Ben Barry interview
Ryerson University’s Ben Barry on remodelling fashion’s paradigm
Words— Sarah Steinberg
Ben Barry was a mere fourteen years old when he started his own modeling agency devoted to representing a diverse clientele. It was 1997, and the modelling world was dominated by Cindy, Christy, Kate, and Claudia. Diversity basically meant Naomi. What it did not mean was a model with a disability, or a model who was not sample sized, or a model past the age of forty. Minds were blown. Macleans called Barry one of the “twenty-five leaders of tomorrow.” He was profiled in the Wall Street Journal. Oprah had him on the show in 2001. Slowly, his vision gained traction. By 2004, conversations about beauty ideals and standards had begun both in the mainstream media and the fashion industry. But Barry’s ambitions were big, and a dialogue wasn’t going to cut it. No, he was more like: let’s just dismantle the prevailing fashion paradigm that uses exclusion and self-doubt as the modus operandi to drive sales! To that end, he went to Cambridge University, earned a PhD, and made a business case that using a diversified casting approach actually benefits brands.Now he’s back in Toronto where he’s the incoming Chair of Ryerson University’s School of Fashion. And not surprisingly, he’s staying (stylishly) woke.
In 1997, when you were creating a modeling agency, most 14-year-olds in North America were watching 90210. How did you have the presence of mind at such a young age to understand that what was being reflected back to us in pop culture and fashion was skewed?
I was watching 90210, too. And Saved By The Bell. And I don’t think I had the presence of mind: I was just a kid in grade 9 who hung out with his friends and was pretty aware from everyday conversations that fashion and pop culture imagery made people feel badly about themselves; that my friends weren’t confident in their bodies because we lived in a world that's saturated with this one unattainable ideal.
Why are we saturated with this one unattainable ideal?
It’s multi-layered…From an industry perspective, there's a steadfast belief that consumers want to see an image that's aspirational, and “aspirational” is defined by the fashion industry as an image that is unattainable. And then there's also the people in creative positions of power that build their entire careers based on glorifying one ideal of beauty. Asking them to change that challenges the core of their career and what they believe is creative vision. The other part of this story is: who are the people around the table that are making these decisions? If we look carefully we see that people in leadership positions are primarily white men.
So why does it matter if there’s diversity in the fashion industry?
It matters because fashion creates culture. Fashion is culture. We look at images and that allows us to feel included or excluded; to imagine who we could be, what our futures could be, or what our futures could not be. Fashion is the most intimate form of culture because it's worn on the body. It impacts how we feel in our skin, how we feel about our bodies, and how we perceive ourselves and other people,
If we promote an ideal of beauty that's unattainable and hold that up as the standard, people who try to achieve that are taking energy that they could devote to so many ambitions and dreams and instead spend it feeling they're inadequate. That's what the fashion industry has done - it's diverted energy away from making the world better by having people focus on what they're lacking. When the truth is they're lacking absolutely nothing, they've just been sold this idea that they're lacking in something.
I think the other thing is that fashion operates on a hierarchal model. It is defined by creating this very small circle of who is included, and everyone outside the circle is not. But it hopes that everyone outside will be trying to cross the boundary into the circle.
When you put it that way it’s clear that fashion is political.
Fashion is absolutely political. It has always been political. Fashion creates ideals and ideas about the body, about identity, about who people are. But fashion is also really fun! I love opening my closet every day and thinking about what I want to wear and who I want to be. The problem is when we don’t actually have those choices. Either clothes are not made for our bodies, or we want to select clothes to represent who we are but as soon as we leave our homes and move to the street we're subject to insults, stares, violence. We can’t be who we are in the clothes we want to wear purely for safety.
What do you think would help?
I think we need to get rid of the entire paradigm that exists about exclusivity in fashion. But I also don’t think we should get rid of thin, white, able-bodied models. A mistake in the debate about size diversity is blaming the model or saying ‘all models should be size 14 and not size 2’. All that does is hold up another ideal of beauty that’s used to alienate people. So now some women are empowered and others are alienated. I think we have to move beyond this notion of selling an ideal and instead recognize that there is a panorama of beauty and bodies - and designers can speak to all of them in their own way. Maybe they focus on a niche, but we don’t need to operate on this idea that some people are beautiful and others aren’t.
A total paradigm shift!
Part of the reason I moved from [the fashion] industry to academia was because I recognized that within the industry I was always working within system. But in order to make this systemic change I wanted to see I needed to completely change the system. And I couldn’t do that by playing within the current one.
Now you’re the Chair of the Ryerson School of Fashion, and your mission is to “create a more diverse and inclusive fashion industry”. What are next steps?
My goal is to help recruit and educate the next generation of fashion leaders who will create a diverse industry. This means recruiting students from a variety of bodies, backgrounds, and lived experiences. That's critical. And the second way is to ensure that their bodies, cultures and lived experiences are valued in the classroom. So often fashion has been Eurocentric, so that anything that’s not in a European tradition hasn’t been called fashion, it's been called “clothing” or “costume”. And I want to get rid of that notion. And then it's really about ensuring that designers have a critical perspective through which they're making decisions, as they're thinking through every decision they make and the impact it has. One example would be around cultural appropriation. Thinking through questions like: are you engaging with another culture? If you are, are you authentically collaborating? Are you sharing power? Who was around the design table? How are you sharing profits? Is this a sacred or spiritual artifact or motif? So really giving students a critical perspective so that they’re making smart decisions.
Speaking of smart, is your academic wardrobe fabulous?
Oh yeah! I will totally wear a sequined jumpsuit to class or if I’m presenting to a conference.
So, sequins or cheetah print?
Linen or spandex?
Rhinestones or rubies?
Message tee or graphic tee?
Message tee. I can’t resist a direct political statement.