Leyna Bloom and I used to shop at the same H&M, the massive, multi-level store that opened on Chicago’s State Street in the early 2000s. We didn’t know each other, or even know of each other, but shopping at H&M in the early aughts proved to be momentous for both of us. Bloom was in the early stages of her modelling career, choosing “cutting edge” pieces to show off back on the South Side. I would save my babysitting cash and trek to the store with my best friend, filling shopping bags with beaded tops and miniskirts, and eventually khaki shorts and boys’ button-up tops — the type of clothing I thought was required to show the world that you’re a girl interested in other girls. I was much happier in paisley rompers and super-frilly halter tops, but figuring that out was part of the power of being able to afford, purchase, and replace my entire wardrobe, multiple times over. Though we led completely different, barely parallel lives, Bloom, and countless others with whom we may never cross paths, shared in this quest to express identity via personal style. A mission that, at least for us, eventually led to us living our respective dreams.
To celebrate that mission and H&M’s first Pride collection, we talked to three people who use their style to express their pride: Aaron Philip, a trans model and disability activist; HaraJuku, a multiculturally inspired drag queen; and Leyna Bloom, a model angling to be the first trans model of color to walk the most-watched runway show in the world. Read on for their inspiring stories, below.
Aaron Philip is a self-described “twinkly goth Y2K internet super tomboy princess.” The 17-year-old nonbinary trans model experienced a level of Twitter fame most of us can only fantasise about when she (Philip uses she/her and they/them pronouns) posted a headshot and test photos this past November. The stunning sartorial shot shows Philip posed in the wheelchair she has required for mobility since she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a toddler. It’s the type of evocative photo you keep coming back to, which may explain the 88K Likes, to date.
“I’m working diligently to become a successful model so I can provide a space and representation for Black, trans, and/or physically disabled bodies in the modelling industry,” says Philip. “I want to see models in wheelchairs go down big runways, see trans folk in big beauty campaigns, and have trans identity embraced in all its forms and shapes.”
Fashion and clothing, in fact, were and still are the key in Philip understanding her own gender-fluid identity. “For queer folk, especially, fashion has served as an outlet to be ourselves fully and authentically,” Philip says. “I love experimenting with what makes a look soft and elegant versus hard and heavy and combining those two worlds together for something interesting.”
To teenagers who want to follow in Philip’s success, in modelling or in any creative field, she recommends researching what you want to pursue, networking, and ultimately just trusting yourself to act on what feels right. “Take risks,” Philip says. “Everything else will fall right into place.”
“When I first started modeling as a teenager, people would say to me, ‘You’ll never go to New York City,’ or, ‘You’ll never be confident enough to do a shoot,’ or they'd ask, ‘Who do you think you are?’” Leyna Bloom recalls. “That was the fuel I needed to really go — I needed to prove to myself and to them that I could do anything I put my mind to.”
Since moving to New York City at age 17 from Chicago’s South Side, Bloom has walked the runways at fashion week, made headlines as the first trans model of colour to pose on the pages of Vogue India, and gone viral for her tweet encouraging the modelling industry to be more radically inclusive with its casting.
“I wasn’t trying to follow anyone or be the cool girl, I was just trying to get by and go to castings, knowing that one day it would pay off,” Bloom says. And it did. When Bloom first started in the fashion industry, “it was not inclusive at all,” she recalls, but persistence and refusal to compromise, by Bloom and her peers, has “awakened a whole new army of people.” She shares how honoured she feels to be modelling in H&M’s Pride line. “I love that they want to include everyone and make everyone feel loved. I’m glad that they’re taking a moment to appreciate pride.”
Walking on set to shoot for H&M Pride, Bloom loved seeing Philip’s parents at her side, which reminded her of the support her father gave her growing up. “I want to pay homage to all the parents out there who are supporting their children,” Bloom says. “Growing up in Chicago, no one wanted to have a gay or trans child, but my father never told me I was different. He told me I was special, that it was okay, and that I could accomplish anything. And I am: My parents’ dreams are living through me.”
When it comes to future projects, Bloom says, “My goal is to continue working with people who want to include everyone, people who want to see different faces, different bodies, different lifestyles, different narratives.”
Brian Diaz, a Brooklyn-based drag queen who performs under the name HaraJuku, started dressing in drag three and a half years ago, testing out his look for a 2014 Halloween party, “which was a mess,” Diaz recalls. But still, Diaz was intrigued by the multidisciplinary art form that required a mastery of hair, fashion, and makeup.
Upon figuring out that drag could be a profitable creative endeavor, HaraJuku “hit the clubs!” Reality TV personality Aja was one of the first queens HaraJuku ever saw perform in real life, and the established queen helped secure HaraJuku a spot on stage for the first time. Since, HaraJuku slays the New York drag scene on the regular.
“HaraJuku's style is a mix of anime and streetwear with a touch of Latina excellence,” Diaz says, shouting out that HaraJuku’s Latina side is an ode to Diaz’s Salvadorian brothers and sisters. “Kiss curls” are a signature part of HaraJuku’s look, plus chunky earrings and illustrative eye makeup.
“Fashion is a very big part of what I do. Clothes help create a fantasy for your audience, and I frequently try to create something that has never been seen before,” Diaz says. “Fashion is loud and so am I. I can wear a plastic bag and still feel expressive! It's not about what you wear, it's about how you wear it.”
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