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Kendall, Gigi, Ashley, and Paloma on Fashion, #MeToo, and Becoming a Brand

If you thought you knew everything there is to know about the world’s top models, think again. Superstars such as Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Ashley Graham, and Paloma Elsesser may dominate the headlines and rule social media, but their public personas are only one part of the story. The group sat down this weekend at Vogue’s Forces of Fashion Conference with Vogue Runway Director Nicole Phelps to talk misconceptions, evolution, and the realities of their powerhouse careers.

As the industry has evolved, the nature of modeling has changed dramatically, and a candid dialogue with today’s supermodels reveals just how different things are. Their predecessors may have become household names on the strength of designer shows and editorials alone, but 2018 allows for careers that include everything from hosting awards shows and creating podcasts, to designing capsule collections. As businesswomen, Hadid, Jenner, Graham, and Elsesser have each had the opportunity to explore work beyond posing, and their shared experiences made for a fascinating view on the current state of the industry.

In a conversation that touched on everything from the reactions to #MeToo to the debate over underaged faces on the runways, the young women behind the famous images got real about fashion.

As a curve model, Ashley Graham’s biggest obstacle was the industry’s preconceptions about size

“I can give you some measurements. 46-32-36. That’s a lot of resistance, right? Every day still there’s still resistance for curvy women in the industry, and there is tokenism for curvy women in the industry. It has become so much more normal, but I’ve had people tell me, ‘You need to lose weight,’ or that the ‘clothes don’t fit you, so we’re not shooting you.’ And this still happens, even on set. I just shot an editorial about four months ago and the creative director told me if I just lost this [weight] right here and then, I would fit into these certain brands of clothes. I was like, ‘You know that’s not going to happen right?’ All this right here is a part of me. You still have to fight every day. Resistance is just a part of my career and that’s why I fight so hard and call myself a body activist.”

Finding the balance between private and public life was a game changer for Kendall Jenner

“I feel like I live a very public life. My family has a TV show and we’re all in this position. For me, it’s always been a huge thing to keep that private aspect of my life. I almost feel power in having that, and I think there’s something really beautiful to be said about that. I’ve strived for that almost my whole career, but I’ve realized recently that having so much privacy leaves room for people to create a narrative for you, and for people to assume something of you that could be completely untrue. Recently I feel like I’ve been working on opening myself a bit. [I am] keeping things private that I want to keep private, and that I think are sacred [or] personal.”

For Paloma Elsesser, overcoming tokenism is the first step towards true diversity in fashion

“We’re supposed to be the pillars of the actual norm in America. Ashley and I are in the same industry, but we represent very different women, different identities, different experiences. Obviously we have a connection, but it’s hard when we’re supposed to represent all of those identities in one. That’s why it’s important that we need other identities incorporated into this imagery to make everyone feel validated in a real way that can shape the narratives for people to come. As women we all have traumas, and looking at things that we can identify with feels good. So it does feel powerful to be an agent in shifting that, but at the same time, there are girls who are bigger than me, girls who are darker than me, girls who don’t have thin faces. There are all of these experiences and we’re supposed to be responsible for it. That’s why tokenism is difficult, because it leaves people out.”

Ashley Graham credits social media with changing the casting game

“Just being in the industry for so long, I have never seen diversity catch fire the way that it has now. Just this last fashion week, there was the highest number of black women and curvy women [on the runway], the number of hijab models was higher. It’s impressive that because of the numbers on social media, fashion has actually begun to take in to consideration what everyone actually wants. Everyone who has given the commentary, saying, ‘I want to see myself,’ now fashion designers and big publications are actually listening.”

Friendships and behind the scenes connections are going to change fashion, according to Gigi Hadid

“I know I’m not like the runway queen, but the connections and the emotional things that I’ve had with these designers is what’s kept me around. The friendships that all of these [newer] models are building and the connections, not only emotional but intellectual. [It’s] the conversations that we get to have with each other that are really broadening fashion. A lot of people would be surprised to see the warmth and support that we all feel for each other.”

Though she initially wanted to start modeling earlier, Gigi Hadid is glad mom Yolanda wouldn’t let her hit the runway until she turned 18

“My mom came to New York at 16 [and she] came to send money home to her family, but as a mom, she chose to keep me in high school until I was 18. She wouldn’t let me sign. Spring break, my senior year, I came to New York for the first time just to see agencies and I always fought that, but when I look back on it, I would never change it for a second. Instagram had just started and I was posting pictures of flowers with ugly filters. I got to be a normal high schooler and play volleyball. I used to want to work, and it looked so shiny and sparkly. Even though I did start at 18, I still feel like I was too young. There are times when I will reflect , and it’s not that someone put me in a bad situation, but I felt that I should have stood up for myself better. As I got older, I got to find that [confidence] in myself.”

Kendall Jenner (and momager Kris) agree with the sentiment

“I got to live as much of a normal life as I could. I went to school and I had all my friends and I grew. I think that mentally and physically, I was in such a better place when I was 18 to do this. Even the past two years, I’ve grown so much in myself, to be able to know what I want and when to be able to say yes or no.”

The impact of #MeToo has been felt behind the scenes, but Ashley Graham thinks things need to go further

“A lot has changed, people are much more mindful of when you’re changing – everything is very closed off so that you feel comfortable. I think also there still needs to be education around what #MeToo means, what the movement actually means. I’ve had people working on my hair say, ‘Oh I don’t want to #MeToo you.’ First of all, that is so insensitive and awkward. You don’t know what whose hair you’re brushing has gone through, and their experiences, when you say a disgusting comment like that. If you don’t really understand the #MeToo movement, go look it up. I mean, it’s literally everywhere now! I have to say that I am so glad that it happened because men are becoming more sensitive, and women are taking action and having those conversations.”

Expect more athleisure street style from Kendall Jenner

“I’m too lazy to get camera-ready all the time. Every once in a while, it’s fun obviously to get ready and dressed up. I tell my sisters all the time that I love it when they go out and they’re in their sweats and no makeup. I think that’s so refreshing.”

Ashley Graham’s advice to new models: Take a business class

“You have to be a brand, you have to be a business, and you have to take action for your own career. Something that I’ve learned in these last 18 years is that nobody’s going to do the work for you. You have to do it. Every year, I’ve given myself a new challenge and a new goal that I felt like was not attainable, and I hit that mark. Recently I launched my podcast, Pretty Big Deal, and it’s not just talking about body issues—we’re talking about world issues, race, religion, women’s rights, and education. I think that all the aspiring models have to remember that this isn’t just about being a pretty girl anymore. This is about being business savvy. And if you have the opportunity, take a business class. I wish I would have earlier, because I spent so much money in lawyer fees.”

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