Fashion Art Toronto – (Un)Doing Gender in Fashion
“We act as if that being of a man or that being of a woman is actually an internal reality or something that is simply true about us, a fact about us, but actually it’s a phenomenon that is being produced all the time and reproduced all the time, so to say gender is performative is to say that nobody really is a gender from the start.”
– Judith Butler
“We’re all born naked and the rest is drag”
– Ru Paul
“A homosexual man is a man 100 per cent. He does not need to dress homosexual. When homosexuality is exhibited to the extreme – to say: ‘Ah, you know I’m homosexual,’ – that has nothing to do with me. A man has to be a man.”
– Giorgio Armani
As constant as death and taxes, changes are afoot in the world of fashion. The face of gender is changing. Although the Globe and Mail reports androgyny as being the latest hot concept in fashion, there is no shortage of history concerning gender variance, androgyny and sexuality in fashion and popular culture. Cisgender icons such as David Bowie, Grace Jones, Tilda Swinton, Boy George and Lady Gaga have all utilized the subversion of gender in making their mark on the world of entertainment. More recently, rather than looking to these cisgender men and women who play with gender at its surface, as fashion shifts away from demarcating gender, mainstream media has shifted towards celebrating transgender men and women with very firmly marked gender identities.
Transgender models such as Lea T, Andreja Peijic and Jenna Talackova have been snatching titles and stomping runways on the world stage. Laverne Cox was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Janet Mock’s autobiography became a bestseller, Candy Magazine (named for Warhol Superstar Candy Darling) featured a group of the world’s biggest transgender names on it’s 5th Anniversary cover, and Aydian Dowling could be Mens’ Health first transgender cover model later this year. Currently, legislative debates across North America ask people to question what passes for male and female in the “privacy” of a public washroom (get your laws off my jock yo). These media representations of what could be considered “positive” trans role models, as well as the legislative debates, are bringing the idea of gender fluidity to the forefront of Western public consciousness and challenging traditionally held notions of body, identity and gender presentation.
Andreja Peijic’s career is an interesting case study of the interplay between identity, body and presentation in the fashion world. The Fashion world loved Andreja Peijic because as a model she blurred boundaries and challenged categorization. She walked for both men’s and women’s collections, and even had her “male” (this was before she transitioned) nipples censored in a publication. Her androgyny, as well as her undeniable beauty, became a fetishized commodity. Peijic’s career as an androgynous model ultimately complicated her freedom to express her gender. In spite of being warned off losing “ what’s special about (her)” Andreja went through with her transiton, but only once she underwent SRS (Sex Reassignment Surgery) did she declare herself a female model. In contrast, Carmen Carrera came out as trans, pursued a career as a female model, and declined to comment on the present structure of her genitalia. What many people fail to recognize is that while these beautiful women are being celebrated in the mainstream, marginalized trans women (especially trans women of colour) are dying at epidemic rates, often in violent circumstances, or at their own behest.
Of the quotations listed at the beginning of this feature, the most prescriptive and alienating of LGBT people comes from a king in the fashion industry. Fashion both produces and polices the way people do gender. The way we dress is the most salient way we signify to others in our community who we want to be recognized as. With recent runway show exhibiting less structured difference in their designs for men and women, how will this affect the way we do gender next season?
The New York Times described this trend towards de-gendering fashion as “the Great Gender Blur”. Is fashion moving away from it’s interest in those who ‘cross the line’ by erasing the line itself? Or are gender variant, queer and trans people just as on the edge of trend as they have been? And is this a negative or positive phenomenon for queer and trans visibility in mainstream media? I sat down with a group of queer and trans designers and models all presenting at this weeks Fashion Art Toronto (FAT) to get their take on what gender means in fashion today.
JV: Tell me a bit about your experience of gender and gender identity.
MINA SMART (Designer – House of Etiquette): I identify as a woman. A transgender woman. As long as I can remember, I’ve identified this way. Even before I had the language to express it.
MYLES SEXTON (Model/Creative Director – NORD Magazine): Personally my experience with gender and gender identity has been really quite label-less I felt that iI never really identified with any gender specifically. I found myself finding inspiration from all genders. I guess I’ve never been one for labels anyway.
