In a climate of immigration bans and building walls, the biggest names in 2017 make the case that there isn’t just one type of American girl—nor has there ever been.
What is a woman supposed to look like? Agnolo Firenzuola was certain he knew. In his influential 1548 treatise A Dialogue on the Beauty of Women, Firenzuola detailed the female ideal, specifying, for instance, the correct distance between the tip of the nose and the bow of the lip. “The true and right color for hair,” he wrote, “is a fair yellow.” As for ears, “a middle size is to be desired, with the shell finely turned.”
Firenzuola’s wonkish beauty decrees read as comical now. And yet: Has there ever been an era in which some beauty ideal hasn’t loomed large? In 1900, the paradigm was the Gibson girl, with her corseted wasp waist and waterfall of curls. A century later, women were flocking to salons for pin-straight blowouts and sweating through hot-yoga classes in pursuit of sinewy limbs and snake hips. The rules change, but there are always rules. What would happen if society threw the rule book away? What is beauty when no standard measure applies?
The cover of this magazine answers that question. One fine, brisk day, a stretch of private beach in Malibu finds an eclectic group of models posing together on the sand: Adwoa Aboah, Liu Wen, Ashley Graham, Vittoria Ceretti, Imaan Hammam, Gigi Hadid, and Kendall Jenner, who ducks briefly out of the view of a stray paparazzo and takes the opportunity to stretch her legs and muse. “This is my second Vogue cover, and to be sharing that not only with one of my best friends, but with all of these amazing women, is very meaningful for me,” she says. “With all that’s going on in the world, this cover makes such an important statement. It’s like, hey, we’ve got our differences, but those differences are beautiful. Everyone is beautiful.”
Each of these cover girls proudly inhabits her own particular gorgeousness in her own particular way. Together they represent a seismic social shift: The new beauty norm is no norm. And fashion, the industry that—yes—has historically done much to enforce beauty codes, is joining the movement. ¡Viva la revolución! All are welcome. Anything goes.
“Fashion today has no borders,” declares Michael Kors, one of the designers pushing this free-form beauty attitude. Kors’s casting at his spring 2017 show ran a gamut of age, shape, ethnicity, and relationship to conventional femininity, with the tomboyish Lineisy Montero sharing the catwalk with the ladylike Carolyn Murphy and sirens Cameron Russell and Romee Strijd. For Kors, the mix was absolutely the point.
“That fashion conformity, where all the girls are the same size and they’ve all got the same hairdo, it looks old-fashioned to me now,” he says. “What feels fresh and modern is a sense of surprise, like when you’re in the city, watching all kinds of people go by on the street. What eye candy!”
From his position as the standard-bearer for all-American sportswear, Kors notes that his embrace of heterogeneity has a political subtext, too. It points to the United States’ identity as a nation of immigrants and its core value, established in the Constitution, of free expression for all.
Let it Slip
Stella McCartney, hailing from the gloriously polyglot city of London, has a similar view. Like Kors’s approach to casting, hers goes beyond attending to “diversity”—a notion that implies there’s an inner circle of acceptable beauty that token outsiders are permitted into—and instead rejoices in multiplicity. She’s worked with Olympic athletes, musicians, and models from all over the world—many distinctive women, each with her own look and sensibility, every one celebrated by McCartney for her uniqueness. Call it casting pluralism.
“We work for women, to dress women, and our casting has to reflect that,” McCartney says. “For so long, women have been asked to look a certain way in order to feel attractive. We don’t believe in that. When we cast, we’re after interesting individuals that our customers can see themselves in.”
In terms of the way fashion operates, this shift toward variety marks as profound a transformation as when, half a century ago, the silhouette dictates from Paris ceded sway to the style news breaking on the street. As Elizabeth Wilson observes in her 1985 study Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, this was a postmodern turn, reflecting a splintered, nuclear-armed world; as she puts it, “for the individual to lay claim to a particular style” served as proof, amid an atmosphere of uncertainty, that the singular individual herself “does at least exist.” Back then, women were liberated to choose for themselves from a dazzling array of fashion options. Now women inhabiting a borderless, decentralized world are liberated to be themselves, and the options are limitless.
But what accounts for this change?
