Rebecca Kamm

Poking a stick at ladies' issues, pop culture, and other cutting-edge curiosities.

Rebecca Kamm: A very different lookbook

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Photo / Debenhams
Photo / Debenhams

I'm generally pretty suspicious of so-called "diversity" in fashion, mainly because the industry is so flagrantly inauthentic when it comes to veering off the young/white/thin path. Non-conventional models are (sporadically) employed, but ultimately in the most cynical way: as a fashion statement in itself. And the self-congratulatory PR drives that invariably follow only confirm this tokenism.

Broader representation in fashion - whether it comes in the form of "plus size", women of colour, the elderly, transgender, or the disabled - will only exist in a meaningful way when no one bats an eyelid. When magazines don't pat themselves on the back for featuring women larger than a size eight or ten, for instance.

Or when designers don't hatch entire PR campaigns around using senior models.

A senior model from the Karen Walker Forever campaign.
A senior model from the Karen Walker Forever campaign.

These cursory nods to the existence of humans outside the 19-year-old Caucasion ectomorph category aren't just self-serving, they're patronising. They're gestures dressed up to resemble an "embrace" of diversity, but it's a cold embrace, and it comes served with an air-kiss.

That said, I do recognise we need to start somewhere, and that a small part of my intolerance comes from impatience: i.e. the fact there is even a need for fairer representation in 2013.

So, in that vein, I'll admit I do think British department store Debenhams is sort of on the right track, and that there is some sincerity behind the variety of models in its new lookbook. (Or, if sincerity is the wrong word - because profit is always the driver, I'm under no illusions - then substantiality.)

The first high street retailer in the UK to fill said lookbook with a genuinely diverse range of people, Debenhams' new collections are modeled by "an amputee, three models over 40 (including one nearing 70), a paralympian athlete and not forgetting our swimwear shot with a size 18 model to celebrate curvelicious women."

I might even forgive their horrendous word-play on that overused descriptor "curvy", because the store now sits on the UK government's Body Confidence Advisory Committee, and works alongside inclusivity campaigner, Caryn Franklin MBE. (Who co-founded All Walks, an initiative that challenges fashion industry dependence on unachievable body ideals and advocates for broader representation - of all types - in fashion.)

"Our customers are not the same shape or size so our latest look book celebrates this diversity. We would be delighted if others followed our lead. Hopefully these shots will be a step, albeit a small one, towards more people feeling more comfortable about their bodies," said Ed Watson, Debenhams' Director of PR.

Of course, it'd be even better if there was no PR message; if the images were simply released without any sort of disclaimer at all. That would be revolutionary. Still, any partnership with legitimate advocacy groups is a good thing in my eyes. Because despite industry insiders' incessant harping on about fashion being a mere fantasy, it's also a social institution. And that's why this matters in the first place.

Check out a gallery of some of the lookbook images below:

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

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