VICTOR KEITA (Model/Designer – vKeita): I identify as a gay man, I see gender as fluid and not fixed.
JAYJAY KINGS (Model): For me gender identity and gender roles were questioned early on. Growing up I watched my mom take on both roles as a parent. She worked full-time and took care of my brothers and I, making sure above anything else we felt like a normal family. I think seeing this, a strong female, take on tasks that are seen for men made me more aware of gender roles, and how opinion based they are.
BRANDON KEIR (Designer – Brandon Keir): I enjoy wearing lipstick and makeup. I have been wearing makeup since I was 15 years old and people always make comments about how makeup is for girls. Well, I am a man. I think everyone should accept themselves, do what they want and be free! That’s the reason I have decided not to attach my designs to any one gender.
MATTHEW NGAN (Model/Designer – M-LINE): I love the way gender and gender identity is evolving in today’s culture. I mean, drag, boys and boys, girls and girls are not phenomenons of 2015, I’m talking about bearded female supermodels and stilettoed-boy dance groups. As a boy growing up in the 90’s and 00’s, I’m really identifying with these groups, and it’s inspiring.
LUNA SAINT LAURENT (Model): I feel like I’ve never really conformed to my assigned gender now that I look back on all of it. Sure, today I’m more free and fearless, but I’ve always embraced my femininity. I definitely have had my moments where I feel like I should be more masculine, but then it all just seems so contrived.
JV: How do you think your own gender identity influences your work?
MiS: I have always loved the optics of strong women, almost formal looking women. Ashley (my partner) and I have had our work referred to “Sexy secretary apparel, if secretaries wore latex BDSM club-wear”. I’m not sure if that’s a product of my gender identity or not, but it’s certainly prevalent in everything I’ve designed. Prior to being an out and proud trans woman (being a closeted, shy, trans woman) I felt far more limited than I do today. I had been afraid to explain my interest in designing clothes primarily for a femme look. Being out and trans has freed me from my self-imposed boundaries of what it was okay for me to express and enjoy in my work.
MyS: When I was a child I was so lost and confused because I was raised in such a small town it’s almost quite brain washing when your are told from birth that there is only one way a man should live is life. I think that their are many other individuals like myself who don’t really choose a gender label. I want to really push this new idea of breaking gender norms and just living life creative and free. Through my work I think that gender is very blurred in everything I do. I want people to see that there is more than just being Male and Female.
JK: I believe being encouraged and able to be myself 100% by my mom allowed me to be almost blind and naive to what others set as normal. This allowed me to gravitate towards women’s clothing and how I could take them and wear them as a boy. I am now able to use that naivety to allow myself the freedom to be more creative and open when modeling taking on the spectrum of gender roles and identities.
VK: It allows me to conceptualize and express ideas that demonstrate the fluidity of gender.
BK: My line is not about gender. Anyone can wear my pieces whether it be a dress, skirt or pants. I want people to be able to express themselves through my clothes no matter who they are.
MN: Things are changing these days but there still are not a lot of interesting fashion choices for a thin effeminate guy like me. So, my designs are for me and other people like me. I love to show a peep of skin any chance I get, and you will definitely see skin on the runway. In modeling I like to keep my walk very “feminine” or “masculine” with swag. I still feel like there are strong associations in our society about what is feminine and what is masculine. I like using those ideas and then bring them together in a fun and entertaining way. I hope that when people see my clothing, style and performances, they can see how the gender roles we’ve made can be shared.
LSL: From a creative perspective I’ve always tried to push the boundaries when it comes to gender. I never limit myself to what I can and can’t do or what I can and can’t wear. Personally, it’s all fair game. It’s also quite exciting generating some kind of reaction from people, whether it be good or bad. They’re reacting, which means there’s something to talk about here.
JV: What challenges, if any, have you faced in the fashion industry due to your experience of gender?
MyS: I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Europe to model and it’s a real struggle getting agencies to believe in you when my look is far from a typical male model. People don’t like to take risks when it comes to models in the fashion industry so its always been up to me to be my own agent for many years and show the world a new side of perhaps what you could consider masculine.