Numerous factors have converged to produce this moment. Globalization, for sure. Kors acknowledges the influence of urbanism, McCartney that of feminism. And Alexander Wang speaks for much of the fashion industry when he observes that “at a time when the notion of what it means to be ‘American’ is being hotly contested, it’s more important than ever for us to represent values of pluralism in our casting.” But the main force driving the great beauty shake-up is the rise of a generation of millennials who take these and other progressive “isms” for granted, and who, rejecting the divisive rhetoric in the current political discourse, are resolutely shaping the Zeitgeist to suit their inclusive spirit.
Gigi Hadid makes a pretty good exemplar for the millennial point of view. Between cover takes, snuggling into a bathrobe as a fierce breeze slices up the Malibu coast, the 21-year-old wonders aloud whether it’s actually been “the world holding fashion back,” and not the other way around.
“Most of the people I know in this industry,” Hadid says, “are compassionate and open-minded, and they appreciate creativity and originality. It’s like, can’t we just honor that? I mean, look around,” she continues, sweeping a berobed arm past her costars cavorting in the sand, and toward the motley gang of staffers tending the set. “These are the people actually making fashion. All types, all working together to make magic.”
Hadid isn’t the only one paying attention to people behind the scenes. Hood By Air and Vetements, two of the hottest brands around, find muses in their colleagues and close collaborators—and in Vetements’s case, the homage includes putting friends of the house such as designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, who looks like a punk Pan, and strapping, square-jawed stylist Lotta Volkova on the runway. A sense of community permeates both brands and extends to the inspiration each takes from their local milieus, in New York and Paris, respectively; their translation of those intimate references into the international language of style is aided by catwalk casting that mixes conventional models, compatriots, and people plucked from the neighborhood. For Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air, the objective is “believability.”
“My thing is, who can carry these clothes?” asks Oliver. “I love fashion fantasy, I genuinely do, but in order to create my fantasy, I need to put my collections on the kinds of people who would wear the clothes, the kinds of people who inspired the clothes in the first place. If I drop a supermodel into the show—just because—I’m forgetting my story. So what we do is, we make our own stars.”
One of those stars is Boychild. Now a staple of the Hood By Air runway, the performance artist made a forceful impression when she emerged at the brand’s very first show in 2013: Front-row denizens held their breath as she approached: this compact, muscular, assertively androgynous woman with white-out contact lenses and a glowing mouthpiece. A being alien to “fashion” had entered the building. But Oliver asserted Boychild’s right to be there—to be part of the fantasy. And in so doing, he vastly expanded fashion’s imaginative possibilities.
Other young brands in New York have followed Hood By Air’s lead: Chromat, Gypsy Sport, Eckhaus Latta, to name a few. And in Paris, Vetements affirms the significance of community in word and in deed: The brand was conceived as a collective, and to underscore that point, the team, headed by Demna Gvasalia, insisted on speaking as one when commenting for this story. Their words echo Oliver’s, but whereas he appeals to the dream life of fashion, the Vetements crew describe its process in reportorial terms, linking a preference for eclectic casting to a desire to represent, poetically, the facts on the ground.
“Vetements is based on a pragmatic approach,” their email reads. “It would be quite inauthentic for our collections to be shown only on traditional models, as we don’t see many of them on the street, walking around. We are interested in exploring and evolving the reality around us.”
From far left: Models Liu Wen (in a Prada turtleneck and Miu Miu shorts), Ashley Graham, Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Imaan Hammam, Adwoa Aboah, and Vittoria Ceretti (all wearing Prada).
In this story:
Hair: James Pecis for Oribe; Makeup: Dick Page for Shiseido
Manicure: Emi Kudo, Daria Hardeman
Tailor: Hasmik Kourinian for Susie’s Custom Designs, Lisa Sanders
Hood By Air and Vetements shows look very different. How could they not? Oliver is pulling from what he sees around him in Brooklyn, where club-kid glam rubs shoulders with hip-hop-inspired streetwear. Vetements—whose ranks include a number of Eastern European expats—holds a mirror up to its own scene, with its fusion of Parisian je ne sais quoi and aesthetics indebted to the gopnik, suburban Russia’s answer to the rude boy. Universes apart in sensibility as they may be, however, what links these brands is their hunger for reality.
