As the world continues to buzz about this season's New York Fashion Week and the other sartorial extravaganzas taking place across the globe this month, diversity among models always seems to emerge as a major topic.
Trailblazers have emerged over the years to try and make a difference in the fashion industry and the world at large, the latest of which is the group of trans models sharing their stories in the new Oxygen series Strut. "It's a look at all of these models and their hopes and dreams, and they happen to be transgender. So along with that, they have family and friends and husbands and wives and how all of this affects everyone. You know, we have someone saying, 'Here's my life. This is who I am,'" the series' executive producer Whoopi Goldberg told The Lookbook on the red carpet of Strut's premiere in New York last week. "It's a crazy world out here, so these are some of the bravest people I've met because they're like, 'I don't care who you think I am. This is who I am.' And willing to stand up and live it. I love it."
Whoopi Goldberg (second from left) with the cast of Strut on the red carpet of the series' premiere in New York on September 12, 2016.
The models featured in Strut are all represented by Slay Model Management, the first modeling agency that caters exclusively to trans models. Slay's director of scouting and development, Cecilio "CeCe" Asuncion, created the agency after working with the transgender community during the filming of his 2013 documentary What's the T?. "After a while, we're all just people," he told The Lookbook at the event. "And it's about employment. The trans community needs employment. And I've always been a fan of fashion and supermodels, and I said, why not?"
Arisce Wanzer, one of the models featured in Strut, told The Lookbook that, as a transgender woman, there are advantages to being represented by an agency with only trans models. "I've been at several cisgender agencies, and it's better for me this way just because you can be so comfortable with who you are. I get called to go to a casting, they already know they cannot be rude or disrespectful," she explained. "When people block transgender people from opportunities, such as modeling, it doesn't make any sense. Like, can they wear the clothes, do the clothes fit, are they selling it, are they working it. Yes? Then why aren't they hired? Because of some stigma from, like, the '80s? I don't know. So I'm not here for it... At the end of the day, these people are hiring models, and there's a respect to that that I really like. I feel respected every time I get into the job."
Cassandra Cass, Slay's office assistant, also said that there's an incredibly strong bond among the agency's models. "It's wonderful because it's not just an agency; it's a family," she told The Lookbook at the premiere. "We have moments, and there's definitely drama, but there's a lot of love there, too."
Of course, that love is something the trans community has not always experienced in the public eye. However, veteran trans model Dominique Jackson said she feels more acceptance in the industry — and the world — today. "We're so much freer now. We were always on the runways, but we were hiding ourselves. We were just going to work. But now, with everything that's happened in the world, where you have so many trans women being murdered, where you have so much prejudice and discrimination going on against the trans community, it's really tough," she told The Lookbook on the red carpet. "So now being out and being more visible gives a lot of the younger ones and even older ones the work that they really need. It gives them a sense of value, and it helps them to pursue their dreams. We don't have to hide at home anymore."
Whoopi echoed that sentiment, saying that trans models like Dominique have ruled the runway for ages. "I think the fashion industry was always inclusive and didn't know it because transgender models have been around us for years and nobody talked about it because it was dangerous and people were frightened and didn't want to feel like they were different," Whoopi said. "[Strut is] really about people standing up for who they are, and I love that. It's something I've always felt was important."
Arisce Wanzer, Ren Spriggs, Isis King, Cecilio "CeCe" Asuncion, Dominique Jackson, Laith de la Cruz, and Cassandra Cass strut their stuff on the red carpet of the Strut premiere in New York on September 12, 2016.
Arisce, who has been modeling since she was 17 years old, said she never imagined the visibility that trans people have achieved in recent years. "I think the funny thing is when people ask, 'Can you believe this is happening?' Absolutely not. I had no idea this would happen," she said. "I've seen the change that trans people in general have accomplished [and it] has been absolutely amazing, and I never thought this would happen. I'm just trying to create a space for myself where there wasn't one. That's all I wanted. I wanted to work, and I wanted to sell clothes, that's all I wanted to do. And now I get to do that."
But as much progress has been made in the fashion industry in the last few years, CeCe said there's still work to be done. "The truth is [Slay is] an agency first. It's a model agency first and a trans community second. Sooner or later, hopefully sooner, it's just going to be a model agency," he said. "I really think [the fashion industry is] changing, just with this current season of New York Fashion Week. Our models have been working New York Fashion Week. They've used our models who are African American, Asian American, Filipino American. There's a change, but there has to be more of a change."
Cassandra added, "We want our piece of the pie, that's all. We want what's fair."
And after two decades of modeling, Dominique said she is now more than ready for the spotlight. "A lot of people have actually said, 'It's your time.' And I do believe in that. I do believe that everything has its season," she told The Lookbook. "And for some of us, we just have to persevere. We just have to be determined. There's that little gut instinct that lets you know this is where you belong. And this is where I belong."
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