The Authentic Model Movement

Brands Are Looking for Relatable Models That Are A Better Reflection of Their Diverse Customer Base

When we hear the term fashion model, I’d be willing to bet that most of us conjure up images of svelte young women strutting the catwalk in size-0 (or even smaller) couture designs, a look of mild disdain on their flawless faces.

Retailer Aerie’s groundbreaking move to go unretouched and curvy in its #AerieReal campaign may have been responsible for parent company American Eagle Outfitters’ 7 percent sales growth last year.

Well, we just might need to rethink our perceptions, because the face of modeling today might have a few wrinkles, be a bit fuller around the cheekbones, or even have features that were once thought unsettling. Who are these new models, and what’s the thinking behind their entree into the world of high fashion?

In Praise of Older Women

In recent years a veritable who’s who of seniors has graced print and TV ads in campaigns for cosmetics to high-end couture. The year 2015 saw 80-year-old novelist Joan Didion modeling for French fashion house Céline, 71-year-old singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell fronting Saint Laurent, 69-year-old actress Helen Mirren and former 1960s icon Twiggy (the “mod” doe-eyed Londoner is now a 65-year-old grandmother!) representing L’Oréal, and 63-year-old actress Anjelica Huston owning Gap’s “Dress Normal” campaign. They joined such other golden girls as Catherine Deneuve, who, at 71, modeled last year for Louis Vuitton; Jessica Lange, 65, for Marc Jacobs Beauty; and 93-year-old style legend Iris Apfel for Kate Spade.

Is this just a nod to the aging boomer generation? Actually, yes, and a pretty smart and calculated nod at that. Emma Bazilian wrote in Adweek: “Brands know that along with age comes buying power. … baby boomers reign supreme, controlling more than 80 percent of all financial assets and accounting for 60 percent of consumer spending.” The article noted that people over 60 make up the fastest-growing group of consumers in the world, and that in the United States, the average worth of households that include people over 50 is $765,000. Bazilian quoted Jenny Darroch, professor of marketing at the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont University: “There’s a growing awareness of the influence of older women as consumers and the purchasing power that they have. Brands are recognizing that this demographic is an important one.”

“On platforms like Instagram and Twitter, women who have for so long felt ignored by mainstream fashion are finally able to have a voice.”

British department store Harvey Nichols had a somewhat different motivation for selecting centenarian Bo Gilbert to grace an ad it placed in the May issue of British Vogue. Looking a good three decades younger than her 100 years, the perfectly coiffed Gilbert sported oversized Valentino glasses, a Victoria Beckham blouse, a fuchsia Dries Van Noten coat, Céline heels, and crisp, cream-colored pants from The Row. She appeared in the campaign in celebration of the magazine’s 100th birthday. As someone who’s seen more than a few apparel trends in her lifetime, Gilbert observed how fashion has evolved through the years, recalling how she was taken aback the first time she saw a woman wearing a pantsuit, and remembering when women always wore hats, often bedecked in feathers and tilted jauntily to one side.

Plus-Size Minus Body Shaming Equals Savvy Marketing

Sports Illustrated caused a bit of a stir earlier this year when it featured Ashley Graham on the cover of its iconic Swimsuit Issue. The curvy size-16 model appeared in a purple and gold string bikini, the waves on a Turks and Caicos beach lapping at her legs. “Beauty is not cookie cutter,” SI assistant managing editor MJ Day said. “Beauty is not ‘one size fits all.’” Graham joined UFC star Ronda Rousey and Hailey Clauson as this year’s troika of SI swimsuit cover girls. “All three women are beautiful, sexy, and strong,” Day remarked. “Beauty is all around us and that became especially obvious to me while shooting and editing this year’s issue.”

How do you get a perfect bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. #AerieREAL

A post shared by aerie (@aerie) on

The 28-year-old Graham has gone on to appear on the cover of Maxim magazine and has been featured in ad campaigns for Lane Bryant, Swimsuits for All, and Revlon, among others. Graham’s star is clearly rising, and her ascendency lands her alongside fellow plus-size women Robyn Lawley, who has modeled for Barneys and Lauren by Ralph Lauren; Tess Holliday, who was featured in People magazine’s body issue last year as the world’s first size-22 supermodel; and Precious Lee, who showed off her curves in a Christian Siriano show this spring.

Retailer Aerie’s groundbreaking move to go unretouched and curvy in its #AerieReal campaign may have been responsible for parent company American Eagle Outfitters’ 7 percent sales growth last year. “Our customers have been responding positively to our brand message since we launched the #AerieReal campaign,” Jen Foyle, Aerie’s global brand president, told Refinery29. The company, in turn, has seen a steady growth in sales, to the tune of 26 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015. Iskra Lawrence, the 25-year-old British model who donned Aerie lingerie for the company’s print and online ads, took to social media to encourage women to accept their bodies and challenge body shamers. “When someone sees an image of a woman, it makes them feel a certain way about themselves,” she said. “I want to show these girls that I’m real just like them.”

