Normal People Are Our New Muses

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Gucci: Courtesy of the brandInstagram

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Style Points is a new weekly column about how fashion intersects with the wider world.

Jeannette Wei. Sabrina Pilkati. Ioana Ciocan. These may not be household names, but they’ve all played a big part in fashion recently. Wei is designer Joseph Altuzarra’s grandmother, and her wardrobe helped inspire his fall 2020 collection. The designer recently tapped Wei, his mother Karen Altuzarra, his cousin Lily Scout Kwong, and his daughter Emma Altuzarra-Weissman to star in this season’s campaign.

“My mom was visiting me in Long Island,” Altuzarra explains, “and happened to receive her personal order from our Pre-Fall collection. She was trying the pieces on, and I thought it would be such a fun idea to film her in some of her looks. She always looks so wonderful in the clothes, and she was excited to be part of the video. We had a lot of fun making it, and really just made it as a video for ourselves.” That video went the fashion version of viral, getting picked up on Twitter and reaching an audience outside the industry in a way fashion campaigns rarely do.

altuzarra fall

Joseph Altuzarra’s grandmother Jeannette in his fall 2020 campaign.

Joseph Altuzarra

altuzarra fall 2020

Altuzarra’s mother Karen in his fall 2020 campaign.

Joseph Altuzarra

“Real model” casting is hardly a new phenomenon—Martin Margiela was famously doing it back in the day. But its use has too often felt stunty—the one beautiful 70-year-old walking a show, the face-tattooed skateboarder making his way from the halfpipe to the runway. At its worst, it has tended to tokenized models who were the one plus-size model or over-50 model on the runway, for example.

One of the few upsides of this time of harrowing self-isolation is that we’re seeing designers turn to their friends, family, and design teams, as well as other everyday people, and put them in front of the camera, and as a result, seeing a completely new side of humanity that normally goes unremarked on.

gucci fall 2020

Gucci’s fall 2020 show.

Dan & Corina Lecca

For example, we normally only see a brand’s staff in the occasional runway bow or behind-the-scenes photo. But that is starting to change. After showcasing his design team in his fall 2020 runway show, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele went a step further for his Epilogue show this summer, featuring them as models in the lookbook. The employees’ individual quirks were highlighted on sticky notes noting the elements of their personal style that remained in the image—Pilkati’s bleached ends, men’s ready-to-wear designer Marvin Desroc wearing his own earring. Acne made a similar move, showcasing its staff, including Ciocan, posing with their dogs. And though they weren’t modeling, we got to witness members of the Dior atelier working away on miniaturized versions of the house’s couture designs.

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In some cases, the designers themselves have even become their own model muses. Gabriela Hearst posed for her lookbook this season, and Collina Strada designer Hillary Taymour has modeled her own eye-catching mask designs on her Instagram.

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There’s a human-interest factor in getting to see fashion professionals whose contributions usually go unseen. But the scope of subjects has been widened well beyond the industry. Perhaps as we’ve become conditioned to seeing nurses and doctors featured in magazines—including this one —and in fashion campaigns like Reebok’s new ads showcasing healthcare workers, our interest in quote-unquote real people has increased. Jeremy Scott’s Moschino At Home project, which I wrote about earlier this year, involved the designer driving around Los Angeles distributing clothes to celebrity and non-celebrity friends alike: among those featured in the resulting photos were a doctor and a stay-at-home mom. And New York magazine’s Look Book feature even recently showcased postal workers as street style subjects. In a sea of #spon, there’s something about the authenticity of a non-influencer with a real job, a real mission, and something to say, the same spirit which animates our sudden interest in public sector merch. It’s a reminder that you don’t need to have millions of followers to have personal style.

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That growing interest can be quantified. Altuzarra calls the reaction he received on the video of his mom “incredible and so unexpected!” adding that the engagement was “much higher than anything else we’d posted. People really reacted to the intimate feel of the video, and loved getting a look inside our family dynamic.”

While the use of non-models raises some of the same questions for the profession as the rise of avatar models, there’s no doubt that this departure from the usual has been refreshing. “I think it adds so much depth to the stories that designers are telling,” Altuzarra says. “In my case, my family is such a big part of my life, and my identity, and including them in the storytelling of the brand has felt both moving and rewarding.” Let’s hope that that spirit extends long past this moment in time.

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