Trend—or modern definition of beauty?

by Jennifer Ortakales / Beacon Correspondent • February 26, 2015

When I got back from New York Fashion Week, people eagerly asked me about the clothes, my favorite show and celebrity sightings. I could talk about the fall trends I witnessed or the talented designers I interviewed for the Papercut magazine, but what struck me most wasn’t chunky sweaters, over-the-knee boots, or androgynous inspirations. Instead, I was fascinated by the industry’s merging of models and role models.

From the biggest shows at Lincoln Center to intimate studio presentations, this season, the designs weren’t the only subjects on everyone’s lips post-show. Rather, it was the models who stood out as the new representation of beauty—in particular, Chantelle Winnie, Melanie Gaydos, and Shaun Ross, who are breaking new ground in the fashion industry by promoting confidence and defying beauty traditions.

Shaun Ross, 23, is the trailblazer and celebrity of unconventional looks. The albino African-American model has landed high-fashion editorials and runways since he was 16 and has appeared in music videos for Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, and Katy Perry. This season, he sat front row with Whoopi Goldberg and Kanye West then modeled at the Nina Athanasiou, Michael Costello, and Etxeberria shows.

Chantelle Winnie, a previous America’s Next Top Model contestant, has vitiligo, a condition resulting in skin losing its pigment in splotches. She didn’t win ANTM, but with encouragement from its creator and host, supermodel Tyra Banks, Winnie, 20, is a top model in her own right. She is now the face of Christian Lacroix’s casual brand, Desigual, and modeled in his show at Lincoln Center this month. The major denim brand Diesel also featured her in its spring 2015 campaign.

The less mainstream community of emerging fashion is familiar with Melanie Gaydos, 24, who may have the most inspiring story of the three. There is no specific term to describe her physical traits, but “ectodermal dysplasia” is most often used. This is a group of genetic conditions that affects skin, hair, teeth, nails, sweat glands and facial structure. She has also talked about dealing with numerous surgeries, family alcoholism, and an abusive relationship.

In a 2014 video interview with the What’s Underneath Project, a campaign launched by video website StyleLikeU where women slowly remove their clothes while being interviewed, Gaydos exudes wisdom and strength as she opens up about the judgment she faces every day.

“When I first started modeling, the word ‘ugly’ was always attached before beauty. Now, maybe it’s just what I choose to pay attention to, but the word beauty is often associated with [me],” she said in the video.

Her presumption is right. When I talked to designer Nina Athanasiou about her choice to cast Gaydos in her Fashion Week 2015 show, beauty was the first thing she mentioned.

“She is so extraordinary and outstanding,” she said. “I think, although she doesn’t fit this regular beauty, she’s such a beautiful person.”

These three models have attracted the attention of celebrities, designers, photographers and artists alike, but achieving a balance between support and novelty remains a challenge. Whether they are seen as the new definition of what fashion should be, or their differences are celebrated through art, they face the same segregations and societal categorizations as any minority. Just like “plus-size” and “ethnic,” models like Ross, Winnie and Gaydos could be disregarded as “artistic” or “unique,” instead of gaining respect for their talent and beauty alongside mainstream models.

But the fashion industry is only the starting point for global diversity acceptance. Consumers have just as much impact as creators. Through our media consumption and buying power, we can control the annual reports compiled by finance teams and the campaigns contrived by advertisers. We can use our nation’s capitalist culture for bettering our world’s view of beauty. Research the brands you give your money to and support the companies that advocate change and diversity. American Eagle realized its customers would spend more money if its models looked like most people, so it stopped digitally manipulating photos for its Aerie brand last year. While it was a very small step, it proved that companies do react to customers’ voices.

Fashion may appear superficial, but it is a key vehicle in changing the global definition of beauty. At Fashion Week, rows of different styles, sizes, and backgrounds sit in harmony – more than you’ll see today on Wall Street or Capitol Hill.

At its core, fashion is about being different. Corporations devise trends to make money, but the most creative minds behind it all advocate individuality. Of the many budding designers I’ve talked to, they all have one thing in common — they want their consumers to stand out. It’s up to the consumer to stop blindly following trends and fight for a more diverse definition of beauty.