Q&A with Ben Barry on the fashion industry: Our chat with the model agent and author of “Can diversity in modelling benefit brands?”
ELLE Canada contributor Ben Barry started a firestorm with research showing that women are more likely to buy from fashion brands when the models look like them. Here, he shares his thoughts on the reaction to his pioneering research on the fashion industry.
Ben Barry, a model agent who recently received his PhD in marketing at Cambridge University and
published the findings of his thesis on diversity in fashion marketing in the June 2012 issue of
ELLE Canada, is trying to recall the most interesting comments that struck him from the worldwide reaction to his piece. “What’s stood out to me…” Barry responds, his voice trailing off into thought. “There’s so many!”
Given the wide-reaching scope of international opinion—from
The Guardian to
Vogue Italia—weighing in on his findings, we brought the conversation back to Barry to gain a little more insight as to what the dialogue he’s started means for the future of the fashion industry— with marketing, consumers and the commenters across the globe who so viscerally (and vocally!) responded to the game-changing results of his study.
Were you surprised by scope and intensity of public reaction to your piece around the world?
I was delighted that it was picked up by so many different outlets in so many different countries. I was definitely surprised but it also validated the findings of my research because I think the media and blogger support was really representative of the women in my research and of their attitudes. When I read all of the support of the research from people Tweeting and blogging and posting, I think that the
women felt validated; that their feelings about models and advertising were finally given voice through the women in my research. And definitely I was surprised at how quickly it happened!
When you started your research on model diversity in the fashion industry did you already think this topic would spark a global debate?
I knew that it would spark debate within the industry because I knew the very question of exploring whether a more diversified approach could be effective would create conversation because it went against industry norms. What I found surprising and fascinating was that that conversation wasn’t only contained within the industry, but actually made its way to general readership and consumers. And the consumers were just as fascinated—if not more fascinated—with the whole dialogue about how models are selected and whether a more diversified approach could be effective, so even though the research explored this question from a business angle and the results are of primary interest to marketers, the conversation or the issue seems to have really interested consumers themselves who want to get engaged.
Read on for more of our chat with model agent Ben Barry on the fashion industry…
In your article, you cite a quote by Karl Lagerfeld that he gave in a recent interview with CNN, in which he says that women continuing to strive for “unreachable beauty” keeps the industry thriving. Were you surprised that women were so vocal about rejecting this notion?
As a researcher, one of the things I learned while I was doing this is that any
preconceived notions [had to be] set aside and I really went into this research with an open mind and with no idea of what I was going to find. I didn’t know what was going to be more effective and in fact I find it quite exciting that what I found was that every
type of model can be effective in a different context. So I think that maybe some of the interest in the results, the foundation of that, is that women still want great fashion, great design, great creativity, but they want to see it on women like themselves. And so I guess in the
Karl Lagerfeld quote, the point that he’s getting at is this idea of unattainable beauty, or unattainable aspiration; what I think is lost there is that the aspiration is the incredible fashion that Karl and others design, the incredible work of hair and makeup artists, and the incredible
work of photographers— that’s what makes an image aspirational, regardless of whether the model is 25 or 65.
Given the success of the Dove’s campaign for Real Beauty, why aren’t marketers more on board with this style of advertising?
I think Dove was definitely groundbreaking with what they did but it’s still the periphery of fashion because is selling soap and shampoo and body lotion—they weren’t selling clothes. And also think they also had a price point that was a lot more attainable for most consumers. I think what’s new terrain is this idea of selling
high fashion and clothing using a diverse group of models. And so I think it’s an experiment and it’s a challenge for many creative people in the industry—both designers and image-makers—to take their vision and their artistry and make it work on all types of women. And so I think that’s where with Dove it was a very natural campaign, it was very groundbreaking insofar as the women were very diverse, and the consumers responded so well to seeing women like themselves, but I think this next stage is really having the fashion creators now work with a diverse group of models and realize that they can still achieve their artistic vision regardless of the type of model they use.
And I think it’s very exciting that diversity is the starting point to creativity rather than an obstacle to impede it. I think this is really the approach that the industry needs to take, whether it be in fashion schools, from introduction to first-year fashion, to marketers and photographers and fashion designers. The diversity needs to be the start of all their creative endeavors and to work from that premise and also realize that when you incorporate diversity into your work, that does not sacrifice great design or great style—that diversity and great design and style go hand in hand.
Given that your research was so positively received, when do you think we could see these changes reflected in advertising?
