A raft of designers and models are rewriting rigid fashion codes by blurring the gender divide and upending runway rules. Get a handle on these boundary-breaking personalities who are using their social media platforms as a source of good.
Model, actress, activist
Although Nef is the first trans woman signed to international talent agency IMG Worldwide, the Philadelphia native thinks that being trans is not the most interesting thing about her. “Gender is whatever. We need to listen to people, not labels, not semantics,” says the 29-year-old, who recently landed a role in the feature film adaptation of Barbie directed by Oscar-nominated Greta Gerwig. After graduating with honours in drama and theatre arts from Columbia University, the style trailblazer made her Milan runway debut at Gucci, before modelling for other fashion heavyweights such as L'Oréal and Hugo Boss. Leveraging social media as a megaphone to promote transgender rights is only part of her digital playbook — she has spoken with writer-director Lena Dunham in a Women of the Hour podcast and visited the White House as part of its “Champions of Change” tribute to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender artists.
Latvian-British singer-songwriter, creative director, model
Modesta lost her lower left leg at the age of 15, but that has not stopped her from establishing a career as a model, artist and musician. Her prosthetic leg, a vintage piece dotted with silver body-piercing pins, has become part of her “bionic” persona in the underground nightlife scene and on the fashion circuit. Armed with an unusual artistic sense, Modesta realised she became her own best project — she helped design a series of prosthetics with the Alternative Limb Project and it became a touchstone for those looking to defy how society perceives disabilities. Subsequently, MIT Media Lab invited her to join its Director’s Fellows programme, that gathers innovators from disparate areas of expertise to collaborate. These days, she is dancing to her own beat and preaching positivity via her new music album.
Entrepreneur, model, blogger
Not having the type of hair that is considered “womanly” in the culture at large can dent one’s self-esteem, as evidenced by Jada Pinkett Smith’s medical condition, which played a major role in her husband’s fiasco at the Oscars this year. Many women are taking being different in stride though, including Bombay-based blogger and model Toshada Uma, who has been dealing with alopecia since she was nine. A fan of Japanese fashion stalwart Rei Kawakubo, the petite model channels her penchant for the avant-garde and radical into her daily getup without letting criticism about her tresses get to her. Sportswear giant Nike may have given Uma her big break, but she is not one to rest on her laurels — the young entrepreneur aims to put India on the map by launching an apparel and accessories line by the name AltShop soon.
Photographer and filmmaker
Known for her powerful imagery and usage of vivid colours, Camila Falquez’s editorial works have graced the pages of Vogue, Porter Magazine and The New York Times, featuring the likes of Anya Taylor-Joy, Penelope Cruz and Isabella Rossellini. But this Colombian, Mexican and Spanish photographer’s personal project, Being (and its second instalment), is what truly encapsulates her adroit mastery of telling stories with a single frame. The project challenges traditional ideas of beauty, bringing forth subjects from various marginalised communities onto a pedestal to occupy a space from which they have been long excluded. View the photos at beinginhistory.com.
Fashion influencer, model
Dubbed Tik Tok’s best-dressed man by Vogue, Wisdom Kaye is often the subject of admiration for his contemporary-meets-classic-1970s’ style and expressive fashion sense. With eight million followers and counting, Kaye makes creative videos that disprove myths, such as you cannot wear navy and black, or boots with shorts, by demonstrating these looks with panache. He takes joy in illustrating how there are no boundaries in fashion, incorporating pieces from the women’s section and styling outfits with what you already own. Kaye’s popularity has led to major collaborations, including with Dior, Coach and Fendi, and a modelling contract with IMG. The 21-year-old social media icon made his runway debut last year at Balmain’s Spring 2022 show.
Deaf and trans-masculine actor, artist, model
Many may know Chella Man as the mute superhero Jericho in DC Universe’s live-action original series Titans, but the New York-based creative was representing the deaf community way before he landed the role. Identifying himself as “deaf, trans, Chinese and Jewish”, Man has relentlessly advocated for inclusivity through art, be it in the form of paintings, fashion or film. He was a columnist for Condé Naste’s first queer publication Them, is the first deaf and trans-masculine model at IMG and collaborated with Opening Ceremony to launch a radically inclusive clothing line. Last year, Man released his debut book Continuum, which highlights the revelations he discovered growing up dealing with systemic oppression.
Activist, influencer, beauty entrepreneur
Harlow is loving the skin she is in, so much so that she has launched a beauty line recently to help other women who have vitiligo, a condition that disrupts melanin production. But self-acceptance and fame did not just land in the lap of the former America’s Next Top Model contestant. It took years for her to get over a bout of physical abuse and disparaging name-calling as she slowly embraced being outside of the norm. After putting her best face forward for brands like Fendi, Marc Jacobs, Puma and Steve Madden, the Jamaican-Canadian has continued to share her life living with depigmentation through a TEDx presentation, YouTube videos and, most recently, actress Drew Barrymore’s talk show.
Fashion and beauty model
Ellie Goldstein had her breakout moment when she starred in an international editorial campaign for Gucci Beauty in partnership with Vogue Italia in 2020. She was the first model with Down syndrome to pose for the luxury brand, which garnered worldwide attention and support from fans, especially those with a similar condition. Since then, the British 19-year-old has served as the face of Laura Mercier, the cover girl for Glamour UK and is currently part of Adidas’ Impossible is Nothing campaign. She hopes to be a role model for people with disabilities and inspire others to be confident and unashamed of being themselves.
First plus-size male model
Male models typically perpetuate two looks: the gym-chiselled physique perfect for runway or the gaunt, androgynous demeanour usually found in magazine spreads. Miko fits snugly between both, filling the fashion chasm with his 6ft 6in (1.98m) stature and an affable, boy-next-door appeal that makes him capable of selling anything. Although the former actor-comedian is known for ushering in a new wave of talent by pioneering IMG’s Brawn division (the agency’s first section devoted wholly to plus-sized men), he is also famous for launching a podcast called Big Things, hoping that men can take away something from women’s plus-size revolution. Just as women are speaking up to overcome their body-image struggle, Miko wades through bravado and false masculinity by shedding the negative correlation that “big” means “fat”.
Nalisa Alia Amin
Body acceptance advocate, model
Plus-size model Nalisa Alia Amin is an inspiration to many, not only for her tenacity in advocating for change in Malaysia’s fashion and beauty industry, but also her vulnerability in opening up about personal struggles with body image and mental health. Previously a writer for fashion magazines, Nalisa debuted as a model at KL Fashion Week — the first plus-size woman to do so — for Min Luna in 2018 and has since done fashion campaigns with Syomirizwa Gupta, Levi’s and Zalora to name a few. Her wardrobe consists of many local brands, some of which she models for, including Summer & Peach, Wanderlust + Co and Ozero Swimwear.
This article first appeared on Apr 25, 2022 (Spring/Summer 2022 issue) of The Edge Malaysia.