MN: As a model it’s hard to approach modeling agencies, because as a male that doesn’t have the body of A&F model I want to do more high fashion or androguns modeling. Most agencies that I have gone too have only wanted to model me as a boy, or wanted me on their agency because there is a shortage of Asian male models. So I came to conclusion to myself that it’s just better to look for casting myself than try to be with an agency.
JK: There will always be challenges based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. I find that although the fashion industry is open to the LGBTQ community as participants, it is still very reserved (at least in Canada) as far as what a model looks like. There are certain requirements (height, weight, fitness levels) for male and female models which play into archaic ideals of what a gender should look like, making it very difficult for me to fit into either.
BK: The biggest challenge I have faced so far is trying to explain that I am using all types of females, including drag queens as models in my show, and a lot of people don’t immediately understand my vision. However, I am here to make a statement and show people exactly what my vision is by bringing it to life on the runway this year at FAT.
LSL: I’m actually quite new to the industry. I’ve always wanted to be a part of it but never knew where I fit in, where to start, or how to break into it. First impressions are the only impressions. I haven’t faced any challenges thus far, but I’m prepared for all the opinions people will have. I feel as though the fashion industry gets a bad rep at times. It’s actually a very forward thinking and welcoming industry. It’s just a matter of timing and what the people are ready for, but I think Diana Vreeland said something about giving the people what they didn’t know they wanted.
JV: How do you feel about the trend toward androgyny, gender blending and what the New York Times described as “the great gender blur” in the fashion industry?
MN: I think it’s amazing! Why limit yourself by conforming to what most people consider the norm? I think this trend stems from people beginning to understand and accept that gender is about more than just identifying as male or female. So much of what influences and inspires me comes from this. It’s my life! To me I think androgyny has always been in fashion. Trends in fashion are definitely influenced by shifts in public perception.
BK: I am obsessed with the androgyny and gender-blending that is going on. When I first started school I was considered androgynous, and it’s been amazing to see beautiful people represent both genders or just be a genderless canvas for fashion to create on.
LSL: I don’t see it as a trend, it’s a way of life that deserves to be tapped into and catered to. I think it comes from people really wanting to be brave and identify themselves as individuals. There’s a huge trend in the industry based around clothing that doesn’t conform to one gender. There are clothes out there now that are made for those who don’t want to be put into a gender box. I think it’s the future.
MyS: I think that we live in an Era where gender is becoming the new racial equality movement around the world. As much as we can say that androgyny is becoming a trend in present time we must not forget the many eras before us, like the Glam Rock movement. Androgyny always existed. Now we are just seeing more men leading the forefront of androgyny, as opposed to how many women really pushed it in the past. In the fashion industry the menswear industry is really one of the only parts of fashion left that can really grow and expand creatively because its been so repressed.
JK: I feel like there is constant growth within the fashion industry in which trends like “the great gender blur” are created and accepted. I am ecstatic when I see androgynous/trans models on the runway. However with that being said, I fear that this trend is an attention grab and will be replaced by something else more “groundbreaking” next season. To me what would be groundbreaking would be seeing androgynous and trans models walk the runway and society not feel the need to label it a trend or create a Buzzfeed about it. If we could see androgynous/trans models as we see everyone else, at the same level as everyone else I think that would be truly groundbreaking.
MiS: I don’t think fashion’s interest in androgyny and gender bending is sincere. Women with strong brows, and men in femme-cut pant suits isn’t androgyny. Androgyny at its core is sexual ambiguity. I would feel hard pressed to identify anyone on a mainstream fashion runway as ambiguous. I don’t think it can be argued that fashion has an interest in transgender issues. Hari Nef has said “Fashion is having a moment with trans aesthetics, not trans issues”, and I agree with that statement. Transgender aesthetics are provocative, and have been historically taboo. These facets are definitely something that the fashion industry can use to push fads and ultimately capitalize on. We’re all aware of this moment transgender people are currently having at the margins of pop culture and media attention, so it makes sense that fashion would jump on board.
JV: What opportunities or influences has this trend provided you in your industry?
LSL: People are really becoming more open minded and are willing to talk about gender issues in the industry which is already such a huge departure. It’s giving me the chance to be myself and still be in an industry that I love and respect. There’s been a huge shift and I feel like the fashion industry is tapping into that.
