At the conclusion of Fashion Month, the industry takes stock on progress (or lack thereof) regarding diversity, inclusion and representation: racial, ethnic, cultural, size, age and gender identity. But when it comes to Bridal Fashion Week (or "Bridal Week" or "Bridal Market"), which follows in October and April each year — and is presented by an industry that's been slow to evolve on many fronts — the discussion isn't as frequent, if it takes place at all.
"This season, designers are doing better as far as inclusivity goes. We're seeing different ethnicities and sizes. Of course, we still have a very, very long way to go," Brittny Drye, founder and editor in chief of Love Inc., a print and digital wedding publication celebrating all couples, hetero and LGBTQ+, tells Fashionista on a call at the conclusion of the week. "When I started eight years ago, it was all just very thin, white models. This was probably the first bridal fashion week where I continually saw plus-size models. But, obviously, there's nowhere near equal representation across the board."
For statistical reference: According to a 2018 Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program report, millennials — i.e. people of marrying age — are the most ethnically and racially diverse adult generation in U.S. history with minorities comprising 44% of the group. Furthermore, the average size of an American woman is between 16 and 18, according to a recent study by the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology, and Education.
"In general, the bridal industry tends to be a little bit slower to adopt than fashion. That's just the nature of it, in terms of trends, and everything else," says Callie Canfield, senior director global marketing communications of David's Bridal, on a call, prior to the bi-annual presentation. "I think it's really steeped in tradition in a not so great way all the time."
The national brand, which emerged from bankruptcy in January with new owners, has been on the forefront of size-inclusivity both in its store offerings — which go up to 30L — and its website, marketing and presentations. But for this season's presentation, David's Bridal opted to showcase the collection on a group of real brides (albeit influencers), diverse in shape and ethnicity, instead of professional models. The change in format also speaks to how real wedding content resonates with consumers more than photo shoots of simulated nuptials.
"As a full-figured woman and a woman of color, which you don't really see in magazines, I want to feel beautiful on my wedding day, too, and I want to see people who look like me," explained engaged model-for-the-day Lavondra Shinholster (above), beaming in a strapless and body-con mermaid gown. "I know I'm representing for those who feel like they don't really have that representation."
Personally, as a Chinese American who's been covering Bridal Week for the past four years, I didn't notably see myself — or other POC — reflected on the wedding runways until about two years ago. And, via my non-scientific estimate, this season and past, the model or few models changing in and out of the looks at non-runway appointments are 90% white.
"I don't find the models diverse at all," Myrdith Leon-McCormack, publisher and editorial director of World Bride Magazine tells me before the Fall 2020 season began. "Here and now you might see an Asian girl and one Black girl, who's either light skin or multiracial. I don't think I've ever seen a really dark, dark [model] at all, so there is no representation." She founded the multicultural and multiethnic wedding digital and print publication around 16 years ago and has been covering the week for a decade.
She also referred to the scarcity of diversity when it comes to influential designers, especially after the passing of Ethiopian American groundbreaker Amsale Aberra, celebrated as the designer of the modern wedding dress, last year. Leon-McCormack cited Asian-American designer Vera Wang and trailed off. Fashion designer Carly Cushnie launched bridal in 2018, and a look through the designer members of industry body The Bridal Council includes designers of Asian descent: Naeem Khan, Monique Lhuillier, Tadashi Shoji, Phuong My and Sahroo, founded by Sarah Abbasi. The Bridal Council and the New York bridal community also has a new member: Nigerian British couturier Yemi Osunkoya.
"I'm very proud that I'm the only black male designer in The Bridal Council, so that's a nice change," he tells me on a call. He also hopes to be an inspiration to other young designers of color to apply to join. "'OK, I see someone like me. I'm inspired. I never thought to apply, maybe I can apply.'"
Kicking off Bridal Week, Leon-McCormack and World Bride Magazine hosted a presentation to introduce Kosibah, Osunkoya's debut bridal collection, launching exclusively at Mark Ingram Atelier. Her invitation proudly introduced Osunkoya as "the first couture designer to showcase his work from the continent of Africa since the iconic, late Amsale." The collaboration makes sense, not just to jointly reach both parties' target upscale clientele, but also personally for Ingram, who coincidentally recently discovered his Nigerian heritage via 23 and Me.
"It's part of my responsibility. I'm a Black American male. It's something I owe. It's hard to explain. Why would I not support this African designer and give him opportunity and a platform?" he said. "It's not about color really, but it does speak to me on a personal level."
The guest list at Ingram's tony and tucked away salon off Park Avenue was probably the most diverse I experienced at Bridal Week, along with the model lineup. But when I broach the subject to Osunkoya — who grew up in Nigeria, ran a successful couture business in London for 25 years and moved to New York in 2016 — he seemed surprised it was even an issue to discuss.
"My advantage of being relatively new [to the U.S.] is that I don't have the historical hangups of how things are meant to be," he explained. "So if I'm going to have a runway with diverse models — whether that's what has happened in the past or not — well, that's what I'm doing." Of course Osunkoya's casting choice is authentic to his brand and values, as opposed to a mere gesture, which he does acknowledge exists, but views as progress.
"Before, you'd have one model to tick the 'ethnic' box and therefore she'd be the exception. But now, you have more diverse models and they are now the norm, as opposed to the exception," he said. "There's probably still a bit of tokenism at the moment, but at least it's heading in the right direction."
