Hubert Burda Media

Real women are inspiring designers

Fashion gets real as designers and labels seek inspiration from regular women for their latest collections.

Regular women are giving models a run for their money. Instead of having models as muses for their latest Spring/Summer 2017 collections, a significant number of designers are turning to real women to inspire and embody their looks for the season.

In Paris, Chloé designer Clare Waight Keller was inspired by journalist Anne-France Dautheville, who was the first woman to motorcycle solo around the world in 1973. The resulting collection, featuring flat boots, ponchos and leather skirts and dresses, was a move away from the brand’s usual boho-feminine aesthetic and has been widely regarded as one of the highlights of the season.

“I was looking to take the Chloé woman somewhere else,” said Waight Keller after the show. “Somewhere tougher, more daring, more gritty. I was looking at motocross images and I found this amazing woman. She had such independence of mind, of spirit; she didn’t get visas or anything, she just took off on these incredible adventures. I want Chloé to tell a story and what better way than through a woman who really lived that free-spirited life?”

Chloé designer Clare Waight Keller was inspired by French journalist and writer Anne-France Dautheville.

In New York, even more labels turned the spotlight on regular women. The Yeezy fashion show, which traditionally starts with a performance art tableau, featured women standing in formation while clad in rapper-turned-fashion designer Kanye West’s signature nude-toned outfits. Many of them were civilians who had responded to an open casting call made by West. Over at J.Crew’s New York presentation, men and women of all shapes and sizes — they are employees, family and friends of designer Jenna Lyons — showcased the brand’s preppy-with-a-twist designs, giving the show a casually cool house party vibe.

Others who drew inspiration from regular women this season included Assembly New York and Raquel Allegra, who roped in two women’s basketball teams to model their collections in a joint presentation, as well as Eckhaus Latta, which cast fans into their show.

While fashion designers have always turned to personal friends for inspiration, many of them tend to be celebrities who happen to run in the same chic circles as the designers — think actress Kristen Stewart for Karl Lagerfeld or Audrey Hepburn for Hubert de Givenchy. But this season marks a discernible shift in the fashion industry, as designers look for more relatable muses that their customers may be able to better identify with.

Of course, it is New York Fashion Week, often considered the most commercially inclined of the four major fashion weeks, that is setting this trend. Daniel Boey, fashion director and founder of website, observes: “I think these designers have their heads screwed on right by demonstrating that they can marry the creative with true business sense.” In an era when even the affluent are eschewing conspicuous consumption for investment-worthy luxury, this is a canny move that allows designers to “create a greater bond” with their clients and to achieve “greater authenticity”, he notes.


Jenna Lyons and her "real" models at the J.Crew presentation during New York Fashion Week in September.

Unlike professional clotheshorses, whose job description is to look good in just about anything a designer puts on them, the dynamics when designers work with non-model women can be a little different. Often, these women collaborate with designers to showcase their unique sartorial preferences and inject their own individuality into the clothing.

For instance, J.Crew’s “models” put together their own looks for the presentation and wore their make-up as they normally would, instead of having the creative director decide on a specific make-up style, which is a norm at fashion shows. Lyons, creative director and president of J.Crew, told The Cut: “This was not about us telling them how to look; this was us looking at them and saying: ‘How do you feel, beautiful?’”

Asian designers, too, are forging ever closer ties with their clients. When Crystal Wagar, wife of Kirk Wagar, the US ambassador to Singapore, attended The White House State Dinner for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Washington, DC, she wore an outfit by Ong Shunmugam.

Priscilla Shunmugam, founder and designer of the brand, worked closely with Wagar to create an outfit that would both flatter Wagar while making a statement. To convey Singapore’s melting pot history and heritage, as well as in a nod to President Barack Obama’s Indonesian ties, Shunmugam’s interpretation of the Indonesian and Peranakan kebayas was made with rare Indonesian batik, French lace, Japanese crepe and Cambodian songket fabrics. The designer also added a peplum made with Indian brocade to complement Wagar’s figure. The result was a one-of-a-kind outfit that fully embodied Wagar’s personality and sense of style — and conveyed a deeper message to boot.

Working with non-models do come with certain challenges, but the most creative designers see this as an opportunity to be inspired to greater achievements instead.

Couturier Francis Cheong says: “I think many people tend to focus on the parts of their body that they are most insecure about, for example, flabby arms or tummies. So the first thing a designer has to do is to acknowledge their issues and then exercise creativity to represent their personalities, while showcasing their strengths and enhancing their perceived ‘imperfections’.”


A look from Ong Shunmugam.

On a deeper level, this trend is reflective of a shift in societal standards towards more inclusive standards of beauty.

In one of the most profound moments at fashion week, 19-year-old Reshma Qureshi, a survivor of a vicious acid attack, flew to New York from India to model in a fashion show. She wore clothes designed by Indian designer Archana Kochhar, a favourite of Bollywood stars, and walked the runway to loud cheers from the audience of journalists and industry insiders.

Qureshi told The Independent UK that she did this to show that inner beauty and personality transcends one’s external appearance. “That is all that should matter,” she said.

Qureshi’s is an extreme example, but the truth is that the international fashion industry has only recently begun to celebrate a wider definition of beauty by offering a better representation of various skin tones and body types on the runway. And insiders say this is a good move for the industry.

“Fashion is meant to inspire, not divide,” says Boey. “Anyone — photographers, stylists and fashion directors included — can make a tall, beautiful, lanky girl with perfect features look gorgeous. But it takes a certain skill to make someone of a different proportion or with less-than-perfect features look the same. So kudos to designers like Christian Siriano and Zac Posen for creating pieces for real-sized women that are as dramatic and glamorous as the ones in size zero.”

Dr Jade Kua, a consultant at the department of emergency medicine at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Singapore, is one fashion patron who has developed a close relationship with fashion designers over the years. When purchasing or commissioning new apparel for her wardrobe, she picks form and functionality over passing trends. She says: “I think it’s respectful when designers understand that real women work hard for their money and are willing to spend on outfits that are perfect for them, rather than chase aspirational trends that do not translate well into their reality.”

She recently wore a custom-made Ong Shunmugam Peranakan-inspired gown to a society ball, which she says “checked all the boxes”. Speaking candidly, Kua says she appreciates the fact that more designers today are creating pieces with real women in mind: “I appreciate clothes that actually fit me, rather than pieces that have to be altered because I do not have a perfect runway model’s body. I also prefer clothes I can be comfortable in when I laugh, eat and dance.”

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