JK: As much as I question the morality and reasoning behind this trend, it has opened up a lot of opportunities for me. People are now aware that androgynous/trans models are out there and can go toe to toe with any other model. Designers, and photographers are able to look past gender and open their art up to new levels of creativity.
MiS: The look that House of Etiquette promotes has always been strong and femme. That’s not about to change any time soon.
BK: Most of my models are local drag stars and alternative models from Valt Models. I like to have an alternative edge in everything I do. I believe this trend has given me the freedom to be creative, put whoever in whatever I please, with the satisfaction of people becoming more open minded and accepting. I am glad to be able to create. while trends are changing in such a positive way.
MyS: Well now that it’s a trend I hardly work as an androgynous model at all. When I was really pushing hard in the industry there were very few models like me, and now it’s becoming more common within agencies.
JV: What is your involvement with Fashion Art Toronto?
MiS: This will be the fifth year my partner and I have done a show at FAT. It’ll be my second year out as trans in the FAT community, and my first year being completely out to everyone in my life. Ashley and I will be launching our fifth collection at FAT this year, with lots of sexy latex looks. I’m always excited to see everyone in our FAT family, most of whom I only get to see once or twice a year. This year, I’m particularly excited to see Amplify Apparel’s and With Love Lingerie’s collections hit the runway.
JK: Four years ago I sat in the audience in awe amazed by all the creativity, all of the passion and all of the blurred lines. A year later I was encouraged to go to the model casting by a friend, and I walked away thinking nothing of it. That year I was able to walk for five designers, including one of my favorites, Mexican designer Malafacha. My second year I was able to walk for nine designers, including Brit Wacher, and Poplyn. Each year that goes by I feel more and more support from designers and audience who can look past a gender and see something more. FAT as a whole excites me, I turn into a little kid at Christmas just thinking about it, and what it has done for me. I am excited for everyone to see the growth and progression of past designers and their labels, as well as a bunch of insanely talented designers new to FAT. I’m also excited for everyone to see my growth, and they can expect to see me in designs from clean classic menswear to asymmetric futuristic women’s wear, and everything in between.
VK: I have walked in several shows at FAT for the past five years. This year I will be presenting my first collection as well as walking in some shows. I’ll be using this opportunity to close my collection with a transgendered model as a way to pay tribute to my friend, Sumaya Delmar, a transgendered woman who recently passed away.
BK: I have always wanted to be a part of FAT, and after being there last year I realized 2015 is my year to finally have my collection hit the runway. It’s the coming of Brandon Keir. My Collection “TOP OF THE WORLD” is about portraying the astonishing colours of ‘Aurora Borealis’ with the contrast against the harsh dark sky. This was the inspiration for this collection. Black vinyls are used to represent the jarring black skies, while an array of coloured chiffons symbolize the Canadian wonder. Flowing, layered chiffons are used to duplicate the fluidity of the lights. Starting the collection with the dark of a night sky, with a gradation to wildly coloured pieces, this collection truly conveys the feeling of experiencing the Northern Lights.
MN: I’m just really excited to show my collection at FAT this year. Expect a lot of SKIN!
LSL: I’ve never had the opportunity to walk for any designers featured in FAT, so when Andrea Montle asked me to be apart of her work I immediately fell in love with her vision and our energies just clicked. It all happened at the perfect time, the universe was telling me something and I listened.
MyS: Well FAT really launched my modeling career when I moved to Toronto at 19. Now I really try and get my hands wet in any possible way that I can help with FAT. This season, Nord magazine is the official media sponsor of FAT, which is the publication Jonathan Hooper and I create together. Overall, FAT is my favorite week of the year. It’s one week I get to be as creative and expressive as I feel, and not be judged for it! It’s liberating. This season you are going to experience true Canadian talent. We have so many talented designers that live locally who do not get enough credit for their talent. Their collections this season will truly leave your breathless.
About the Author
Judy Virago is a transgender writer and performer living in Toronto. A
background in theatre, activism and government social policy has informed her interest in transgender rights and visibility. She is the co-founder of the queer art collective The House of Filth and was voted “Runner Up” for Now Magazine’s Best Toronto Drag Queen 2015. She takes her inspiration from fierce, fabulous creatures who have soared to stardom, fallen from grace, and clawed their way back to the top.