That hunger has gone mainstream. The proof is everywhere: Look up, wherever you live, and you’re likely to see a mega-brand’s billboard ad featuring offbeat, street-cast models. Or look down at your phone, and you’ll find social-media campaigns like #girlin miumiu starring entrepreneurs, artists, street-style VIPs. Meanwhile, on the other end of the camera lens, a cottage industry catering to the demand for idiosyncratic faces has emerged. Midland Agency, cofounded by Rachel Chandler, has consulted for brands ranging from Helmut Lang to Hood By Air, and she, too, cites the influence of today’s youth on fashion’s new expansive mood.
“If you ask a young designer like Shayne about ‘diversity,’ all you’ll get is a blank stare,” Chandler notes. “This generation expects a mix—that’s what looks natural. And that’s why I’m convinced this evolution in casting, where it’s about energy and attitude as much as appearance, is a permanent change. As more of these young designers rise in the industry,” she points out, “the more their way of seeing will be brought to bear.”
Prabal Gurung is a designer for whom the commitment to change is personal. An immigrant, he came to America with little more than a dream; today, that dreamer dresses red-carpet celebrities and funds a foundation to educate girls in his native Nepal. But Gurung well remembers the feeling of being an outsider.
“I know what it’s like to be left out of pop culture, removed from what’s considered sexy or interesting,” he says. “Hearing Trump talk about building walls or launching Muslim bans, and witnessing him body-shaming women in the first GOP debate, that just makes me more adamant about using my platform to show the beauty of women of all ages, sizes, races, and nationalities.”
Designers aren’t the only ones pushing fashion in an all-embracing direction: It’s the models, too. Consider the career of Ashley Graham, star of Gurung’s current Lane Bryant ad campaign (“Belle Curve,” Talking Fashion, page 346). For years, Graham, 29, had been told that certain dreams were out of reach for “plus-size” models like her. Landing the cover of Vogue, for example. But Graham didn’t buy it. Anointing herself a surrogate and spokesperson for the legions of full-figured women who felt unseen—and earning legions of fans in the process—she has stormed fashion’s most formidable barricade: its cult of ultra-thinness. Today, as she enters the supermodel pantheon, Graham is convinced that the industry’s skinny worship is destined for the dustbin.
“Sixty-seven percent of the women in America wear a size 14 or larger,” says Graham. “Sixty-seven percent. Maybe you could ignore those consumers before, but now, thanks to social media, they’re making their voices heard. Women are demanding that brands give them what they want. And what they want is to be visible.”
Graham’s refusal to be marginalized on the basis of her shape has made her an icon for women—of whatever size—who seek to emulate her exuberant body positivity. The message she incarnates is a simple one: Ample curves are sexy. Note the reaction of her cover costars when, prepping for the shoot, Graham saunters into the dressing room in nothing but her skivvies.
“Girl,” comments Adwoa Aboah, eyeing her up, “only you could make Spanx look hot.” Gigi and Kendall, nestled together in a corner, nod in vigorous agreement. Vittoria Ceretti wolf-whistles. “Or, I don’t know,” Aboah adds, cocking her brow at Imaan Hammam. “I bet you could pull that look off, too.”
Sharp-witted Aboah is another channeler of the online throng. The founder of Gurls Talk, a Web- and Instagram-based platform for young women to share their hopes and fears, Aboah sees herself modeling less an image than a radically open mode of being. Though her wised-up take on the fashion scene betrays her background as a child of the industry—Aboah’s signature freckles were inherited from her mother, London-based superagent Camilla Lowther—she attributes her recent breakthrough success as a model to her embrace of vulnerability after a struggle with addiction and severe anxiety. Gurls Talk grew out of that experience.
“I never wanted it to be about me,” Aboah explains. “What I hope is that my expression opens up a space for other girls to say what they need to say. And maybe with my look, it’s the same thing,” she adds. “If you see a person showing herself fully and honestly, you feel liberated to do the same.”
