“We have a seat at the table, we’re just not going to eat crumbs anymore.”
The fashion industry is in a long-awaited era of change. The past decade has brought a slow yet sure move towards an inclusive future by redefining dated ideas of what traditional beauty looks like in the Nordics and beyond. The rise of prominent trans models like Valentina Sampaio, Hunter Schafer and Scandinavia’s very own Ceval Omar — who recently became the first trans model to sign a contract with YSL beauty — have brought an evolution, pushing the industry to a point where it truly reflects the world around us and the people in it.
In 1971, Tracey "Africa" Norman became the first mainstream trans model after photographer Irving Penn hand-picked her at a casting call for Vogue Italia. Norman went on to walk for the likes of Balenciaga and signed contracts with beauty brands like Clairol, but the work swiftly disappeared when she was outed as trans. Today, the industry’s overarching progressive stance in not only accepting but championing trans models is making major contributions to the visibility of the trans community and their rightful place in society.
I’m saying respect who we are, understand that we're part of the landscape and shift your thinkingCecilio Asunción
Cecilio Asunción, the founding director of Slay Model Management - the world’s first trans-exclusive model agency, is at the forefront of this change. Asunción launched the agency in 2016, shortly after the release of his reality TV show Strut, an insight into the fashion industry through the lens of trans models, with Whoopi Goldberg as an executive producer. “Starting out doing something that nobody else has done before has its challenges but when you’re passionate about it, it’s worth it,” Asunción tells Vogue Scandinavia.
“I’ve always thought trans is beautiful but I think the biggest challenge is really having to school casting directors and producers to reframe their ideas of what beauty is.” This is something that takes time, patience and consistency but once achieved, pays off in abundance by harnessing the means to make a fundamental change to the status quo and the ways in which the world sees and portrays trans people. For Asunción, whose agency often works with Ryan Murphy to cast models in his hit TV series, Pose, the aim is genuine equality. “I’m saying respect who we are, understand that we're part of the landscape and shift your thinking,” he says. “You have to reframe it within yourself too, because if the most interesting thing about you is the fact that you’re trans then there’s a problem. I’m not selling trans-ness and I’m selling beauty.”
Ceval's debut campaign for YSL beauty. Photo: @yslbeauty / @ceval
Wholehearted acceptance and inclusion for the trans community in fashion is something many models are still waiting to witness. Swedish-Eritrean model, Florence Ogbay agrees that ultimately, it boils down to educating individuals. “We’re slowly moving towards a more diverse and inclusive industry. In Scandinavia, however, I would say that education is of high importance,” she says. “In order to continue to create a diverse and inclusive environment in Scandinavia, knowledge is vital.”
For Ogbay, who’s signed to Scandinavian creative agency, FIIRI, the positive changes in the industry are apparent. “I love working with talented creative people and seeing visions and concepts evolve,” she says. She’s aware, however, that we’re only at the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come. “I wish to see an all-encompassing, diverse and inclusive industry in every part within it. Not just on the surface.”
I wish to see an all-encompassing, diverse and inclusive industry in every part within it. Not just on the surfaceFlorence Ogbay
The idea of trans inclusion being a ‘trend’ or a passing moment is a prominent and valid part of the conversation, especially as the fashion industry has a reputation of tokenism. It’s something Asunción is constantly conscious of when landing castings for his models. “I always tell my models, you are models first, you’re trans people second. It’s so easy to fall victim to the fetisisation that’s going on,” he admits. “It’s something trans models and all models who are people of colour or from the LGBTQ+ community have to be aware of.”
Long-lasting change is always a gradual process. What we see today is the result of decades of persistence and fighting against a system that rejects you, from Norman in the 1970s to Ogbay and the new generation of trans models shaping the future today. My models have been working. There is a consistent level of work and we’re respected,” adds Asunción. “We have a seat at the table, we’re just not going to eat crumbs anymore.”