The first time I saw a model that looked like me in a magazine, it profoundly changed the way I looked at my body.
It was the late 90s and I was about 18. I’d never felt at home in my body. Like many women, and especially adolescent women, I had a habit of distilling my body down into a collection of faults: my too-fat belly, my oversized and uneven breasts, my puberty stretch marks, my ugly scars.
It was then that I came across a magazine spread of Mia Tyler, sister of Liv Tyler, looking unbelievably sexy in lingerie. She had curves and roundness like me. Her boobs looked like mine. And she was gorgeous. That’s a (different) photo of her above.
Yes, I had seen beautiful curvy women in real life before. But for a young girl, seeing that representation in a magazine caused a major shift in my thinking. And I could look back at those photos any time I felt those terrible feelings returning. They were concrete proof that beauty came in many shapes and sizes.
Since that time, I’ve been convinced that the most beautiful thing about women (and humanity in general) is our diversity. I am constantly astounded by how many kinds of beauty there are in the world, and equally astounded that people choose to only acknowledge a narrow selection of these forms of beauty.
Now that I’m a grown woman with my own company, that is the kind of beauty I’d like to express: diverse, strong, and happy.
Actually hiring diverse models can be tricky, especially because we are located in the northwestern part of the US, which is much less ethnically diverse than any other place I’ve lived. It’s also not exactly a fashion capitol, so there are fewer models to begin with than a city like New York or Los Angeles. But given those constraints, it’s still totally possible to seek out a wide variety of models.
At the same time, it’s important not to reduce the women who model for us to a single feature, such as their skin color. Too much focus on one aspect of someone’s identity or appearance can also be objectifying.
Much like seeking diversity in the workplace, it isn’t about working off a checklist. It’s about casting a wider net, and it’s about understanding the value that diversity brings to just about anything.
Where to find models
Our wonderful Art Director is Christine, and she is the person who conceptualizes photo shoots (for both Colette Patterns and Seamwork) and hires the lovely models you see. I spoke to her to help give a little more insight on how it all comes together.
The first place we look for models these days are at modeling agencies. Agency models can be expensive, but they often have a bit more experience and are easy to source and hire.
There are many kinds of models you can hire through an agency, and each agency classifies models a little differently.
- Fashion: These tend to be your typical young, thin women – runway or editorial models.
- Lifestyle: These models are often hired more for commercial shoots rather than fashion or editorial work. For example, advertising or catalogs. Because of this, there is more diversity in age and other characteristics. And they smile more!
- Sports: Because of where we’re located and the presence of large activewear companies like Nike, there are a LOT of sports and fitness models. These models are athletic and tend to be ethnically diverse.
- Plus: Some agencies have a small roster of plus size models. In our area, these rosters are tiny. Some cities with more apparel business (New York and Los Angeles) have many more agency-signed plus models, or even entire agencies that specialize in plus.
Christine says, “I like to hire models that make our readers think ‘Hey, I see myself in her.’ This is not an easy task, as there are only a couple modeling agencies in Portland, and their rosters are not very diverse.”
“The most difficult models to find and hire are plus size, medium size, and models over thirty,” Christine says. You’d probably expect the first and last categories are underrepresented, but you would be surprised how difficult it is to find models who are neither a size 0 nor in the plus size category.
You’ve probably also noticed that many so-called “plus-size” models are not exactly plus size in reality. I believe part of the reason is that there are so few categories of models that “plus” becomes a catch-all bucket for “not your typical size 0.”
At the same time, a lot of women are turned away from modeling because they aren’t large enough to be plus, and not small enough to be in the other categories (according to the agencies).
In other words, the way agencies choose to divide and categorize the women they represent has a huge impact on the diversity of models available. In talking with other business owners and designers, including bridal and lingerie, I know there is a market for models anywhere from size 6 to size 26 and up. But it is very difficult to find these women at your typical agency.
Some models are not signed with agencies at all. These models can be a little trickier to find, and range in experience from the full-time professional models to the completely inexperienced.
We’ve worked with independent models who are every bit as talented and experienced as agency models, and sometimes more so. Independent models also have more freedom to look like themselves, because they’re not trying to fit into as many different looks and styles as possible. If you want a model with wild hair, tattoos, or other highly distinguishing features, this is a good way to go.
It’s also a better bet for the hard-to-find models I mentioned above. Many of these women are filtered out of agencies because there is no place there for someone who is a size 10, for example. Many plus size models have difficulty signing with agencies too, because not all of them have a division that fits.
Finally, there are people who are not models at all!
I’d like to point something out here. Many people seem to think that modeling is a matter of standing still and looking pretty.
The reality is that it’s skilled, creative work, much like acting. It involves emoting on cue, awareness of your body, and comfort in front of strangers and cameras. Not a lot of people have these abilities without practice and talent.
I’m sure that if you’ve ever felt uncomfortable in front of a camera, you can imagine what that’s like in front of a group of strangers. If you have any doubts about your abilities or the way you look, that is a very difficult thing to disguise when a lens is pointed at you and everyone is staring and telling you (hopefully kindly) how to walk and move and pose and look.
So using non-models can still be wonderful, but can also require a lot more work and direction. It’s been our experience that folks who have never modeled before find it really difficult and tend to be a bit stiff and self-conscious at first. But there are naturals too!
Choosing a model
Once Christine has a concept for the photo shoot, she begins working on the specifics, including hiring the model.
She asks herself the basic questions: What are the pattern designs? The monthly theme (for Seamwork)? The color story? “This will give me a good idea of the person I could see beautifully showcasing these looks.”
“I also try to keep in mind the models we have used in the past, and aim to represent the underrepresented, and show variation from month to month. Shooting a wide range of people that our Seamwork/Colette community can connect with is really important. I care deeply about showing that every woman is beautiful and unique just as she is.”
Once she starts looking through portfolios, there are several things she looks for, but the main thing is personality.
“When I look through agency portfolios, I am drawn to models that have photos of themselves in a more relaxed state, laughing or smiling! In contrast to high fashion, serious, cold editorial shoots, my goal is to have fun, and capture the natural beauty of the model at ease, just being herself.”
The great thing about Seamwork is that it’s allowed us to bring in a wide variety of women to collaborate with us. Watching Christine work is fantastic, because she is such a naturally kind and gracious person and genuinely loves to hear about our models’ lives and other pursuits. She really believes in bringing out their individual personalities.
Christine adds, “Our models so far have been amazing people to work with, and I always love connecting with them during our shoots, hearing about their hobbies, families, and interests. They are hardworking, extremely talented women.”
But there’s more to do. Though we try to mix things up from month to month, we’d love to show the same style on more body types, especially for the Colette Patterns. Multiple models can be expensive and tricky to coordinate, but it would be fantastic for people to see a design on someone that looks like them even more often.
Any thoughts or questions about how we find our models? I’m happy to answer!