Much has been written about the impact on fashion of social media—in particular the clout of models with millions of followers. Less remarked on is the way our sensibilities have been altered by the underlying structure of “the feed.” Scrolling through Instagram only to see endless iterations of the same basic thing would make for a dry pastime, indeed; thus we’re conditioned to seek out distinction and variety. We look for big, singular characters who will astonish and amuse us with dispatches from deep inside their worlds. And every sweep of the thumb across the screen, skipping from world to world, reinforces the idea that life is made richer by a mix of vividly different aesthetics, viewpoints, personae.
The feed trains us, too, to respect the vitality of societies other than our own. In an epoch where American teenagers follow K-pop stars and Indian beauty bloggers unknown in the States but with millions of devotees abroad, it’s impossible to persist in the belief that the West is the axis around which global culture turns. The model Liu Wen, even more famous in her native China than she is here, says she’s witnessed this shift over the short course of her own career. Noting that it followed the pattern for Asian models to break through in New York or in Paris and return home as stars—with Liu herself leveraging her fashion fame into pop-culture celebrity as one of the leads on a Chinese reality show—Liu feels that the paradigm has flipped in recent years.
“Many Asian models now have incredible recognition and success at home first, and then they start booking jobs internationally,” Liu says, explaining that for these girls, who are being sought out by Western brands, going West is a choice, not a professional imperative. “I think this stems, in part, from the rise of social media, which is connecting societies in new, intricate ways, and changing all of our perspectives.”
Fashion casting increasingly resembles the feed. Petite, bohemian India Salvor Menuez, who brings a book of Leanne Simpson’s poetry to the set, shares space with mixed-race Kardashian pal Jasmine Sanders, a great poster of gym selfies. There’s room for lanky, flame-haired Natalie Westling, who’s been skateboarding since she was three; lithe and aristocratic Ceretti; and half-Egyptian, half-Moroccan Hammam, with her curly mop of hair, her megawatt smile, and her catwalk stomp worthy of the nineties supers.
It’s instructive to look back at the era of Linda, Christy, and Naomi, now that models as a class have recaptured the public imagination. Whereas the nineties girls exuded a forbidding glamour, bewitching from behind the velvet rope, the stars of this generation seem more like pals waving you past the bouncer and into the club. Which raises the question: Does fashion work, can it seduce, if it surrenders its aura of exclusivity?
Or perhaps the question’s better put another way: Are we witnessing the emergence of a new mode of fashion enchantment that draws its power from the crowd?
Alexander Wang thinks so. He attributes much of the success of his brand to its unsnobbishness, and posits that other designers making an impact now share this egalitarian disposition. “I’ve always been uncomfortable with the connotations of luxury, like: There’s a tight guest list, and most people aren’t on it,” Wang comments. “Why should fashion be a party no one fun can get into? That seems so stuffy to me. When I throw a party, I want everyone to come as they are, and dance their ass off.”
Furthermore, as the heir to the role once played by Gianni Versace as fashion’s major model-lover, Wang contends that you can take the temperature of the times by studying the current crop of It-girls.
“Kendall Jenner and Adwoa Aboah, they’re very different, but that’s exactly what’s great about them,” Wang says. “What I’m drawn to is the girl who’s doing her thing, speaking her mind, in a way that’s cool and aspirational but also relatable. I know people think those qualities don’t go together, but a good collection, for me, has to be all those things. And the girls I cast, they embody that attitude.”
Cool, aspirational, relatable. That’s Gigi Hadid in a nutshell. And not only has this model-of-the-moment hit the millennial trifecta, she’s also a girl who didn’t need a revolution in beauty norms to be universally appraised as beautiful. Coltish, sloe-eyed, sun-kissed, and blonde, Hadid could be considered the classic all-American beauty—despite the fact that she’s half-Dutch, half-Palestinian. Or maybe because of it.
“It’s funny to me when people say that I’m this ‘girl next door’ because although I know I can come off that way, from another angle, I’m pretty exotic,” she says. “I mean, as different as Imaan and I look, we probably share DNA. If I’m ‘all-American,’ what does that even mean?
“But then again,” Hadid continues, “my parents came to this country as poor immigrants. So. . . . Maybe I’m pretty damn all-American after all. Not because of how I look but because I truly believe everyone should be equal and free.”