By guest author George Arnett, Data Editor from Vogue Business
Only small gains have been made toward making the runway more age diverse as brands rely on youthful faces to sell their collections.
- Despite a handful of buzzy runway moments featuring older women, data shows that only one out of every 200 models during Spring/Summer 2020 were above the age of 50.
- The median age of runway models has increased by only two years, from 21 to 23, since 2014.
- Brands tend to prioritise youthful aspiration on runways and in campaigns over a realistic depiction of who their customers are.
When Jeny Howorth and Marie-Sophie Wilson-Carr, both over 50, stepped out on the catwalk for Simone Rocha’s Autumn/Winter 2019 show, it marked the second time that the London-based designer had turned to models from the 1980s and 1990s to showcase her collection. Her AW17 shows also featured Jan de Villeneuve, 75, Benedetta Barzini, 76, and Cecilia Chancellor, 53.
“Both Marie-Sophie and Jeny have the most magical, electric, effortless energy, I felt they were both so present in my clothes with their confidence, wisdom, experience and real life,” says Rocha over email.
This chimes well with Rocha’s exploration of femininity through her collections, which the designer says has “no age limit for her”. Bringing back classic faces has become a broader fashion week trend. Balenciaga has used multiple models aged over 50 for its last three shows in Paris, most notably Britta Dion and Britta Lund. Older women are a regular sight at Sies Marjan and Eckhaus Latta in New York, while Dolce & Gabbana and Daniela Gregis have repeatedly presented age-diverse catwalks in Milan.
These brands are lauded for their decision. They are also still by far the minority. Just one out of every 200 models who appeared during the SS20 runway season were aged over 50, per the Fashion Spot’s latest diversity report.
Albeit slow, there is progress. The same Fashion Spot figures show there were 39 models in their 50s at the SS20 shows last autumn, up from five during the same season in 2016. The median age of models at runway shows recognised by the Fashion Model Directory was 23 in 2019, up from 21 in 2014, with similar increases in age diversity for the catalogue, lookbook and advertising shoots they have on file.
Bringing back a storied name associated with the brand’s past can amplify its heritage. Vivienne Westwood, then 75, walked for her eponymous brand at the AW17 show; former Calvin Klein model Yasmin Le Bon returned to the brand’s runway at 53 in 2018. When Dolce & Gabbana tapped models Isabella Rossellini, Carla Bruni and Monica Bellucci to appear at its SS19 shows, it was a purported statement about age and beauty as well as a marketing boost: all three women have significant fanbases in continental Europe.
In an age of reboots and reedits, brands regularly return to classic hero products in an attempt to build hype. Given many of these companies established their modern catwalk images in the 1980s and 1990s, it makes sense that more get back in touch with the models that helped them define their look from this age.
There is a commercial logic here too. The average age of a luxury consumer worldwide is 38 (though it is about a decade younger in China) per Boston Consulting Group and Tencent. Older shoppers typically have considerably more spending power, so making the brand appear more relevant to a significant slice of their consumer base holds power.
Brands that are being honest with themselves about who their target customer is could in rare cases benefit from including older models rather than alienating that customer base, says Marc Beckman, founding partner and chief executive of DMA United. “There’s got to be this natural progression of brands that are ageing now,” he says. However, Beckman adds, “The reality is that for years, fashion houses have created aspirational imagery. That might have incorporated models and celebrities that are more youthful. It was done for a reason.”
Iva Mirbach, deputy CEO and head of research and innovation at fashion intelligence firm IFDAQ, the parent company of the Fashion Model Directory, says data shows that only a handful of brands are taking an age-diverse approach to casting.
IFDAQ produces a metric known as distance walked on the catwalk. The typical trajectory of metres a woman walks in the service of fashion zooms upwards in the first few years of her career, then tails off afterwards as she becomes more established and focuses on other pursuits like editorials and advertising.
With a few notable exceptions, the number of models over 50 featured during fashion week tends to be skewed upward by brands including many older models in one season and then reverting to typical casting the following season. The data suggests that an appearance from a classic face is currently more of a set piece rather than a significant structural change.
“Designers and producers want new and unseen models,” says John Horner, founder of London-headquartered agency Models 1 and Chairman of the British Fashion Model Agents Association.
In some cases, bringing back a model from the past can add an element of surprise to a show. However, Horner adds that his agency’s “Classic” division has seen no noticeable uptick in catwalk bookings in recent years, with most of his clients sticking to the formula of presenting younger women and teenagers in the hope of establishing them on the scene.
Restrictions around how young new models can be are forming. Kering decided to stop using models under 18 last year. In 2018, Condé Nast announced a similar policy, banning photo shoots of girls aged 17 or younger unless they were the subject of an article. (Condé Nast is the parent company of Vogue Business.) The Fashion Model Directory figures show a decline in girls of this age in shows.
At New York Fashion Week this season, Marc Jacobs and Kate Spade were among designers who presented age-inclusive shows, but noise around age diversity on the runways was relatively quiet. Other leading designers are being increasingly vocal about the issue. “It’s important for a modern brand to have age diversity; it makes it more authentic,” Demna Gvasalia recently told Vogue. “When we walk down the street, we do not necessarily see people all of the same age in groups.” Whether his views are shared by more designers will be revealed in the coming weeks.