Fabian Hirose |  Management Consulting
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Business, Industry & Capability Insights

Ideas that generate results

The Homophobia of Fashion
Image by Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Image by Rotimi Fani-Kayode

The implicit emotional memories and rules in fashion systems.

Nine out of ten people are in support of the laws introduced in 2003 protecting lesbians and gay men from discrimination at work, yet recent Stonewall research has found that nearly one in five lesbian and gay people, almost 350,000 employees in Britain, have experienced bullying from their colleagues because of their sexual orientation (Serves You Right).

Almost four million people (13% of the national workforce) have witnessed verbal homophobic bullying in the workplace and over one million people (4% of the national workforce) have witnessed physical homophobic bullying at work (Living Together). Is fashion really as lesbian and gay friendly as it seems? I found very little information and research about The Impact of Abuse in Fashion Systems. So now, I invite you, my fellow colleagues to have a collective reflection, on this issues which both affects individual perceptions of self-value and worth and has a huge negative impact on our financial and economical security: How is the homophobic behaviour and culture of Britain as a whole translated into the industry? How many openly lesbian and gay people belong to the board of directors in British fashion companies? Where is all the anger, pain and grief of the LGBTQI and homophobic decisions makers / tastemakers projected and released while working in fashion: themselves, their colleagues, their team, the organisation, the brand, the business, or the company's products and communication campaigns? Above all, are businesses / organisations and customers economically and emotionally equipped to pay the price of the homophobia in fashion systems?

By Emma Hope Allwood from Dazed & Confused Magazine. This week, DKNY campaign stars John Tuite and Carlos Santolalla became the first openly gay couple to be signed to a major agency as a duo. Nicknamed Jarlos by their 22,000 devotedInstagram followers, the boys announced their history-making contract with New York’s Fusion on the social networking site. But considering fashion’s status as one of the most gay-friendly industries on the planet, why is this such a big deal? While the list of openly gay designers is seemingly endless (Yves Saint LaurentGianni VersaceMarc JacobsJean Paul Gaultier and Valentino, to name a few) perhaps surprisingly, models are encouraged to stay well and truly in the closet.

“My very first experience with modelling was homophobic,” Tuite recalls. “The guy that scouted me online immediately told me his agency wouldn't sign me because they ‘don't work with gay men.’ Years later, the owner of that agency scouted me at an art show and I took the opportunity to tell her that I was very offended by what her booker had told me. But this woman, who is in fact a lesbian, backed it up and said that it was her own business strategy. In any other industry that would be a lawsuit, but because it’s ‘fashion,’ they get to call it ‘taste’ instead of discrimination.” Sadly, this seems to be the norm – “In NYC it's pretty common practice for your agent to tell you before signing to not be 'gay' and to 'act like a man' as if being gay demeans your manhood,” Santolalla adds. “There's also a very strong veil of homophobia hidden under ‘preference’... They say they want 'machismo' as if gay men aren't able to provide that. It's actually really reductive and sad.”

But why the discrimination, especially considering fashion’s penchant for homoerotic imagery? “It’s more convenient to hire straight guys to sell the image, and people are into that. The first rule of homoeroticism is that it's always hotter when the guys are straight,” argues Tuite. “It's a strange thing to think about, because obviously there have been plenty of same-sex model couples before us, but for social and professional reasons they couldn't necessarily advertise that.” It seems that the same arguments of fear over getting type-cast that stop actors and actresses from coming out also apply to fashion – it’s a risky career move to do anything that could make yourself more niche, and thus less likely to book jobs.

“The guy that scouted me online immediately told me his agency wouldn't sign me because they ‘don't work with gay men’. In any other industry that would be a lawsuit.” – Gay model John Tuite

“The real issue here, of course, is economics,” wrote Geoffrey Macnab for The Independent on the topic of gay Hollywood, following Jodie Foster’s coming out speech at the Golden Globes in 2013. “Gay and lesbian directors, producers, studio heads and supporting actors can be open about their sexuality as long as it doesn't get in the way of the work.” The subtext: modern cinema is built on clear cut tropes around sex and gender: if you’re an actor known for playing the romantic hero, or a bombshell actress seen as fodder for the male gaze, coming out could get in the way of that. The target audience of The Expendables franchise might shift slightly if its hyper-masculine, oiled up bro team (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Statham etc) decided to come out of the closet. 

The same is true in fashion, but for models, work is even more closely tied to their off camera lives and personalities than acting: more and more, their social media presences – a vital negotiating factor when it comes to contracts – are expected to be constantly updated, a 24/7 curation of their personal brand. As Premier Model Management founder Carole White explained in a recent Dazed interview, social media “is changing how advertising is done; it’s changing how we evaluate how much a job is worth...Followers have become a currency.” The allure of personality is bigger than ever in the age of Instagram: you only need to look at someone like bleach blonde overnight superstar Lucky Blue Smith (and his 900k followers) to see how valuable a savvy social presence can be. There’s a pressure for gay models to keep their sexuality a secret, in case coming out could lose them work. 

Only a few months in, and 2015 has already proved to be a groundbreaking year in terms of casting, with models like Hari NefLineisy Montero and Bhumika Arora kickstarting discussions around gender identity and diversity (Nef has been a strong voice for trans representation in fashion, while Montero has been credited with bringing natural afro hair back to the catwalks and Arora has made waves as one of fashion’s only Indian models). The idea of ‘what makes a model’ is changing, and Jarlos aren’t the only LGBTQ models to being proud of their sexuality, no matter the potential consequences. Last year Cara Delevingne publicly offered support to National Coming Out Day, repping queer photo project Self Evident Truths with a statement t-shirt, saying “Don’t be scared to be who you are.” In March, Dazed cover girl Natalie Westling appeared in V Magazine in a lip lock with real-life girlfriend Carly Moore, no explanation needed.

When the reaction of both fashion fans and the general public to models’ statements of LGBTQ pride is overwhelmingly positive (Jarlos’s contract has generated an outpouring of support) there’s little reason for the industry to remain stuck in its homophobic ways. Jarlos are already seeing the positive effects of their actions. “The other day, this 19-year-old kid who's still in the closet told us that we were his first gay role models,” says Santolalla. “He found our Instagram by searching for ‘gay models’. That was pretty cool to hear, and it proves how important visibility is to bringing positive change.” Does the couple’s contract signify a tide change in the industry? “Hopefully,” says Santolalla, but “the idea that gay men aren't strong and powerful has to change in society's mind first.”