Despite some exceptions, like the recent Barney’s advertisements that featured trans models, fashion continues to mimic other major industries in its consistent failure to represent certain bodies, identities and experiences—and when they are represented, they are often tokenized, fetishized, or mobilized towards generating controversy or promoting the ‘progressiveness’ of the brand (think: United Colors of Benetton).
It was in response to both the lack of diversity within fashion-oriented activities at Brown University and the homogeneity in the industry at large that Jasmine Bala ’16 and Kerlyne Jean-Baptiste ’16 organized the Wynn Project Show. Named after Zelda Wynn Valdes, who in 1948 became the first African American designer and store owner on New York City’s Broadway street, the show highlighted both designers and models from a range of ethnicities, backgrounds, and body types.
“I really appreciate what they’re doing,” said Sabya Ahamed ’17. “This creates an opening for people who might not be given space in the fashion industry—they can still express themselves here.”
The desire to organize the show was born out of Bala’s experience in a fashion show on campus, “It was a fun show, but it also felt like there was a very standardized concept of who would be modeling the clothes and the kind of designers they’d have.”
In searching for designers to participate, Bala and Jean-Baptiste “didn’t have quotas” for representation, Bala said. “We picked clothing that appealed to us because of its aesthetic sense and not only because of who the designers were.”
And the show was not limited to Brown students—many involved were from the Providence community, and a student from University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Cynthia Kyei-Akomeah, made a two-hour trip to participate. “I would like it to be bigger next year so more people can see what’s usually underrepresented,” she said
“I wouldn’t say representation in fashion particularly concerns me,” said O’sha Williams ’16, who is a member of United Black Women. “I assume representation for me is the same everywhere. But I love that this brings us to the forefront.
The show went beyond increased representation and visibility of the designers—models were also encouraged to express themselves, complicating the objectification of the bodies of models, who are often treated as mere hangers for the clothes. During their walk, models shared their reasons for participating with the audience, ranging from ‘because brown is beautiful’ to ‘for recovery.’ Ariel Stolz ’17, who was wearing clothes designed by Leanne Block ’12, told the crowd, “I’m Ariel, I’m biracial, and I walk for those who don’t know what to say when asked their ethnicity.”
Bala and Jean-Baptiste created a space and an opportunity for marginalized designers to share their work and to deconstruct harmful aesthetic barriers to modeling. The Wynn Project Show, which will be an annually reoccurring event, was a crucial intervention into the status quo of the fashion industry. While to some fashion may not seem like the most immediately important location for an intervention, fashion shores up issues—representation and expression—that are fundamentally political.