In the weeks leading up to NYFW, fashion industry insiders — and both its avid and quasi-invested followers — wondered what the week would look like in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Would it even be acknowledged? In short, yes. But to what degree? That answer is still to be wholly determined, but one thing's for certain: #MeToo isn't being swept under the runway rug.
This season, there's been even more focus on the treatment of models in regard to sexual harassment and their general health and wellbeing backstage and at shoots. This, of course, has been a hot-button issue for numerous years. In the wake of #MeToo, though, models have grown increasingly vocal about which brands, and people, are guilty.
There's also been a lot of buzz regarding Marchesa's co-founder, Georgina Chapmen, who was married to Harvey Weinstein for a decade and is currently going through a divorce. Chapmen has been radio-silent since the late 2017 allegations. Marchesa was scheduled to present a collection on February 14, but at the end of January — not even two weeks before NYFW — the designers hit the cancel button. According to the NY Post, a source said, “Georgina couldn't go through with it. She was too scared."
The #MeToo Fashion Show
While all this pre-NYFW chatter was happening, Myriam Chalek — the creative director for American Wardrobe —was busy putting together a first-of-its-kind #MeToo fashion show. Though it was not a formal part of the NYFW agenda, the February 9 event was on people's lips in the days and weeks leading up to the show. It was attended by a wide range of media, and guests flooded the room, inside NYC's Yotel, with standing room only.
Mixing fashion with #MeToo still seems a foreign idea, and naturally, nobody really knew what to expect. The full event title was, “The #METOO Fashion Show: Slap the Pig Outta Him!!!" which might have led people to believe it'd be a highly aggressive event. That was not the case.
Eight women, only a few professional models, walked the runway wearing American Wardrobe clothing. The collection itself was strong and feminine with armor-like jackets and an assortment of sturdy wings. But pretty clothes weren't the focus here, and Chalek made that clear. This was about each woman's story and the #MeToo movement at large.
After their first walk down the runway, all eight women re-entered the room to Austra's song, “Hurt Me Now," this time standing next to men wearing pig masks and a pair of handcuffs in hand. Within seconds you could feel a heaviness settle over the emotionally charged room, and the audience was remarkably silent. The music stopped, the women all stood still, and one by one they told their stories with chins held high.
“When I was younger, about 11, I was sexually abused. So, I was working my way around, trying to accept that as a person and to live with it. For a while, I actually thought that it went away," said Melissa Davis.
The 22-year-old model and actress continued, sharing a recent story about a director in Florida who tried to use his power to “get into a relationship" with Davis while she was casting for an acting role in a show positioned to be sold to Netflix. She did not get the role.
“In that situation, I stood up for myself and was very bold and up front and vocal about what type of work I'm doing," she said. “I'm an actress, and I hate the fact that in the modeling industry and entertainment industry, women, we get overlooked for our talent, for our beauty. It's something that happens all the time."
Alicia Kozakiewicz — who was abducted at age 13 by a 38-year-old man and held chained and captive in his basement for four days — also spoke.
“He shared this abuse, this torture, online. He livestreamed it. And there were those out there, who watched it and drew pleasure from my pain. I knew he was going to murder me, and my time was almost up. Thankfully, miraculously, I was rescued. Those chains from around my neck were cut, and I was given a second chance at life," she said.
Male and female models walked the runway handcuffed together
Kozakiewicz's story received international attention in 2002 after the FBI rescued her from Scott Tyree's basement. She's since become a motivational speaker and an internet safety educator and advocate.
She continued, “The nightmare didn't end there. I suffered from PTSD, nightmares, flashbacks, as so many survivors do. And I suffered at the minds of a public who quite literally blamed the victim — certainly something that runs rampant today. And with that, my voice became silenced… but not for long. At the age of 14, I began sharing my story…Here I stand today, on a New York Fashion Week runway, no less, and I declare that I am no longer just a victim."
The event concluded with Sabrina Piper sharing her story of a consensual interaction that digressed into violent rape by the person she was seeing.
“We started getting intimate … it was consent both ways at first," she recalled. “About two or three minutes into it, he stuck his fingers into my vagina. I was like, 'I'm not ready,' to which he said to me, 'you feel ready.' Which is stuck in my mind to this day. He didn't care that I wasn't."
