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The unstoppable rise of the activist model

From Amanda Gorman to Marcus Rashford, a string of high profile campaigners are being signed up to top modelling agencies. Is activism just the latest must-have trend?

The activist turned model

Last week, National Youth Poet Laureate and the star of Biden’s inauguration Amanda Gorman was signed to IMG models – agency home of Gigi and Bella Hadid, Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss, to name a handful – along with Kamala Harris’s step-daughter Ella Emhoff. Meanwhile sports stars turned social campaigners Maro Itoje and Marcus Rashford have been picked up by Ralph Lauren and Burberry respectively.

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka, 23 year-old tennis superstar and anti-police brutality and racial justice advocate, recently became the latest Louis Vuitton brand ambassador, with creative director Nicolas Ghesquière dubbing her ‘an exceptional woman who represents her generation and is also a role model for everyone.’ The new hot thing in modelling is not a look, but a voice.

Buying power

Hiring powerful activists and social campaigners is a smart financial move for luxury brands. Gen Z care more than any other age bracket about brands having a social conscience: 68% of Gen Zers expect brands to contribute to society. They also have serious buying power. Gen Z now account for 40% of global consumers, and have an estimated spending power of $143 billion. Gorman’s already proven herself to be a savvy investment for fashion houses: the sunshine yellow Prada coat she wore to the inauguration, searches for ‘yellow coat’ increased by 1,328% according to Lyst.

But you have to wonder if model-activism has a purpose beyond brand-building. It’s great that activists are spreading their message far and wide, and gaining bigger profiles. But are brands really motivated by anything other than their profit margins? And does it matter if they are?

The model turned activist

Besides which, questions remain over how much the glut of Instagram photos of models reading Simone de Beauvoir in the bath is really doing to further the feminist cause.

Models have shifted from muses to marketing machines. Some of the most successful celebrities are one woman marketing powerhouses: Kim Kardashian, Victoria Beckham. Younger models who follow the curve often do well: those at the top – such as Gigi Hadid, who has 31.7 million Instagram followers – don’t simply model; brands fall over themselves to find interesting ways to reach her followers.

Gigi Hadid

While some models are pushing for – and achieving – genuine change, others can jump on the bandwagon only to fall straight off it. Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad was one such example: trying to sell a soft drink by aping a symbolic moment from the Black Lives Matter movement encapsulates how to fail at being woke. Just weeks before the Pepsi furore, Karlie Kloss came similarly unstuck after dressing as a geisha for a photoshoot that ran – can you believe it – in US Vogue’s diversity issue.

But…

That said, models have campaigned for – and rightfully won – better treatment in the industry, and have gained media coverage that convinced brands to take more care of them. One such example is when Donald Trump’s modelling agency closed after model Maggie Rizer and others publicly denounced the boss.

Models speaking out about racism, ageism and body fascism has made strides towards inclusivity in the industry. From Halima Aden becoming the first hijab-wearing top model at Milan fashion week to septuagenarian stars in underwear campaigns, models have pushed for brands to show a version of beauty that looks a little more like you and me.

Despite its pitfalls, the rise of the activist-model does feel like progress that’s much needed in 2021. Whatever the motivations behind it, the fact that powerful people are being platformed across the fashion world is going to ultimately do more good than harm.

Got strong feelings on the matter? Email them to emma@theknowmedia.co