“Sorry I was a few minutes late to the call, I was ranting and raving,” said the model Casil McArthur last week.
He had just learned that President Donald J. Trump moved to rescind protections for transgender students in public schools, a step backwards from the 2016 law allowing students to choose the restrooms fitting their gender identities. McArthur wasn't the only public personality outraged by the order; the likes of Beyoncé and even Trump supporter Caitlyn Jenner also joined a chorus of critics. But the shock was particularly pronounced for 17-year-old McArthur, who is transgender and has experienced firsthand the constant anxiety that's often unavoidable for trans youth.
New York Fashion Week was a bittersweet moment for McArthur. Recalcitrant politicians dealt the trans community yet another setback, but at least in the insular world of fashion, there seemed to be encouraging signs of progress. The New York shows, marked for their diversity—with at least one model of color walking every runway—were also a watershed for trans models, with McArthur, Dara, and Avie Acosta all appearing in Marc Jacobs' show, one of the must-attend appointments of the week, alongside the likes of Kendall Jenner, Jamie Bochert and Adwoa Aboah. While in recent years, trans models have been increasingly embraced by the fashion industry, featured in ad campaigns and presentations, this was one of their most high-profile runway showings to date. Meanwhile, for the emerging models, the fact that their casting was not a big deal was in itself a big deal, a marker of the fashion industry's embrace of the trans community at large.
“I feel like that was the least exciting part of the show,” said Dara, an unsigned, “openly trans" model who made her runway debut with the show after landing the gig through a DM from Jacobs’ team. (To Dara, the show’s hip-hop inspirations, lack of soundtrack, and overall diversity were much more deserving of the press's attention.)
“It’s now just sort of part of this status quo; it’s a fact,” said Anita Bitton, Jacobs’ right-hand casting director for the past four years, who added that casting choices like McArthur and Allen were hardly a political statement from the designer, especially in a politically-charged season. “I don’t think that the landscape of Marc Jacobs’ world has ever changed. I just think his choices are now more relevant given what’s going on in the world.”
In recent years, the fashion industry has been catching up to what Time magazine called "The Transgender Tipping Point" in a praised cover story featuring Laverne Cox. Just look at Hari Nef, who cemented her It girl status last year as both a star of Transparent and a personal favorite of Alessandro Michele, and this year may already be having the best season of any model out there, as her off-the-cuff selfies with industry power-brokers like Anna Wintour and new BFF Kendall Jenner can readily attest.
Nef made her runway debut a year ago on Michele's runway, during the Fall 2016 Gucci menswear show, but earlier had appeared in Cast Me Marc, the Jacobs’ 2014 contest to cast Instagrammers in ad campaign shot by David Sims. (It’s one Jacobs revived last year on the hunt for beauty vloggers to follow on the heels of another of his unexpected campaign stars: RuPaul.)
For all these strides, McArthur cautions designers to avoid tokenization just to seem forward-thinking and progressive. “There needs to be a fine balance between supporting a community, and then treating them like commodities,” he said, pointing to his experience in the Jacobs show. “I feel like before it was very oddity-driven, but now it’s filtering down and settling to a place where it’s just normal, which is how it should be—where no one thinks about it too much because it’s normal.”
Get to know the models below, from an Oklahoman who claims she's impossible to offend to a very, very fresh name who made her runway debut at Jacobs thanks to a DM.
