“Runway Model” Isn’t One Type of Woman Anymore

When Rejina Pyo began brainstorming her much-hyped debut SS18 runway show in London, she was certain of one thing: half the cast should be non-models. “My customers come in all ages and all ethnicities. Why not show that in my casting?” The line-up, which included artist Conie Vallese and creative director Maria Lemos, was sourced via an open casting call on both Pyo’s and stylist Alex Carl’s Instagram pages the week before.

“I don’t understand why diversity is not simply a given. Fashion should always be a reflection of our world,” said Pyo’s casting director, Ben Grimes.

Rejina’s runway inclusivity shouldn’t be so surprising, but it wasn’t long ago that a “diverse” cast meant two or three non-white faces in a show; something many deemed lazy tokenism. The wealth of women on the catwalk this Spring 2018 season (older women; trans women; women of color; women of different body sizes and shapes; a woman in a hijab; a pregnant woman) feels ground-breaking.

New York Fashion Week’s casting was the most diverse it’s ever been this September. Tome’s Spring 2018 collection was presented on an assortment of people not typically featured on the runway. Their clothes were featured on transgender model Stav Strashko, “plus-size” models (“plus-size” being an industry-accepted term I find as odious as I do nonsensical), male and female dancers and three older women, one of whom was in her seventies. For designers Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin, it is simple: “If you cannot reflect your woman and the world around her, are you actually doing your job?”

At Eckhaus Latta, a brand known for making statements (their SS17 campaign featured couples having bonafide coitus), the pregnant artist Maia Ruth Lee strode down the catwalk in a long pink cardigan, buttons left undone at her midsection to reveal a beautifully fulsome belly. Instagram went wild for this soon-to-be-mama. “I’ve been going to fashion shows for 21 years and I’ve seen a pregnant model on the runway exactly one other time,” wrote’s Nicole Phelps. “Something to think about.”

While Christian Siriano’s September runway included agency-backed models — supermodel Coco Rocha among them — he remained dedicated to his mission of inclusivity within fashion. “This season I wanted to show that it’s not only about size,” Siriano told Glamour in an interview that ran before the debut of Spring 2018 collection. “It’s also about color, race, and gender. … If you’re out shopping and you love a dress, it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl or whatever.”

On Christian Siriano’s SS18 runway, Precious Lee and Candice Huffine (“plus size models” according to industry vocabulary) walked alongside Avie Acosta, a gender non-conforming model.

When it comes to this multi-faceted interpretation of diversity, it is the young designers — often those anointed “edgy” and/or “cult” — who are readily embracing it. “I was surprised by the overwhelming response to my casting,” Rejina Pyo told me in the aftermath of her show. “I guess a lot of fashion is still so traditional.”

There is the question, though, of whether this season’s alternative casting represents a groundswell and shift, or if it’s more of an ephemeral reflection of the moment. Those more cynical might even call it Instagram bait. Elizabeth Paton of The New York Times tells me, “There is a degree of attention-seeking behavior to ‘alternative’ casting,’ but we are pushing for greater diversity; and this is a good way to do that.”

When it comes to the kind of diverse runway that fans of fashion have long been demanding to see (one where race, dress size, gender, age, religion and ability are represented), this first phase of a shift is meaningful, but it’s the continued practice of more inclusive casting season after season that’s key. Agency-signed pro or “non model” doesn’t matter so much as the message: there isn’t one single kind of beauty. And what I hope is that these changes, however minutely, will help to change fashion’s narrow view of the ideal.

Feature collage by Edith Young with photos via Vogue Runway and Heritage Images/Getty Images. Slideshow images via Vogue Runway. 

Pandora Sykes

Pandora Sykes

Pandora Sykes is a contributing editor at Man Repeller, freelance journalist, stylist and consultant of She is also the co-host of the weekly news/pop-culture podcast The High Low. Follow her on Twitter @pinsykes @thehighlowshow and Instagram @pandorasykes.

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