On a cloudy Friday, Pêche Di floats out of an elevator, into an elegant Union Square apartment. Her mesh Louboutin heels click on the beige wooden floor, her turquoise gown fluttering under a leopard coat. She winds her way to a white leather couch, curling herself inside the coat as she leans into a corner of the sharply angled furnishing.
Di is late to our interview, but I forget almost immediately. Di, 27, is the founder of Trans Models—one of the country's first transgender modeling agencies—and she has the kind of presence that makes people listen to her, whether she shows up on time or not.
Trans Models started in 2015, after Di encountered difficulties modeling as a transwoman: Once, for example, she says she had an advertising campaign pulled after the client found out she was trans. (Di still got paid for her work, but she never saw the final advertisement.) For too long, Di realized, too many other trans models had been treated the same way. But she noticed that the fashion world and culture in general—with its celebration and inclusion of transgender people like Laverne Cox, Andreja Pejić, and Janet Mock in the last few years—was broadening its horizons in terms of gender inclusivity. She wanted to make sure trans models were getting the respect and placement they deserved, not just as models but as human beings. So she began the agency that March, and to much acclaim: Di and the ten men and nine women who made up her agency at the time appeared everywhere from Forbes and Teen Vogue to The Atlantic and more.
Since then, Di has been named to Forbes Magazine's 30 Under 30 in the Fashion & Style category, voted on by top fashion designer Christian Soriano, ipsy founder and YouTube star Michelle Phan, and Artsy founder Carter Cleveland. This year, there were more than 15,000 nominations for 600 spots on the list, making it more competitive to land on the list than to get into Harvard.
In the year and half since she began the agency, Di's models have appeared in i-D and Time Out New York, as well as Budweiser, Smirnoff, and New York City Health Department campaigns. She currently has an MTV True Life documentary in the works. Newer clients are beginning to reach out to the agency, too—National Geographic recently got in touch for their January 2017 Gender Revolution issue, as well as iconic fashion photographer Steven Meisel shooting a campaign for Equinox. "That's a lot to me," Di told me. "I got somebody that's well-known in the fashion world reach out to a small, tiny agency."
Di noted that the agency is small because it's still difficult for non-cis models to get hired. But her "small, tiny agency" is helping pave the way for others to do the same. In 2015, Hari Nef became the first transgender model signed to IMG Worldwide, and other agencies—like Slay Model Management and Apple Model Management, both based in Los Angeles—have borrowed Trans Model's blueprint to start representing exclusively trans talent. Last year, the Oxygen cable network even premiered a reality television series called Strut, about the lives of a group of transgender models.
When minds are more open, there will be more work, Di told me, which is why her next project is to get more representation not just for trans models, but for those who identify as gender non-conforming or non-binary. On top of that, she tries to bring on models who are also activists: "Beauty and brains need to be there because I want to build an army that's not just beautiful but also badass and smart," she told me.
In turn, Di hopes to protect transgender models against discrimination in the industry, standing up for them to make sure they are being seen as they want to be seen and treated with dignity and respect. For example, in a recent documentary film i-D made about the agency, model Corinne Hamilton discusses an experience at a shoot where she was asked to "show her transition" by dressing first in typically male clothes and then in typically female clothes. Hamilton, rightfully angry, had to explain to the crew that she only does womenswear. In situations like these, Di is able to work with casting and the model to make sure everyone is on the same page about how each individual model prefers to express their gender presentation.
It's no small feat for Di, who is not just the booker for the agency, but also the manager, photographer, the videographer, the video editor, the den mother, the social media coordinator, the web designer, the web master, and more. Last year, she worked seven days a week to keep the agency alive. She felt burnt out and is looking to make some changes in 2017, including hiring interns and training them on the ins and outs of what makes an agency function, so Trans Models can continue to grow.
"I want to hire LGBTQ people. I want to give the jobs to them to give back to [my] own community," she told me.
In a political climate where for so many fundamental human rights and even simple dignities like going to the bathroom are at stake, the fact Trans Models not only exists but continues to grow offers hope that a vibrant voice for change, inclusivity, and acceptance can win in a fight against intolerance. Di has even become a spokesperson of sorts for gender inclusivity in the fashion world, with speaking engagements at institutions across New York, like one panel called "Ungendering Fashion" at the Museum of the City of New York and another called "Trans Culture Through Media" at the International Center of Photography. She is also the co-developer of the dating app Teadate, which is specifically for transgender people, a project she took on because she struggled, she said, finding somebody to date who would understand her gender. The app currently has about 20,000 users and, like Trans Models, continues to grow.
To Di, it's mind-boggling that the country is still in a place where people have to tell each other "we have to be loving and caring and understanding of other people of different gender[s]," but she sees Trans Models as a way to offer her own demonstration.
"My company and my work is something that's liberating," she said. "[It's] something I'm doing in terms of protesting."
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