“I had a day off on the Sunday night before the show, so I was chilling at home napping, being lazy, maybe going to clean,” said the 23-year-old unsigned model Dara, who spends her days assisting the stylist Ian Bradley. “Then I checked my Instagram DMs.” What she found was a message from Marc Jacobs’ team saying they’d just left her a voicemail and would like her to come in for a casting—never mind the fact that Dara didn’t set out to walk any shows this season and doesn’t even have an agent. Within the hour, though, Dara hauled herself to the designer’s studio on Spring Street and, after running into Alek Wek, found her photo already on the casting board, and already wearing Marc Jacobs: it was the cover Dara shot for Candy magazine, one of ten featuring trans models in an issue guest-edited by Hari Nef. It’s thanks to Nef, in part, that Dara's grown so comfortable in the city after moving to Brooklyn from California just six months ago: she’s known the model-actress for almost four years now, since “I met basically all my friends on the internet,” Dara said with a laugh. Next up is getting signed with an agency, though Dara knows perhaps better than most that’s not always exactly easy. “I've been talking to agencies, but it's difficult because people see me as a risk, even though I don't really see myself as a risky move,” she said. Not that that's stopped Dara. Instead, she's been carefully pursuing projects she cares about, working for forward-thinking designers like the London-based artist Claire Barrow and those who operate in a way similar to Jacobs. “I didn't feel like I was being tokenized in any way or my existence there was being magnified, other than just being there to wear clothes and walk down the runway and stand outside the pictures and have my picture taken,” Dara said of Jacobs' Fall 2017 show. “I didn't feel like it was this message. It was just a seamlessly inclusive environment, and it was just normal.”
“Marc calls me Avi, and I love it,” said Avie Acosta, whose first name actually rhymes with “navy.” It’s a carefree attitude that Acosta, who prefers to give “twentysomething” as her age simply because she likes the sound of it, has worked hard to perfect since moving to New York from Oklahoma less than a year ago. Her modeling career, on the other hand, seems to have come as a breeze since the night Acosta ran into an agent at a party and signed with Wilhemina the very next morning, just three weeks after moving to the city. Though Acosta wasn’t planning on walking any shows this season—all her focus lately has been on her weekly party in the East Village, a Friday night happening in place of a day job called Who Isn’t She?—she ended up making her official runway debut at Philipp Plein, demanding a dark purple lip the second before heading out onto the catwalk with the likes of Desiigner and the “hot felon” Jeremy Meeks. It was at that show that Acosta found out about her Jacobs booking. While she was more than happy to be a part of a cast she found “amazing,” as someone who's branded herself as unflappable when it comes to politics—"unoffendible" was the word she actually used, adding, “I don’t know if it’s a word, but it’s a brand” with a laugh—its diversity, like any sort of label in general, wasn’t exactly of much of Acosta's concern. “I’m on the men’s board [at Wilhemina], I’m on the women’s board, and my manager represents the celebrity board, so it actually makes no sense,” she said with a laugh, though she seems to be enjoying its perks. “I like to think that I’m on none of them. It just means you see me more on their website.”
Though Casil McArthur has been walking runways since he was in his early teens, this season was by far the most comfortable for the model: Marc Jacobs marked his first official fashion week runway debut as a man, as the catwalk gigs he’d landed previously had been under his original modeling name, Dani Rose. At this point, though, the 17-year-old model from Colorado is getting used to things moving quickly—last year, he landed a 16-page spread with the legendary photographer Steven Meisel, plus took part in presentations for both Calvin Klein and Coach. Still, all that's meant a whole additional responsibility for McArthur, who’s also taken it upon himself to become a role model. “I’m a man who is a model, and you don’t have to put trans male model on top of that,” McArthur said. “But as much as I’d like to hide under a cis[gender] label for the rest of my life and go incognito, at the same time, it’s important because there’s people my age and older than me who need to see someone like me doing these things. If I wasn’t public about it and open with it, it wouldn’t be normal.” Which is why McArthur was so thrilled to see the way things were done at Jacobs—not to mention being photographed nonstop outside the show, even though the photographers caught him smoking a cigarette. McArthur’s favorite part of the experience, though, was talking to the rest of the cast backstage, like a trans model who’d spent seasons trying to walk for Jacobs, and was ecstatic about being cast in the show. “It’s a big deal because things are changing, but it’s also changing to where it’s not a big deal anymore,” McArthur said. “That's where you want it to be, where no one thinks about it too much because it’s normal. But it’s still an important thing to think about, you know?”
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