With the turn of another season, designers are once again showcasing new trends but this is 2019, so it’s more than just a change in palette or pattern. Body diversity and racial inclusion are starting to make their way through the fashion industry, one size and one skin tone at a time.
Hayley Elsaesser is a Toronto-based designer recognized for presenting models of diverse racial backgrounds and body types.
“I like to have a runway that is a good representation of the city we live in,” said Elsaesser. “Different body types, different backgrounds, different ethnicities and orientations.”
While Toronto is one of the world’s most diverse metropolitan cities, the same cannot be said of Toronto Fashion Week (TFW). Elsaesser and fellow designer Lesley Hampton are among only a few Canadians who use non-traditional models for their shows.
“Compared to New York, London or Paris, we’re very behind,” said Elsaesser. “I think Toronto likes to kind of follow suit with what everyone else is doing. It doesn’t want to be the first to make big changes or do something new.”
For Toronto Fashion Week fall/winter 2019, Hampton tapped into her Indigenous heritage by featuring a cast of only Indigenous models. The collection was titled Eighteen Seventy Six after the year the Indian Act was passed in Canada.
This time around, Elsaesser refused to participate in TFW as she felt her efforts to diversify the fashion industry were not making enough impact. “I am tired of trying my absolute hardest to push an agenda of progressive acceptance and inclusion,” she wrote in an open letter on her website called “Why I’m not doing Toronto Fashion Week.”
“Every single day I strive to push our brand forward, support my community, and shed light on social and political issues that I think are important and relevant in an industry that is still very much propped up by exclusionary practices, elitism, and corruption,” the letter read. Every day I try to put out clothing that isn’t built on exploitation and unhealthy body and beauty ideals. And every single day, I am let down.”
Though its population is diverse, Canada struggles with fashion, according to Caron Phinney, who teaches at the Ryerson School of Fashion. She says fewer Canadians appreciate fashion.
“It’s not that we don’t have the talent, it’s just that we haven’t always had that culture supporting the fashion industry in this country which is why we’re not really playing at a global stage like those other cities,” she said.
While brands are trying to be more inclusive by scattering some plus-size and ethnically diverse models on the runway, they are not necessarily manufacturing clothing that caters to the general public, according to Phinney.
“The percentage of diverse and racially different bodies is a lot lower than what’s reflected in the market to which they’re selling those products,” explained Romana Mirza, a Ryerson fashion student. “They’re trying, but they’re not there yet.”
Additionally, while global brands have started to diversify their runways and ad campaigns, they still lack opportunities for business and leadership aspects of the industry.
In a report for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Erica Lovett, Inclusion and Community Manager at Condé Nast, said it’s exciting to see more representation highlighted through these mediums but visibility alone is not the solution to advancing diversity and inclusion in fashion. She said until fashion leaders across all categories such as business and leadership become more diverse, progress will be surface level.
According to the report, fashion is one of the few industries that touches all lives in some way.
According to Mirza at Ryerson, body diversity and racial inclusion are not yet considered norms.
“How is fashion changing or being more inclusive?” she asks. “Well, they’re trying…they’re adding in these diverse bodies and diverse skin tones but I think what they need to do is sort of embody this as a normal practice. That has not happened yet.”