Diversity in Fashion makes sense from both Social and Business perspectives
Adding to a long list in which figure The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, MTV and CBS, Modeconnect is delighted to feature Dr Ben Barry, recently appointed Assistant Professor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Ryerson University School of Fashion. Ben is passionate about diversity in fashion; his message breaks new grounds in Fashion thinking. So hold on; Like Oprah Winfrey, you may well soon be saying: “Aren’t you something!”
In 1995, aged 14, Ben started the Ben Barry Agency, the first model agency in the world to represent fashion models of all ages, sizes, backgrounds and abilities. Since Ben has earned an Honours BA in Women’s Studies from the University of Toronto, a Master’s in Innovation, Strategy and Organization and a PhD in Marketing from Judge Business School, Cambridge, UK.
In 2008 Ben Barry was the first male to win the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case, for advancing the equality of women in Canada. Last but not least Ben acts as the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Fashion Incubator, the first ever Fashion Incubator. Created 25 years ago, the TFI is the world model for fashion incubation—inspiring similar incubators in over 20 countries, including South Africa, Australia, the UK, and the US.
Ben Can you tell us how you came to start your Model Agency?
It was not intended at all! When still a teenager, I had a friend who wanted to model, but she was regularly turned down. She was told that—at size 12—she was “too big.” Wanting to help, I sent her pictures to a magazine in my hometown of Ottawa. The magazine editor called me back; he wanted to hire my friend and asked whether I was her agent. She had none, I said yes!
My friend told her friends … beautiful young women who could not get an agent as they were told they didn’t have the right “look”, either “too big,” “too short,” “too ethnic” etc. To me, they were vibrant, charismatic and beautiful.
This accidental journey must be a little overwhelming for any 14 year old!
I had the chance to be mentored by Elite Models where I learned more about the industry and its ideal of beauty. I witnessed my friends compare themselves to fashion models and end up feeling awful about their bodies. This motivated me to try and eliminate this discrepancy between my reality and the ideal in fashion. Fashion should inspire and empower, not depress and discourage.
How did you go about getting booking for your friends if the industry was set against hiring them?
Today, 15 years later, my agency represents 200 models of all sizes, shapes, ages, races and abilities. They have worked with brands from Vogue to L’Oreal to Macy’s. Our success is due to our business approach. We explain how using models who reflect the physical and demographic traits of the brand consumers allows them, the consumers, to pictures the advertised products on their bodies. It inspires confidence and empowerment that transfers to the brand itself.
Before going to the UK to do complete Master and PhD, you already had significant education and industry experience. What did you seek to achieve?
I wanted to develop a strong theoretical and methodological expertise in marketing and consumer behaviour. Despite that the fact that fashion is an over 300 billion dollar (US) industry, it is easily written-off as academically insignificant. For my research to be taken seriously by creatives and business-minds alike, I knew it needed to be academically grounded and rigorously conducted.
Why choose the Judge Business School in Cambridge. What drew you to the UK?
Many academics at Judge Business School study the business of creative industries. The school has an innovative and creative approach to research that interested me. Indeed, the entire JBS community was incredibly supportive of my research.I had the chance to work under the supervision of marketing expert Dr. Simon Bell.
He became a mentor and a role model; the academic I aspire to be. I was also very excited to live in the UK. The idea of diversity in fashion, which is at the centre of my research, was ignited on the London scene. London’s energy, creativity and leadership in this area have been infectious. Meeting Susie Orbach, Caryn Franklin and All Walks, and British designers, photographers and fashion marketers informed my perspective and grounded my thinking.
So can you explain what you understand by diversity in fashion?
An inclusive fashion industry celebrates all people, irrespective of their sizes, ages, heights, races, abilities, and gender or sexual identities, as beautiful and fashionable.
Over time, the industry has excluded many types of beauties. There are many reasons for this exclusion, including out-dated economic theories, institutionalized industry beliefs, entrenched and oppressive cultural systems. Ultimately they led to the collective industry (designers, marketers, students, faculty, consumers etc.) perpetuating the dominant belief system instead of thinking critically about it and re-imagining it.
Most advocates for diversity in fashion mention health issues.
Psychologists argue that a culture that only celebrates excessive thinness is harmful as women internalize it as their own beauty standard. A similar problem happens with men but it receives much less attention. These health implications are critical, but fail to address the motivations of industry: Boosting the bottom-line. To be adopted, the diversify model needs to engage with this core objective of business.
So this is the reason you went to Business School.
Yes, I explored how diversity influences consumer attitudes and purchases. I examined how women in North American and Chinese change their consumer response for fashion when viewing models of different sizes, ages and races in advertisements. Body image is central to my work, but I went one-step further and used body image to try and understand consumer attitudes. I find that how we feel about our bodies from seeing models in fashion ads is also how we feel about the advertised brand.
Today the lack diversity in fashion is being challenged and changed. Each season, an increasing number of designers and magazines feature diversity. Indeed, the very fact the Ryerson created a specific post for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the School of Fashion demonstrates that institutions—such as Ryerson—are committed to being agents of change and this movement is here to stay. Diversity is the future of fashion.
What do you teach in your course?
I help students develop frameworks and skills that celebrate and promote diversity.
I aim to teach students how to answer this question through my lectures, studio workshops and assignments. The theories and ideas that I draw upon are interdisciplinary—because fashion is interdisciplinary. Fashion is history, fine art, design, gender studies, sociology, anthropology, psychology, marketing etc.
The question I ask is simple: How can fashion design and communication make people feel beautiful, confident and celebrated? I encourage students to adopt an intersectional approach. How each of us experience fashion emotionally and physically, is influenced by our multiple identity categories (size, age, sexuality, gender, nationality, ability etc.).
I begin teaching new topics by focusing on students’ real world experiences. I then integrate academic frameworks, encourage students to reflect and challenge those frameworks, and finally apply their ideas in practice. For example, for one of my assignments in Fashion Entrepreneurship (Fashion MA program), students develop a business model that targets a consumer segment who is currently excluded/marginalized by the fashion industry. This project begins with students’ lived experiences in order to help identify business opportunities. We then explore the various fashion business building blocks as well as actively challenge them. At the end of the course, students develop a business model based on their refined concepts and ideas.
Ben you serve as Chair of the Board of Directors for the Toronto Fashion Incubator. Tell us about the TFI.
Fashion entrepreneurs often have the most brilliant, creative ideas but often lack the business acumen to commercially realize them. This is where TFI helps. The incubator provides business mentorship, industry guides and contact lists, seminars, studio space at below market rates, and many other supports to help fashion entrepreneurs not only realize their ideas but also make a living off them.
TFI, like Ryerson’s School of Fashion, are the very foundation of Toronto’s fashion industry; without their rigorous training and business support, we would not have such a successful and exciting fashion industry in Toronto and Canada today. The continued success of the fashion industry in Toronto rests on their incredible efforts.
Ben Barry is currently writing a book (to be published in April 2014), based on his PhD research called Diversity in the Fashion Industry: Consumers, Models and Advertising. The expected publication date is April 2014.
His current research explores how male consumers in North America and China respond to diverse male models in fashion advertising.