One thing I never expected to worry about is how daunting it can be to dress for a photoshoot. Even though I wasn’t the one being photographed, the pressure of being so close to watching how an image is made was enough to make me take a hard look at my closet. Dressing my body in transition is a challenge in general, but today there were higher stakes — it was a fashion shoot after all. Ultimately, I showed up to my first shoot in a friend’s Hood By Air sweatshirt and my own torn jeans, feeling terminally uncool, especially since I would be in the presence of other trans and non-binary artists and models I’ve admired from a distance — influential creative people like Devan Díaz, Nar Rokh, Pierce Hughes, and Merlot. Cast by rising photography star Lia Clay, the shoot I was attending — the one you'll see here — is a rarity in the industry.
It’s not that fashion hasn’t been supportive of trans people. If you’ve been following along, you might believe that the industry is a stalwart ally to the trans community. Publications like Vogue and The New York Times, and major design houses like Gucci and Marc Jacobs, have boldly recognised trans talent in recent years. Models of trans experience have become fixtures on runways and in major campaigns. Somehow, fashion has made “trans” a trend.
Yet, there is a big difference between celebrating the cool-factor and cachet of transness and actually supporting the community. When people of trans experience are only hired when they're singled out for their gender identity, or fashion magazines and designers conflate transness with the aesthetic of gender-fluidity (like Gigi Hadid wearing a pair of boyfriend jeans), it becomes clear that fashion's acceptance of trans people is almost always skin-deep, no matter how well-meaning it is. But what does it look like when trans people are given the power to tell our own stories? How can fashion support trans creators and models without reducing us to a trend?
And so, today’s shoot is more than just a celebration of trans identity and fashion by those within the community. It’s a chance for me to get an up-close understanding about something I’ve only considered from a distance: How can an industry that’s been so supportive of trans individuals over the years also be so tone deaf?
Clay’s shoot is taking place on the forested grounds of a farm in New Jersey. The kitchen has been transformed into a makeshift beauty parlour by hairstylist Sean Michael Bennett and makeup artist YuuiVision. Devan Díaz, the 25-year-old Queens-based writer has been gamely posing for Clay’s camera in a patch of woods wearing a cream blouse of her own tucked into a floral-print Kenzo skirt. Díaz’s work has appeared in Rookie, Nylon, DIS, as well a series of profiles for a collector’s edition issue of trans-focused style magazine Candy guest-edited by her friend, Hari Nef. This time, she’s in front of the camera. On set, Díaz brings levity, joking about boys and books. When she’s talking about her career, though, she is measured and thoughtful.
“The opportunities for trans people are so few and far between, you just say yes before you even consider, 'What's the long game of this?'” Díaz says. Assignments for trans writers can put them in a position where they’re the token trans person, and they’re often expected to prioritise their transness for the benefit of the publication. “When I was younger, I was taking anything that was coming, and I think it has a lot to do with trans people not being respected or loved or taken care of or nurtured.” As far as modelling opportunities go, she explains, “I've sat for other photographers where they just direct every moment, and I feel like an outline of a person. With Lia, I can be in my body.”
Clay and Díaz have worked together before, including on Nef’s issue of Candy magazine. The 2017 issue was a unique moment in trans representation in fashion: It bridged gaps between generations of creatives within the trans community for an audience with a more mainstream understanding of the trans experience than ever before. For Candy, fashion writer Maya Singer wrote, “Feminism’s work to open up a space for many kinds of beauty and many kinds of womanhood is worthy, and the discourse now should be around opening up enough space that trans women, too, can feel safe occupying a non-conventional femininity. On the flip side, I think that cis feminists can take a lesson from the trans community, and rejoice in the possibilities of self-invention.”
Six months later, Singer penned the cover story for Vogue’s August issue, which read as a surprising misstep: “Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik Are Part of a New Generation Who Don’t See Fashion as Gendered.” The article mentioned brands like Eckhaus Latta and Chromat that help bring New York nightlife’s gender non-conforming dress code to larger markets, and included industry titans like designer Marc Jacobs and agender poet and activist Tyler Ford. But, the article not only equated being trans with being gender-fluid, it also showed a deep misunderstanding of the economic and institutional factors that make trans people a particularly vulnerable population.
Singer’s piece for Vogue quickly became controversial. Pull quotes like Hadid’s claim, “It’s not about gender. It’s about, like, shapes,” began to circulate on social media. A tweet roundup of critical reactions on Buzzfeed received over a million views. Genderqueer and non-binary writers also had their say on Cosmopolitan and Fashionista. They lamented that by using two cis, heterosexual celebrities who liked to share clothing as the faces of gender fluidity, the article fell short of its potential for real representation. A spokeswoman for Vogue told Entertainment Tonight, “The story was intended to highlight the impact the gender-fluid, non-binary communities have had on fashion and culture. We are very sorry the story did not correctly reflect that spirit — we missed the mark.”
Clay, who did a stint at Vogue.com during Fashion Month explains why the story was so contentious: “A collection being more feminine for menswear is a completely different issue than what we as a trans community are going through.” To conflate an aesthetic with a human condition revealed a misunderstanding about the core issue. But for Clay, there’s a constructive way to treat these roadblocks, even if it’s not the easiest. “You can't just automatically lash out at something, because it's not going to help change it, and that's really hard sometimes,” she says. "I am critical. Sometimes it's not necessarily about being outright with it, it's about being subversive.” In other words, Clay believes it’s easier to change minds and policies when you’re already on the inside, and those in power trust your work.
