Can Niche Modeling Agencies Help Fashion’s Diversity Problem?

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Fashion’s shortcomings in representing minorities are well documented. From the lack of nonwhite and transgender models on the runways to the scant number of faces who don’t conform to traditional beauty standards, the industry has a long way to go in terms of accurately depicting society at large. While everyone from designers to casting directors have taken the blame, modeling agencies are largely cited as the root of the problem. As the gatekeepers between models and the lucrative contracts that make them stars, agencies have the power to represent and advocate for underrepresented minorities, and many have been criticized for failing to fill their boards with women and men who fall outside the white, cisgendered norm that dominates most fashion imagery.

In recent years, a new breed of modeling agency has developed, fit to fight against fashion world norms: the boutique agency targeted toward minorities. Niche agencies have always played a role in fashion’s understanding of beauty—from Paul Rowland’s edgy Supreme Models ushering in the look of the early ’00s to Eva Gödel’s Tomorrow Is Another Day tapping into the zeitgeist with its array of lean, androgynous boys—but the newest ones take things one step further by answering fashion’s call for racial and gender diversity.

Leading the pack are London’s Lorde Inc, representing only nonwhite faces, and Los Angeles’ just-launched Apple Models, targeted toward transgendered models. Both agencies are new—Lorde Inc has been in existence for little over a year—and small in size, but they’re already chipping away at fashion’s norms. Lorde’s 60 models from a variety of ethnic backgrounds are routinely cast in indie magazines and campaigns, and the debut of Apple Models this week has made headlines across the world.

Whether these niche agencies will be able to influence the industry on a larger scale has yet to be seen. Working against them is the unflinching power of international agencies, who still retain sway over runways and editorials. There’s also the question of whether separating nonwhite and trans models into their own agencies is in itself discriminatory. Consider the plus-sized model debate—earlier this year a number of plus-size models urged for fashion to #droptheplus and consider all models equal. While the plus label was originally intended as a means to separate women into categories for the ease of clients, the term is now fraught with social implications. Agencies caught on quickly and several have been merging their plus rosters into their regular lineup. With minority models already a small part of most agency boards, the presence of agencies specifically targeted toward models of color and transgender models serves to reinforce the need for even more diversity in fashion. Regardless of whether these agencies succeed, their presence is likely to influence established agencies to expand their definition of beauty.

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