Is The Fashion Industry Still Failing at Trans Inclusivity?
Despite a previous lack of media coverage, trans models aren’t exactly a new phenomenon – it’s just that, in the past, they’ve had their careers ruined by transphobia.
When Alejandra Muñoz was just 14 years old, she had her brief career as a professional model cut short. “I told my agency I was going to transition, so they threw me out,” she recalls. “They weren’t disrespectful or anything, they just told me I wouldn’t book any jobs – they didn’t even see it as a possibility.”
Now, 24-year-old Muñoz has a fashion degree from London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins under her belt, as well as regular modeling gigs for industry trailblazers like design duo Art School. “It used to be that, no matter how pretty you were, there was no chance,” she continues. “But some of the world’s biggest agencies have trans models on their books now. That’s kind of amazing to me!”
Naturally, decades of activism have facilitated this rise, but a tangible turning point came back in 2014, when TIME Magazine chose actress Laverne Cox as a cover star. The headline boldly declared a ‘Transgender Tipping Point’, whereas the cover story delved deeper, identifying a combination of shifting attitudes, digital activism and increasing trans representation as a catalyst for lasting change. A year later, Caitlyn Jenner seemingly confirmed this theory with her historic Vanity Fair cover story.
Gradually, a handful of trans pioneers began making headlines – especially in the fashion industry, where models like Hari Nef, Aurel Haize Odogbo and Andreja Pejić were carving out impressive portfolios. Meanwhile, designers like NO SESSO (a duo made up of Pierre Davis and Arin Hayes) and Gogo Graham were met with similar acclaim for their conceptual, innovative collections, which seemed to indicate that fashion was on the cusp of becoming a blueprint for genuine trans-inclusivity.
Since then, a global shift towards right-wing politics has changed the cultural landscape. Trans rights have been rolled back and hate crimes have risen swiftly. In this climate especially, the fashion industry needs more than ever to make a statement of solidarity.
Arguably, progress has stalled over the last few years. But there have still been major steps forward, one of which – SLAY Model Management, the world’s first specialist agency for trans and genderqueer models – was founded by Cecilio Asuncion back in 2015. He first made inroads with the trans community while filming 2013 documentary What’s The T?, which introduced him to a network of trailblazers and crucial non-profit organizations like Trans:Thrive.
Throughout filming, he became convinced that trans talent had the potential to make the same impact as ‘90s supers like Naomi and Linda, they just weren’t being spotlighted. “I just figured, why not? A lot of trans women have that same physicality, so I just started scouting them myself.”
Within months, Asuncion had built an agency and landed a reality TV deal with Strut, a series which tracked the lives and experiences of SLAY’s models. “I get around 10-15 applicationg per day, which shows that people know about us; they know the roster is working, and that there’s a home for trans models and their careers.” In fact, demand has grown to the extent that the agency will launch its first model search on February 15th. “We got 500 applications, which we’ve whittled down to 25,” he tells me, the excitement in his voice palpable. “It’s not just U.S. models either – there are women from the UK, Hong Kong, the Phillipines… I’m really proud of that.”
Asuncionunderlines that, despite a previous lack of media coverage, trans models aren’t exactly a new phenomenon – it’s just that, in the past, they’ve had their careers ruined bytransphobia.
A designer who knows this from experience is Vin, co-founder of elusive label Vin + Omi. “We’ve used trans models for decades, and attitudes have definitely changed enormously,” recalling that buyers would explicitly tell them not to use trans models. But the brand has always prioritized progressive values, namely inclusivity and sustainability. “We never used to listen to them – we’ve always been about mixing things up.” This means doing more than just casting trans models; it’s about building a diverse team across the board. “A large number of people we work with don’t identify as cisgender, which is great. They actually sometimes work out their own journey through talking to us, because we’re with them a lot – sometimes 12-hour days. It’s really about an exchange of ideas, not just about focussing on sales or trends.”
But Muñoz explains that this diversity rarely extends to positions of power, especially in influential houses. “Those important roles are nearly always given to white men,” she explains, “which means that trans representation often comes through a straight, cisgender lens. That’s important. We don’t get to tell our own stories, and these straight, white guys get to cash in the coins!”
This isn’t just a diversity issue, either – it’s about the quality of the work. Muñoz created a stellar graduate collection with daring, low-cut silhouettes, anime-style aesthetics and genuinely innovative looks. “It was technically womenswear, but I chose a lot of androgynous models because I thought it was important to represent that transition period of a trans woman’s life. Plus, I think bringing that masculine element to womenswear is actually quite sexy.” In her eyes, cisgender designers tend to play it safe or tread on eggshells. She points to the rise of high-street ‘unisex’ collections as an example: “These big corporations make them as simple and safe as possible to cash in on the concept, but they move away from the core idea: it doesn’t really matter what you wear.”
Arguably, the industry is still struggling to move away from tokenization. Asuncion says he has various returning clients, but wants to see a commitment to constant representation: “Don’t just cast our models for Pride season, or try to find a model that looks ‘trans enough’ that you can have bragging rights,” he urges. “Hire them because they’re beautiful, not because they’re trans.”
Muñoz concurs, expressing optimism that designers are increasingly moving towards co-ed collections. “I walked during this last menswear season, which was interesting, because it really does feel like that concept is dying,” she explains. “I really do feel like fashion will just start merging, in all aspects.”
Despite progress, there are still suspicions of tokenization which will only disappear over time. Headlines recently misidentified Pierre Davis of NO SESSO as the first trans designer to show during NYFW, which was untrue. That honor probably goes to Gogo Graham – but ultimately, the ‘first’ shouldn’t matter.
“It shouldn’t just be about ‘firsts,’” concludes Muñoz, who argues that press coverage often minimizes the talented designers lost in the headlines. “We’re finally starting to be accepted and allowed to live normal lives, but it does still feel like trans models are being made to fight for the same spot.” Ultimately, her wish is to see trans success stories normalized, so that the people behind them can be treated like just any other talent. “There has definitely been a start, but ultimately I want to get to the point where we’re just considered as ‘models’ or ‘designers’ – without that ‘trans’ label attached.”
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