Super-skinny models won't supersize the profits

Academic's research makes compelling case for 'diversity in fashion'. Matthew Reisz reports

May 24, 2012

When Ben Barry told colleagues at the University of Cambridge's Judge Business School that his PhD was about "models in advertising", many assumed he meant economic models in the advertising industry.

Yet really he was researching the models in fashion magazines with whom he had worked for more than 15 years.

At the age of 14, Dr Barry, who is now assistant professor of equity, inclusivity and diversity in fashion at Ryerson University's School of Fashion in Toronto, fulfilled the dream of many a teenage boy by setting up his own modelling agency.

His business venture started as a moral issue. A close friend was told that she was too big to be a model, so he took her picture and sent it off to a magazine, which hired her.

"I wasn't concerned to make money but to respond to something that didn't feel right," Dr Barry said.

"At that age you don't think before you act - it was just a fun thing to do after school, but it took on a life of its own, both as a business opportunity and in raising issues which need to be explored."

Since the agency was "unique in the industry for its range of models, by age, ability, height, size and race", he said, it attracted a good deal of interest, although most mainstream clients continued to employ models conforming to "the Western beauty ideal".

Yet in doing so, he believed, they were relying solely on "anecdotal evidence about which model type is most effective [in selling clothes]".

These were the kinds of issues that Dr Barry wanted to examine when he took a break from business in 2005 and signed up for an MPhil in innovation, strategy and organisation at Judge Business School, followed by a PhD.

Fashion forward

Given that fashion is an industry, it seemed natural for Dr Barry to analyse what impact the choice of models had on consumers' purchasing decisions. Yet he soon discovered that most earlier academic research took a critical approach towards the industry and largely focused on issues of self-esteem.

His own attitude, by contrast, was to "take a problem in industry and explore it academically".

He therefore surveyed 3,000 women in the US, Canada and China to discover their responses to fashion adverts featuring models of differing sizes, ages and races.

Dr Barry's conclusions, which last week garnered wide press coverage and featured in a podcast created by the business school, challenge the notion that the most effective models "fuel demand by creating insecurity".

While some younger Chinese women responded favourably to "idealised Western models", North American women felt frustrated or insulted by magazines using models whose appearance was "not realistic and not attainable".

They were more likely to want to buy the clothes worn by a model who "mirrors their size, their age and their race", the research found.

Dr Barry said it was now up to the industry to take note of "the case for diversity in fashion".

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