“There’s a growing awareness of the influence of older women as consumers and the purchasing power that they have.”

Why are brands and media outlets embracing larger women, when for years they were represented by more traditional, willowy models? In the U.S. at least, women (and men) are getting bigger. In 1960, the average American woman weighed 140 pounds. Today, she’s closer to 166 pounds and wears a size 14—one size shy of Ashley Graham’s current size. Media outlets and brands are taking notice. “The bottom line is that 50 percent of American women are a size 14 or above, so that means magazines [that aren’t including plus-size fashion] are willfully ignoring 50 percent of their readership,” Redbook editor in chief Meredith Rollins told Adweek’s Bazilian.

In the case of Aerie, the brand simply started paying attention to what its followers were saying. ”[The company] listened to what our customer was telling us—they wanted to see ‘models’ they could relate to and understand,” Foyle told BuzzFeed. “Our customers want honesty and they want to be heard. Social media has allowed us to engage with our girls in a whole new way. We don’t believe in flaws and believe real beauty should be shown in a natural, unaltered way.”

These moves by Sports Illustrated, People, and Aerie follow a broader authenticity trend that includes Dove’s “Real Beauty” ads and Women’s Running magazine covers depicting plus-size, yet obviously active, female runners. There’s definitely a social media element at play here as well. Adweek’s Bazilian observed: “On platforms like Instagram and Twitter, women who have for so long felt ignored by mainstream fashion are finally able to have a voice. They’re sharing body-positive selfies and hashtags, following plus-size bloggers … and letting brands know exactly what they think.”

Ability, Not Disability

In yet another move toward authenticity and inclusiveness, we are now seeing more individuals with Down syndrome in print, TV, and online ads.

Hair-care brand Beauty & Pin-Ups recently chose 32-year-old Katie Meade to promote its Fearless hair-care products. Meade, a former Special Olympics athlete, was selected as the embodiment of the brand’s “fearless” message. “As we were launching this product, in our mind it could have been the next traditional pin-up, but as soon as we came up with the name ‘Fearless’ it was really easy. We were like, ‘Well Katie’s fearless,’” the company’s CEO, Kenny Kahn, told People. While she’s honored to be an ambassador for the brand, Meade hopes women grasp the bigger picture. “People see me for who I am, and they see me not as someone with a disability, but that I have ability,” she said. “And I like to try new, different things, and I inspire women to do that. Beauty belongs to everybody.” As Britton Marketing & Design Group copy manager Chip Compton wrote in “Maybe We’re More Similar Than You Think,” a blog about disabled models, “The interesting thing is that their differences aren’t highlighted as much as the sameness that we all share.”

Model diversity and authenticity

Meade follows in the footsteps of 19-year-old Australian model Madeline Stuart, who walked the runways during New York Fashion Week and starred in a bridal photo shoot at a bucolic wedding venue in northern Virginia. The Huffington Post called the photos “nothing short of beautiful.” Meade insisted on becoming a model while attending a fashion show a year ago with her “mum.” In a post on her daughter’s website, Mum Rosanne wrote, “Of course this meant that I had to explain to her that she couldn’t just climb up on the stage and model, which didn’t go down well, as you can imagine. But I also knew at that moment that my daughter was going to do something special.” And special things she has done, losing 40 pounds en route to signing contracts with cosmetic company Glossigirl and apparel brand Living Dead Clothing, and sharing her story on the Today show.

Maxx-ing Out the Genuine Factor

Retailer T.J.Maxx recently debuted a TV and online spot that enthusiastically embraces this trend toward portraying women in a genuine light. Asked “Who inspires you?” the real-life women in the ad—including, among others, a plus-size woman, an older woman, and the mother of Lily, a young girl with Down syndrome—speak from the heart as they describe their sources of inspiration. Each woman has a compelling message, but young Lily steals the show when she says, “It feels really good to be in the spotlight. I love it a lot.”

And we love T.J.Maxx and other brands for shining that spotlight on the new face of modeling. We are inspired and impressed.

Photos/Embeds: Shutterstock, TimeInc.net, Instagram, Twitter

Marcia Kirlin

Marcia Kirlin

There’s a good chance you’ll find copy editor Marcia Kirlin with her nose in a book, preferably one with paper pages you turn the old-school way—and are occasionally even dog-eared. Gasp!

Meet Marcia Kirlin