He then physically forced himself onto her and penetrated her, and she repeated that she was not ready to have sex. He apologized and held her, but shortly after penetrated her again from behind.
Pig-masked male models accompanied women on the catwalk
“I guess he thought it was rough sex. That's what I was thinking, and I was just trying to blank out of anything in my mind for a couple of minutes. Then he pulled out and he finished," she said. “It didn't set in until I get into the car and look down and see just a trickle of blood going down my thigh and my skirt."
When she got home, she saw blood everywhere — on her underwear, her clothing, her thighs, her vulva and vagina. Her vulva was swollen to “four times" its normal size, she said. Sitting at home in blood-covered clothing, swollen and in pain, was when she realized it wasn't just rough sex in his mind — she was assaulted.
“I'm not the first girl to go through this whatsoever, and I wish I could say I'll be the last, but unless we all band together — and we do something about it, like seriously, seriously do something about it — it'll just keep happening."
That's exactly what the #MeToo movement is about. It's not a phase and it's not a trend — it's a movement that requires constant discussion until the issue's eradicated. To some, the runway may seem an awkward or unlikely place to convey such a powerful message, but the #MeToo fashion show demonstrated that every voice, every story, and every event that furthers the mission is helping to put an end to all forms of sexual abuse and inequality.
We're here. We're queer. Now that it's pride month, it feels like every store and corporation is flooding us with their best rainbow merchandise, capitalizing on a $917 billion dollar consumer market.
The rainbow flags are out. The mannequins are sporting pride tees. And corporate newsletters are full of interviews showcasing all their queer employees ("Look, we have a gay person here! We GET you!").
To me, this is blatant evidence that the future is queer.
These corporations follow the money, and with 20% of millennials and 31% of Gen Z openly identifying as queer, these businesses have to capitalize on the growing purchasing power of LGBTQIA+ consumers. With a recorded market size of $917 billion dollars in 2016, and a growing interest in socially conscious brands among young consumers, this is clearly a market opportunity that corporations cannot afford to ignore.
However, I'm always surprised by how little attention investors and the entrepreneurial community devotes to this undeniable trend, despite being constantly inundated with overwhelming statistics proving the importance of diversity and inclusion in entrepreneurship. Only 2.2% of venture capital funding went to women in 2018, less than .1% of funding has been allocated to black women since 2009, and only about 1% of venture-backed companies have a black founder or Latinx founder. These statistics are over-quoted but underacted upon.
This gender and diversity inequality significantly hinders economic growth, since 85% of all consumer purchases are controlled by women, and startups with higher ethnic diversity tend to produce financial returns above their industry norm.
The data is clearly leading to one direction: investing in women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, veterans, immigrants, and other minority groups in entrepreneurship leads to higher revenue and better business results.
As data-driven and forward-thinking as this industry claims to be, we haven't caught up to the queer founders, particularly queer women, who are rethinking the future. These founders understand and speak to a generation of increasing numbers of LGBTQIA+ people whose market share will only continue to grow exponentially. VCs and investors are already behind the curve.
SoGal Foundation, a non-profit on a mission to close the diversity gap in entrepreneurship, is helping bridge this divide between queer women founders and investors with the launch of applications for the second annual Global Pitch Competition for diverse entrepreneurs. Hosted in 25+ cities across five continents, and culminating in a final global pitch competition and 3-day immersive educational bootcamp in Silicon Valley, this is the first and only globally-focused pitch opportunity for diverse entrepreneurs.
Startups that are pre-Series A (raised less than $3M) with at least one woman or diverse founder, apply here to pitch! The top teams selected from each regional round will join SoGal's final global pitch competition and bootcamp in Silicon Valley for guaranteed face time with dozens of top Silicon Valley investors, curated educational programming, unparalleled 1:1 mentorship, press exposure, and a chance to win investment capital.
Women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ founders: what's the best way to kick off pride? Apply to pitch!
Regional pitch rounds will be held August-November 2019; final pitch competition in Silicon Valley in February 2020. Details and additional cities to be announced.
SoGal Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and the largest global platform for diverse founders and funders in 40+ chapters across 5 continents; our mission is to close the diversity gap in entrepreneurship. SoGal Foundation's global startup competition represents the first and largest opportunity for women and diverse entrepreneurs and investors to connect worldwide. Join the SoGal community & follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.