Clay has had plenty of opportunities to do this in 2017. Since her Candy cover shoot, she has worked for mainstream publications like Teen Vogue, The New York Times, and Glamour. “It's difficult, because I'm the only [trans photographer] who is working with any sort of commercial success,” she says. “I hate that. I want there to be more.” She points to fellow trans photographers Leah James, Serena Jara, and Maria Jose as inspirations, and artists she would like to see better recognised by the fashion industry, who still largely employs white and cisgender male photographers.
For Clay, rising through the ranks meant having to work within the system — even if that meant she had to compromise. “I said yes to a lot of the trans stories in the beginning when I was the only one saying yes. It pushed my career a little forward, but now I'm trying to say no,” she says. “I want to be regarded as not just a trans photographer.”
This sentiment illustrates the bind many trans creatives in the fashion industry find themselves in: They’re initially singled out for their gender identity, and then pigeonholed for something that’s both intimately personal and has little (if nothing) to do with their craft. Still, it’s a method that has led Clay on a clear path towards steady, fruitful work. But it remains to be seen if others can find long-term material resources or artistic opportunities by sacrificing their privacy to break into the industry.
Clay’s mission today is to make people feel comfortable on a commercial shoot. This isn’t always the case on other sets where photographers are less interested in the comfort of their actual subjects than the thrill of their perceived viewers. “When I'm doing fashion [shoots], I always feel like I'm doing something wrong, like I shouldn't be seeing what I look like while I'm shooting,” Torraine Futurum says, a major New York-based model who’s worked with everyone from Carly Rae Jepsen to Diane von Furstenberg, Shiseido, and W Magazine. Speaking with her over the phone, Futurum relays that it’s small gestures that can make all the difference. “Lia makes a point to show me photos while she's shooting, which makes me comfortable. It makes me perform better.”
Producer and DJ Nar Rokh points out that the flip side — repeated gestures of disrespect — can discourage people from participating altogether. “I've been trying to avoid shoots where I'll possibly be misgendered or my preferences won't be respected, because they don't know how to cater to trans bodies and experiences,” Rokh says, alluding to when stylists can be willfully lazy or insensitive on set. Many trans models are frequently asked to pose topless on set, and unaware stylists may not pick undergarments that are comfortable to wear. Working with trans-friendly stylists like Marcus Cuffie and Cruz Valdez, who understand how loaded wardrobe adjustments can feel on a body in transition, can make all the difference.
Respect and sensitivity for trans models isn’t just shown through the clothing used in shoots. In between being photographed, artist Merlot sits down with me at a kitchen table, every surface of which is currently commandeered by the day’s beauty supplies. Merlot points out that the absence of a professional hair and makeup set-up can be an insult: “There have been lots of times that I've been asked to come to shoots and there’s been no styling, no makeup people there. It's like, ‘Oh, we want to talk to you raw.’” For makeup artist and designer Pierce Hughes, it's affirming to have a trans team involved in the creation of trans images and conversations: “Sometimes it comes across like [brands are] not comfortable styling a trans person, because they're not sure how you would want to look.”
Hughes and Clay are friends and frequent collaborators (Clay recently shot Hughes for Refinery29), and when it comes to how many trans women are photographed versus how many trans women are photographers, Hughes notes the difference: “The person being photographed is a commodity, but the person behind the camera is in a position of power. That's something that maybe the industry doesn't want to give a lot of space to.”
And when you prioritise representation both in front of and behind the lens, the combination can be magical. This means going beyond hiring trans models for one-offs — it’s about creating space for people of trans experience to touch all parts of the creative process, from photography to styling to editing.
“I think we're in a time of experimentation,” Díaz says. “I don't know if any of us know what the long game is. I think we're just trying to do what feels good, but I think that question should be asked of the gatekeepers in fashion. They’re the ones that can give the opportunity, or can't.”
What’s preventing many within the industry from providing these opportunities can be economic. Most trans models do not have agents, are unfamiliar with pay structures, and are willing to do more for less. “[Brands] started doing street casting, getting people who were popular on the internet. With that, they undercut people,” Futurum says, pointing out that increased diversity in fashion may also be a product of greed. But looking to cast “trendy” talent on the cheap, brands have not had to pay trans models a fair rate. The consequences of this norm extend beyond pay disparity, though. Not only are trans subjects often expected to share their private lives in order to be featured in mainstream publications, but in doing so they end up more vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and violence.
Figuring out where to go from these conversations is more daunting than deciding how to dress for a photo shoot. That’s not to say that what the fashion industry has done to make the trans experience more visible goes unnoticed or unappreciated. Though overdue, major strides have been made in a relatively short amount of time. Change might have started through celebration, but it is sustained by enacting a system of fair hiring practices for people of all gender identities — which would help transform the unwelcoming culture on set for anyone who’s trans or gender non-conforming. In practice, this means that brands will have to treat trans models as unique individuals, rather than spokespeople for their communities writ large. The rules and norms are changing, and it’s time for the fashion industry to show that it has a vested interest in making sure they’re caught up.
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