I hope that it’s started a dialogue where fashion brands can see that diversity actually will not hurt their sales—in fact it will help them. There’s this unrealized economic potential by casting models that reflect their consumer and I hope it really at least provided the starting point of a strategy for fashion brands. I think before with Dove and other successes, many companies just thought they needed to cast diversity for the sake of casting diversity without really understanding the strategy behind it, so what I hope what this has done is maybe moved that conversation forward that Dove helped begin by saying that for diversity to be effective, 1) the models have to mirror the target market, so if you carry clothes up to a size 12, you should use models up to a size 12—those models should reflect the size, age, range of your consumer. The second part is that when you cast diversity, you can’t sacrifice that
artistry and creativity that are a part of fashion.
What reader comments stood out most to the author? Read on to find out…
Are consumers aware of when they’re being duped with tokenism and a disingenuous approach to diversity in marketing?
Absolutely. My research suggested that consumers are very savvy and skeptical of marketing in general, particularly of fashion marketing and I think what’s interesting— and I didn’t talk about this overly in the article, it’s one of the things that’s come out in my research— is that fashion models and designers have the same status as Hollywood movie stars and directors. Fashion now is a sport and people are fascinated with the players and the inner workings of the industry and because of that, are very knowledgeable about how the industry works. And what this has done is it’s created a very savvy and skeptical consumer culture because consumers now are avid
readers of blogs in addition to magazines, they watch TV shows that reveal the inner workings of the fashion industry, they watch movies and
documentaries and because of that, they have higher expectations of fashion brands and are much more critical if they see they’re being marketed to in inauthentic ways.
And so I think if brands are going to incorporate diversity, they’re going to have to make an authentic effort to do so. And we’ve started to see brands do that. I think one of the really interesting cases in Canada is Sunny Fong from
Project Runway Canada, who has consistently incorporated diversity into his shows and since he won the competition, each season he’s always incorporated diversity, in fact featuring a group of really diverse women when he launched his diffusion line back in March. And so because of that we are seeing some designers realize that if they’re going to incorporate diversity, they have to do it in an authentic way. We have some people in Canada doing it but in the industry as a whole, there’s still a ways to go, but I think it presents a really exciting opportunity for people in the industry to embrace change and embark on this diversified approach.
There’s been an incredible response to this article across the web. Any comments that stick out for you personally?
Some of the articles have been really interesting. One of the things that’s really jumped out at me is Vanessa Friedman in the
Financial Times, when she wrote in the intro in her blog post in Material World, that this is the one argument that could maybe move the whole debate in diversity forward. I think it was very exciting because so often in the whole conversation around diversity in fashion, what’s forgotten is that fashion is a business and so there are so many arguments around health and
body image that are really important arguments. But what they negate is the fact that fashion is a business and we also have to look at it as a business and that’s what I hope to do in my research.
I think one of the things—and the next stage of my research— is looking at men. I think some people pointed out why weren’t men included in the study and this was certainly beyond the scope of this one project, but the next research project is that I’m going to conduct the exact same research but look at how men respond to diverse male models in fashion advertising. And I think its important because obviously the male fashion market is growing faster than the women’s and there are lots of fashion brands that are targeted specifically to men. We’ve also started to see this narrowing of the male beauty ideal, just as we’ve seen with women, where there’s certainly not a diversified approach to male modeling and so I think it will be really interesting to look at
men’s responses and see what is there purchase behavior. That’s definitely one of the next stages.
Where are we headed to next in the future of diversity in fashion marketing?
I think diversity is the biggest issue facing the industry and it’s also the biggest revolution that the industry will have to find out how to incorporate and manage and work with over the next decade. And so this research, while I’ve found some really interesting results, it also gave me hundreds of more questions to ask. It’s really exciting to be able to study something academically that also has real-world application. And I think I’ve really benefited from having worked in the fashion industry because it allowed me to see what issues were actually being debated and discussed and talked about in board rooms, among fashion industry professionals and then to take those conversations and apply them in my studies through research. The research also really impacts my teaching, I teach at Ryerson University at the School of Fashion and next year—they just appointed me as an assistant professor of fashion diversity— I’m going to be teaching an introductory course to all the fashion students in the first year and definitely diversity will be a key lens from which I will teach and I’ll incorporate that into everything I do. I think it’s important that it’s built into the curriculum so future designers and image-makers and editors have that understanding of how to incorporate diversity and look at fashion through that framework.