Which leads to another issue: The industry-only runways may be slowly diversifying in size and ethnicity — and even ability inclusion this season, thanks to Theia. But the evolution doesn't necessarily lead to representation in the consumer-facing marketing materials and campaigns. By the time I'm going through lookbook images to fill my trend roundups, I'm mostly looking at white, size zero-to-two and probably blonde models — which then does make the efforts during Bridal Week feel like tokenism.
"Even designers of color, when they design — when they are creating their lookbooks and their advertisements — they pick a white blond haired girl," says Leon-McCormack. "I don't even think they intentionally do it, but it's become a norm. One person is doing so everybody is going to do it." She surmises that the unspoken reason is that a model of color — and her skintone — would distract from the design.
"It takes away from the designer and because now the focus is more on the girl, than it is on the dress," Leon-McCormack adds. "So that can be an excuse. It's a lame excuse, but it's an excuse that they can get away with."
"I rarely see a Black, brown or Asian model used for branding purposes for major U.S.A. collection," says Ingram, adding that he notices more inclusion in European marketing. "It's up to designers to use women of color and more full-figured models for their branding purposes. It starts there, really, with the design level. On my part [as a retailer], it's for me to reach out to a wider audience."
He acknowledges the industry has a history of "ignoring curvy girls" and now stocks size-inclusive designers and invests in a range of samples. ("Boy were we wrong!") The Knot 2019 Fashion Study for Size Inclusivity found that brides size 12-and-over are three times more likely than a shopper size zero-to-10 to shop online because they couldn't find their dress in-store. (And they're twice as "self-conscious" about shopping in-store.)
At the buyer level, a size-inclusive runway is helpful to see the designs worn. I noticed curvy models at Pnina Tornai at Kleinfeld and Theia and Watters, which, along with David's Bridal, are leaders and regular holders of size-inclusive shows. Pronovias, under new leadership of CEO Amandine Ohayon — whose U.S. market strategy includes representation of all women across platforms — included a curve model of color at editor appointments. The the Spanish brand's flagship off 5th Ave also features curve mannequins. On the marketing side, a size-16 model stars in designer Alexandra Grecco's recent "favorites" lookbook. (She held a small preview this season, but held a larger scale size-inclusive presentation last year for Fall 2019.)
Another elephant in the room: Bridal Week — and the weddings industry in general — tend to be very gender normative and heteronormative. I actually went through two lookbooks showcasing a woman in the gowns, while a man — usually shirtless and muscled, maybe on a motorcycle — co-stars as her life partner. It should be noted that some brands, like David's Bridal and Ines di Santo, have incorporated same-sex couples into their marketing campaigns. But while the intention is there, it still feels a bit tentative. A January 2019 commercial from the former features two women in gowns dancing at a reception, but then a man cuts in. The latter's 2016 "I am Ines di Santo" campaign includes a shot of two women in wedding dresses sitting close to each other, one with her arm around the waist of the other.
Overall, "the bridal fashion world is so very much female-only," said Drye, who is also an equality-minded consultant and educator for wedding pros. "People think bridal and they assume women and female-identifying people, whereas bridal doesn't have to mean feminine."
She referred to Reem Acra's Spring 2020 runway last season, which included male models wearing traditional "menswear"-style suiting, for showing less "femme" pantsuit options in bridal. Admittedly, to me, Acra's co-ed lineup came across as tux alternatives for cishet grooms, but I much prefer Drye's take. "Hopefully we'll get to a point where we're seeing more non-binary and gender-neutral pieces on the runway," she said. Never mind also that male-identifying and -presenting models would look fab in dresses. (See: Jonathan Van Ness's stellar red carpet game and the recent cover of Love Inc.)
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Israeli bridal designer Galia Lahav did break new ground this season by unveiling transgender model Valentina Sampaio as the face of its Couture Fall 2020 campaign. But hiring the history-making Victoria's Secret model didn't begin as a socially or politically motivated statement to change up the old guard.
"We actually chose her before we even knew she's transgender," explained Galia Lahav Marketing and Communications Manager Lynn Rozenberg at the presentation. She looked through Sampaio's book and was completely taken by the model's look and fit with the brand's aesthetic and values. Rozenberg then presented Sampaio to the executive team expecting some hesitation about media or consumer blowback, but "everyone was 100%."
"She's beautiful. She's powerful. She's reflecting exactly the collection's inspiration for being yourself, confidence, beauty and inner beauty," she added.
Drye, who's wary of tokenism, feels the "organic" choice, rather than a PR play, is a sign of progress, too. And organic means 100% of the way through. "If you're going to showcase different [communities] across your runway, it needs to be across your entire brand: on your website and in your campaign," she adds. "You can't just do it once and be applauded and think that's it. It needs to be across the board"
Following Bridal Week — and in a lead up to an Uptown Manhattan-based consumer-facing Wedding Weekend, which also features a dearth of racial and ethnic diversity — Leon-McCormack expresses her overall discouragement regarding progress this season. "It's disappointing hearing all about diversity and inclusion, but there's very little inclusion," she writes in an email.
At the end of the day, doesn't inclusion just make financial sense? Especially in an age of decreasing marriage rates and a rapidly diversifying makeup of couples heading to the alter?
"You're doing yourself a disservice," said Osunkoye. "Because if most people like to see reflections of themselves in order to buy something, why would you then exclude potential sales?"