Fashion Is Flirting with Non-Normative Models, But Is It All for Show?

We spoke to Harry Freegard, who was cast in Vivienne Westwood's latest campaign, about the balance between representation and exploitation.

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Feb 9 2018, 12:15pm

Harry Freegard. Photo via @harrie.bradshaw

How do you know if you’re boring? Last week, I wore red shoelaces on my trainers. And it bothered me all day. I'm a woefully timid dresser; there are about four things in my wardrobe that aren’t navy blue. So, for me, this was out there. I felt like I was sounding a car horn every time I took a step.

I was still agonising about my shoes, wishing I’d just worn the crappy Vans that I put on every day, when Harry Freegard arrived to meet me. At six feet tall, with hair that’s not so much bleached as industrially disinfected, he’s dressed in a one-shouldered velvet dress that he made himself. "I just staple fabric around myself until it falls apart," he shrugs. As he speaks, his gold earrings swing into the stubble on his jawline. I don’t think he agonises over his shoelaces.

It would be easy to dismiss Harry as yet another fashion student with a carefully cultivated eccentricity. As he cheerfully admits, he’s on a well-trodden path: he grew up as the only gay kid in rural Wiltshire. He wanted to be like Alexander McQueen. He went to Central St Martins. He lives in a shared flat in Dalston and spends his nights at Vogue Fabrics. "It’s the old, clichéd story," he acknowledges.

The difference is that, at 22, he’s already achieved a fairly impressive level of celebrity. He’s appeared on magazine covers and been shot by the revered photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. He’s walked in catwalk shows during London Fashion Week, with the resulting images appearing in national newspapers, though he didn’t think to buy any of them: "I’m sure my mum has copies." And, a few weeks ago, he was cast as one of the models in Vivienne Westwood’s Autumn/Winter advertising campaign, which will appear in fashion magazines globally. For a man who's significantly larger than a typical model – and one who dresses exclusively in women’s clothing – it’s an unexpected turn of events.

Harry is one of several figures who represent an apparent U-turn in fashion: after decades of upholding a notoriously exclusionary ideal of beauty, luxury labels and high-street brands alike are falling over themselves to crow about their "woke" credentials and their commitment to casting a variety of body sizes, ages, ethnicities and gender identities. Even Vogue, a former paean to the thin white woman, has begun profiling trans activists and running editorials about race alongside its advertorials for handbags.

In London, too, there’s a groundswell of younger designers abandoning models entirely and casting their shows with "real" people, whether old, queer, fat or just not that conventionally beautiful. At fashion week, Harry walked in the catwalk show for the emerging brand Rottingdean Bazaar, alongside the 48-year-old illustrator Julie Verhoeven and the designer Liam Hodges, who's missing his two front teeth. To be sure, it’s a refreshing change. Fashion shows can be drily predictable. So the sight of Harry, closing the show in a blue slip dress, while inexplicably carrying a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Naomi Campbell, brought the house down.

Equally, though, it’s hard to shake the sense that there can be something exploitative about this kind of casting. Several brands have already been accused of using non-normative models as a marketing gimmick, and abandoning them at the first sign of any controversy – most famously in the rift between L’Oréal and the transgender model Munroe Bergdorf. It’s something Harry is mindful of. "I think it can definitely be said for some brands," he reflects. "There are a lot of people that are suddenly interested in shooting me. And I have to say no to a lot of things. But I don’t believe it’s true of the brands I work with. I mean, Rottingdean Bazaar are friends with pretty much everyone they cast."

He’s aware, though, that for many other brands it’s nothing more than an exercise in public relations. "It’s not considered enough. It’s like these people are just thrown in. And it's strange, also, to use queer people to advertise clothes that they could never afford to buy themselves." Harry also questions whether a well-intentioned advertising campaign or a progressive choice of spokesmodel can have any real effect beyond the confines of Instagram. "It’s like how ASOS are now doing this non-gendered makeup line," he says. "But when I was walking past the launch event for it with my friend, the security guard started whistling at us and shouting abuse."

Harry is still acclimatising to the reality of modelling. While he’s positive about the experiences he’s had so far (he describes Westwood and her team as "pleasant. More pleasant than I thought they were going to be"), it’s a world he’s still not fully comfortable with. He recalls a recent casting session for a large advertising campaign: "It was really daunting," he says. "It was this huge room, full of models, where everyone is naked and trying things on. And I realised that everyone else was just a real model with a slightly quirky look. And then there was me. I was the only one that was cast through Instagram."

He’s ambivalent, too, about being used for the agenda that fashion brands are at pains to push. "I mean, it’s a good thing, of course, and I care about representation," he says. "But I’m not an activist for it." Besides, outside of his work, the reality of his daily life – as a person whose appearance sits outside of gender norms – is still challenging. He’s followed, shouted at or harassed in the street. "It's all the time. Non-stop." But he’s sanguine about it. "The most fun, actually, is catching people taking sneaky pictures of you. Because then you can really shout at them."

As we wrap up, I try out a theory on him. I suggest that we’re culturally conditioned to view anyone "other" – fat people, disabled people, trans people – only with either disgust or pity. His eyes narrow. "I don’t think I ever give anyone the opportunity to pity me," he muses. And, as for the fashion industry, "If they don’t get me, I don’t care. The doors it closes for me are the doors I don’t want to go into anyway. Everything else is so boring." And, as he says it, I’m convinced that his eyes flicker towards my trainers.

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