day of Seoul Fashion Week at DDP, which is the biggest cultural, creative and fashion center, and I was the “finale” of the show. This brand is all ages and genders and has a special place for genderless modeling, which was so touching. The outfit was a long black coat, which was also in the function of a raincoat and a dress. It had three parts, [including] the raincoat material on top and a dress inside. Very light. That was my first walk as a model for Seoul Fashion Week. The experience was great and full of emotions – there were many. The stage was huge, and I felt like the eyes of a thousand people on the show were stronger than all the extravagant lighting on the runway.
Can you describe the importance of bringing genderless models to the runway?
When I walk as a genderless model, it’s for the entire movement. Genderless models need to be seen and heard. This is the future of modeling, and the modeling world will soon change drastically. The fashion runway is no longer old-fashioned, discriminatory, or objectifying women. Genderless modeling represents everyone. It’s synonymous with the arts and creativity, and is more easily absorbed by the public. I also believe that genderless models stand outside the standardized “beauty” box and are helping make the fashion industry more inclusive for women and the LGBTQIA+ communities. Genderless models are the very first step into freedom in the fashion industry, which for me, is so controlled and subjective, and sometimes very abusive.
You say that the modeling world “will soon change drastically.” What does that change look like to you?
Now is the time to give fashion a new face. The face of the future, the face where women are not seen and considered objects and body numbers. It’s time for the fashion industry to be more inclusive – size-inclusive, age-inclusive, and gender-inclusive. Women are not hangers. Women, men, and nonbinary people are all individuals. These individualities will make fashion look better and [feel] closer to the consumer and brighter for the generations to come. Free fashion!
Can you tell us about The HeadHunter Group and the work that your team does?
I am CEO and 100% shareholder of The HeadHunter Group, operating in 15 countries between Europe and North America. Apart from my professional activity in business, I have been
all my life an international LGBTQIA+, starting first within the Balkans and then spreading worldwide. I first started the LGBTQIA+ Employment Equality Index in the business sector and government in 2016, two years before the UN started the criteria for businesses to be gay-friendly and placing LGBTQIA+ flags in their stores – something you see more often now in NYC and some other European cities. I was also invited to the UN [to give] a speech in 2018. Later on, I started the Lipstick Movement and also got involved in fashion. Last year, I was selected as a Pride Icon for the first LGBTQIA+ NFT series, which launched during Pride Month. I am so happy to have achieved this through my lifelong efforts and struggles to be accepted and to support all of my community on this difficult path in the face of homophobia.
What advice would you give to others looking to get into the modeling industry?
Always stay true to yourself and express your personal style. Fashion and activism are very much connected. Over the past three years, I have been involved [in fashion] to show that we are more visible, and to show the world that we are the same as other people, and we can be beautiful, handsome, and successful! I have been very active on my Instagram and other social media for this! I have presented many brands and many styles. We are all beautiful.
What do you have coming up that we can look out for?
Look out for me walking New York Fashion Week in September. Stay tuned for the details on my Instagram, @eilirjani. I’ll also be returning to walk shows for Seoul Fashion Week in October. If any other brands want me to walk for them, get in touch!
For more from Elton, follow them on Instagram.