"They looked me up and down and said, 'Fashion is not for you.'” That was the experience of Fashion Bomb Daily founder Claire Sulmers while working in the editorial department at a magazine. But instead of letting that slammed door stop her, Claire stuck to a mantra of "I will not lose," and built something different. Something inclusive. Something that matters. The @fashionbombdaily IG currently has over a million followers and the site serves as a platform for people who had the audacity to exist, when an industry told them otherwise. "We decided to take the bull by the horns," the editor and Harvard grad explained. "With a tremendous platform, you can’t afford to be silent."
It is a sentiment echoed by all of the women who took to the stage for the Beyond the Binary panel at Create & Cultivate NYC, moderated by Bobby Kim. "If you're not going to give me the job, I’m going to go out there, find it, and do it better," said Deddeh Howard, the Liberian-born model who last year released her Black Mirror photo series, where she replaced models like Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid in major campaigns.
“There are a lot of women who feel like they don’t fit inside a pretty little box, but there are a lot of people out there who are looking for something different,” shared Claire.
“I worked in the fashion industry for nine years in public relations,” shared Katie Sturino of 12ish Style. “My mentality was always, ‘Why am I so fat?’ ‘Why can’t I fit into these clothes?’ But I flipped the script and asked why am I punishing myself like that?”
Also joining them on stage was model Emily Sears who gained notoriety last year when she began DM'ing the girlfriends and wives of men who would send her dick pics. "There is no picture of what a feminist looks like," Sears told the crowd, acknowledging that her predominately male following hates when she talks about feminism, but that doesn't stop her. She's not excluded from the conversation simply based on her looks or the fact that she posts sexy photos. "That's my decision and it's not an invitation for abuse," the Aussie-born model explained.
The main thread pulled through the conversation by Bobby Kim, co-founder of The Hundreds, and, most recently JENNIFER, was the question of whether or not it's getting better.
"Is the industry changing?" asked Bobby. "Is it open, more embracing?"
“There’s a lot of ‘token,’ explained writer and blogger Nicolette Mason. “Here’s our person of color, here’s our person above a size 12, here’s our gender non-conforming individual, and that’s supposed to be enough. But brands need to think what they’re actually representing, the passive choices they’re making in all of their collateral, in-store signage, language that is used, and if it’s not leading the conversation, if it’s only for those marketing and PR moments, then it’s not worth anything.”
“We need to stop with the labels, the categories, and give more people more opportunities,” said Deddeh. “I wasn’t trying to attack the brands,” she said of Black Mirror. “I was simply trying to get them to see what I can do and what any girl out there can do.” It’s about consciousness and awareness.
Right there with her was Venezuelan actress, writer, and executive producer, Maiah Ocando who told the audience, "First of all I’m a human, then I’m a woman, and THEN I’m Latina. What opens the door for me is also the thing that closes the door." Just because she's Latina, Maiah explained doesn't mean she likes tacos and is curvy. Not shocking: typecasting is a thing. She refuses to let it be her thing.
“Look, if I can’t change their minds, I’m going to create my own path,” explained the actress in reference to “white men.” She was interrupted by enthusiastic applause from the audience. "Well, I am," she projected. "I’m going to be my own executive producer. My own writer."
The conversation didn't stop at the jobs held by the women on stage. "You also need more diversity behind the scenes,” explained Claire, so that major mistakes don’t keep happening. “You need nuance and context.”
For Nicolette, politics in her “brand” are a “non-negotiable,” even if that means losing a job now and then. “It’s imperative to me. I’m a queer, Middle-Eastern woman, and I can’t imagine not using the platform I have to speak to intersectionality. Working together and being part of the resistance together is such an important part of how we’re going to grow as a society. The personal is political and hopefully that’s how we create a better tomorrow.”
Similarly, Emily shared that she has "absolutely lost jobs" because of the stances she takes, but she likewise encouraged the audience to “stand by what you believe in and the right jobs will come.”
“The reason we’ve all found success is because we have a point of view and we’re vocal about it,” elaborated Nicolette. “It’s important to give visibility to our individual identities, our voices, and to show people that they’re not alone.”
This is not the easiest road to walk. And for every two supporters, there’s a hater.
Protecting the indentity of what she called a "family and Catholic" brand, Nicolette told the story of a prominent Italian designer that reached out to her and said, “We really love you, but you’re gay.” So she recommended ten other people they could use. "That’s one example,” she said, "but there have been many. I do talk about Black Lives Matter, I do talk about trans rights, and some brands won’t touch me. On the flip side," she furthered, "there are brands that are so grateful and supportive.” She cited Target as one her “biggest cheerleaders,” as well as Barbie, which has doubled down on diversity efforts.
Claire jumped in to agree. “You have to stay true to yourself.” When honoring the lives of black men shot by police, Claire said, “We decided we were going to have a ‘black out’ day where we posted nothing." She paused, noting, "You can’t afford to be silent.”
Arianna Schioldager is Editor-in-Chief at Create & Cultivate. You can follow her @ariannawrotethis.