Picture a billboard for a couture designer. You’ve probably imagined a picture of an image featuring lithe, beautiful people right? They’re probably mostly white, or so overexposed by flashbulbs as to appear to be. Their skin’s likely a single smooth colour. If it’s a mixed gender group, there’s probably some intimation of sexuality. If it’s a same sex group it’s probably still there, but probably so is some irony that suggests it’s all just a bit of fun. This is how fashion has been sold for the last two decades.
But things are changing, as control over the image, and access to an audience, has slowly slipped away from the behemoths of the media industry. Models outside of high fashion’s conception of “marketable” are taking control of their image and capitalising
on the influential mass of engaged couture fans on social media. Suddenly, aspiring models are just a few massively ‘liked’ and ‘reblogged’ photos away from the kind of exposure only previously offered by a Vogue spread. They’re shaping their own identities and cultivating a following that provides a real, legitimising, measure of their popularity.
Tumblr has been vital in this struggle. The blogging service’s ease of sharing content has attracted audiences of socially conscious youths who engage with minority communities, and an audience searching for beautiful images and iconography. The effect? A cross-pollination of aesthetics and activism, a blend of marginalised, discerning, taste-making demographics hungry to support each other in demanding high profile representation. A Tumblr feed brings a diverse range of aspiring models to the fore. Their following then spills over onto Instagram, where the model shapes their branding, as their audience swells with every click of the ‘Follow’ button. In a culture where attention is perhaps the most valuable commodity, the under- dog has created its own spotlight.â€¨
So what’s the result? Well, last week, @jarlos420 became the first real-life gay couple signed to a modelling agency, starring in the DKNY campaign, a huge victory in an industry that is obsessed with homoeroticism but conflicted about homo- sexuality. Elsewhere, the fashion industry is being challenged by Tumblr favourite @winnieharlow, who has vitiligo, but more importantly a following of 682, 000 and contracts with Diesel and Desigual. Meanwhile Albino models Shaun Ross and Diandra Forrest have a combined reach of a quarter of a million.
Andreja Pejic’s Instagram account has reached 104,000 followers after her break from the industry last year to undergo gender reassignment surgery. She has most recently walked for Giles at London Fashion week, and having just won a huge cosmetics contract, will be the first transgender model ever profiled in Vogue. Meanwhile Calvin Klein model Myla Dalbesio is challenging size-zero casting with her 15,000 followers, as is Stefania Ferrario with her following of almost 100,000. Whilst these numbers may pale in comparison to those of Vogue’s more conventional “Instagirl” September cover stars, which highlighted Cara Delevingne and her ilk with their millions of followers, they’re a vital foothold in the industry, a tangible, exploitable, persuasive reason for audience- hungry fashion houses to cast less traditional models in their campaigns.
But the fear lingers that an Instagram following as a basis for a modelling career is a little like foundations built in sand. As easy as a following can be to amass, it can be just as easy to lose. And as always with fashion, things can fall out of style in a season. But for those hungry for diversity, the best they can do is seek it out, and give it their likes, their pennies, and their attention. Then perhaps eventually that billboard might not be quite so easy to imagine.