This year's Afterpay Australian Fashion Week (AAFW) has been touted as the most diverse it's ever been. And after previously reporting on diversity at the annual event in 2019, I was eager to examine how far fashion week has progressed in three years — a period of time during which the world has been rocked by the Black Lives Matter movement and a global pandemic.
A lack of racial diversity has been a point of critique in previous years, and it was only last year that for the first time in Australian fashion week history, a runway dedicated to Indigenous designers was featured at the event along with a Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony. This year followed suit with two shows — one helmed by the Indigenous Fashion Projects and the other by First Nations Fashion + Design, the closing night show.
Indigenous models like Samantha Harris, Nathan McGuire and Magnolia Maymuru made their way down the runway, just as various First Nations models featured in other shows throughout the week alongside models from other ethnic backgrounds.
In 2022, there's not been a single show without a person of colour on the catwalk, and we've also seen runways dedicated to plus-size brands, gender neutral collections and adaptive designs for people with disabilities.
Hanan Ibrahim, who made history in 2019 as the first hijab-wearing model at Melbourne Fashion Festival (MFF), walked at AAFW this year and is thrilled with the event's diversity.
"I walked the Afterpay show with models from all different ethnic backgrounds, with different heights, body sizes and shapes and with members of our disabled and LGBTQ communities in a space that recognises and respects us all," she tells Refinery29 Australia. "It was representation done right and all involved should be proud."
Having said that, Ibrahim believes there's still room for improvement within the Aussie fashion industry, especially in terms of representing Muslim women and modest fashion.
"I was the first hijab-wearing model at the event (MFF) and I’m still the only one unfortunately," says the Somali Australian. "I hope both Melbourne and Sydney fashion casting agents scout more Muslim women who do dream of being models."
Jennifer Atilemile, who walked for labels such as Bianca Spender, Bec & Bridge and Aje at this year's fashion week, recalls not seeing curvy women like herself in the fashion scene when she was younger.
"Growing up, I never saw people that looked like me in the industry, that I know led to a dysmorphic view of my body, and a real misunderstanding and appreciation of my culture and heritage, which kind of made me feel like I didn’t belong," says the model, whose father is from the French island of Reunion,
After moving to London some years back in search of modelling opportunities she couldn't find back home, she became the first Australian curve model to sign on to a Victoria’s Secret campaign in 2020.
Commenting on how the industry has progressed since then, Atilemile says, "I think we’ve started to see body diversity in high fashion, and I think they were the last domino piece to fall in order to be able to see real change overall.
"Especially couture, which is notoriously known for upholding outdated views on what the 'ideal fashion body' was, has included a diverse range of bodies."
But Atilemile still has some reservations. "I think a lot of people have an idea of what fashion should look like, and there’s still a lot of fatphobia in fashion," she claims.
"There’s a lot of tokenistic inclusion, like samples being made for the runway show (so brands don’t get kicked back for not being inclusive) but they don’t actually make the sizes for purchase in real life," she continues, not referring to AAFW but other runway events in general.
"There’s been myths debunked about it costing more to produce larger sizing, or that nobody would want to buy clothes if they made them, due to the fear of losing money. But I know if the option was given, they’d most likely be sold out of their larger sizing in a heartbeat. People who are bigger deserve to look and feel good too."
In terms of how AAFW has fared with size representation in 2022, Atilemile says, "I think this year it’s really evident that things are changing."
For the first time, a Curve Edit show was held at AAFW — a runway show platforming plus-sized clothing designers. The show was the brainchild of modelling agent Chelsea Bonner. Her agency Bella Management prides itself on having around 60 fuller-figured models on its books. Robyn Lawley, Stefania Ferrario and Milo Hartill were among the models who wore designs by six labels that offer a women's size range from 12 to 26.
The event was a cause for celebration, but Bonner says the need for a specific Curve Edit show also serves as a reminder that all runways need to be representative of diverse body shapes and sizes.
"I think the next step is the same as it's always been — and one that I've been pushing for since the beginning — which is to help brands and designers understand that... we are the mainstream fashion consumer, and we would like to be acknowledged and represented," she told CNN.
Meanwhile, designer Gary Bigeni, who first featured at Sydney Fashion Week in 2003 for a graduate showcase, says he's seen fashion week evolve over the past two decades. Proudly presenting a gender-neutral collection at AAFW, he says that fashion week is a "different ballgame" this year and he personally cast the diverse models in his show.
"I wanted to really focus on diversity in gender, age, culture and size and really represent that for my brand," says Bigeni. He shares that his brand is "open for anyone and everyone."
Bigeni notes that representation in the front row is just as important as on the runway, saying that he emphasised to his team that he wanted to invite guests from various walks of life that reflect the diversity of his intended customers.
"I gave them a big spreadsheet, because I feel it's really important that if I'm talking to a certain audience, I want them to be there," says Bigeni. "I don't want just anyone to be there. I want that representation."
Looking around as I attended shows during fashion week this year, I too noticed more diversity in attendees — journalists, influencers, photographers and fashion enthusiasts of various shapes, sizes, genders and cultural backgrounds. It wasn't the typical FROW of skinny, white blonde fashion editors that you'd see 10 years ago.
Last year's fashion week courted controversy when model and Paralympian Rheed McCracken had difficulty manoeuvring his wheelchair on the confetti-filled runway. This year AAFW held an adaptive fashion runway featuring the designs of JAM the label and Christina Stephens.
Emma Clegg and Molly Rogers, the founders of JAM the label, tell my colleague, Maggie Zhou that "the time's come" for disabled people to finally be seen at such an event.
"We are really excited for the disability community to see that not only are they being represented on the runway (which is super important) but that AAFW is taking it a step further and showcasing clothing that actually considers the disability community in the design process," they say.
When I spoke to Danielle Ragenard, the Vice President, Managing Director at IMG Models three years ago, she explained that it had "been a slow build to get to this point," where more brands were on board with featuring models from culturally diverse backgrounds. This year our conversation has obviously been about more than just racial diversity, so how have conservative clients reacted to the pressure to be diverse?
"Most designers and clients have really taken the opportunity to lean in and educate themselves so that they have a clear idea of how they can action diversity across their platforms," Ragenard tells Refinery29 Australia.
"For many years, we’ve educated brands behind the scenes on the necessity and benefit of including a broad range of talent throughout their imagery and it’s been great to see it finally come to the forefront here in Australia."
But how can we be sure such representation is authentic and not merely tokenistic? Ibrahim believes a holistic approach to fashion events will prevent casting that's just ticking a box.
"Representation and inclusion will never be genuine unless it is reflected across all levels of the event — planning, direction, organisation, talent and the institution itself."
She believes there's still a gap in representation behind the scenes, but the progress we've witnessed this year makes the future look promising.
"I do have hope though because of the changes I’ve seen of late."
For that reason, I hold a similar sense of hope and urge the industry: let's not wait until fashion week 2023 to further improve diversity and representation. Let's build on the blocks that were laid down this past week so all Aussies feel seen on and off the runway.