Across the globe, the fashion industry is shifting. As brands continue to produce an endless supply of things, consumer purchasing power takes center stage, giving buyers the freedom to pick and choose and demand alternatives if their specific needs aren’t met to a tee. Of those demands, representation takes on an increasing importance as shoppers seek out models who look like them and brands that cater to their body types.
On April 30, Marist College’s Fashion Program hosted a special panel inside its new Steel Plant building to address this exact point. As part of its Real…Like Me programming, the Poughkeepsie school invited three models from fashion brand Aerie’s groundbreaking #AerieREAL campaign, which features individuals of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and orientations. To join them, Marist psychologist Dr. Stacy Williams, Ph.D. brought her understanding and perspective on the topic as it relates to the college and the Hudson Valley community at large. Here’s what they each had to say:
Hometown: Athens, Georgia
Real Like…a hardworking student in a wheelchair
Abby Sams applied for the #AerieREAL campaign an hour before it closed. She was procrastinating a homework assignment and figured it couldn’t hurt to apply. Fast-forward a few months, and Sams woke up to an email from Aerie that began with the words “You might want to sit down for this.”
“I just remember screaming for my sister. I said, ‘Read it. Is this real? Is this a real thing?”
Since that day, life has been a whirlwind for Sams, who was diagnosed with multiple chronic diseases for which there are currently no cures. She faces mobility restrictions and uses both a cane and a wheelchair to get around. As an Aerie model, she relishes the opportunity to inspire young girls who rely upon wheelchairs or face chronic diseases similar to her own. She also makes a point to serve as an outspoken advocate for awareness and education regarding the issues she faces.
“I started educating pretty much after I got my diagnosis,” she notes, adding that the responses she’s gotten on social media have exploded since she began work with Aerie. She looks forward to each and every one of them, since they give her the chance to connect with and support others when they need it most.
Left to right: Dr. Williams, a Marist College freshman, Lexus Morgan, Abby Sams, and Evelyn Riddell pose for a photo
Hometown: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Real Like…a college student with type 1 diabetes
When Evelyn Riddell applied for the Aerie Real campaign, she did it on a whim. She had recently gotten out of a relationship and was attempting to place more of a priority on herself and her personal goals. On the day the University of Toronto college student got the call from Aerie, she was heading off for her first day of training at a job she didn’t love.
“It was great timing because I was feeling kind of discouraged and I was trying really hard to work on myself that year,” she says. Riddell, who has type 1 diabetes, was one of the models featured in Aerie’s initial real campaign, which dropped last July. Since then, she’s continued to work with the brand and connect with others who share her struggles with diabetes. At the Marist event, she relished the chance to speak with attendees about the challenges of monitoring diabetes and wearing a glucose patch. Once the panel wrapped, she happily posed with another girl wearing a monitor, and both of them proudly displayed their devices as they smiled for the camera.
“If you had asked me a year ago where I would be, this is not at all what I would’ve said,” she notes. “You have to learn to believe in yourself.”
Hometown: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Real Like…a positivity pro with vitiligo
Lexus Morgan loved Aerie since she knew what Aerie was. So when she came across the brand’s contest a day before it closed, she knew she had to apply. She sent in her application and crossed her fingers…and waited. When the weeks passed and no emails came, she figured she was firmly out of the running.
Then she got the email.
“I woke up on a Friday morning,” she recalls. As she sleepily browsed through her emails, a letter from Aerie caught her eye. She opened it, realized what it was, and exited out of the window immediately. Then she went right back in and read it all over again.
“I started shaking and crying,” she says. “It was great.”
Morgan, who lives with the skin condition vitiligo, had a hard time finding individuals with whom she could relate as a child. Then she saw model Winnie Harlow on the runway and realized that modeling could be a potential for her, if she only believed in it enough.
“I still believe in manifestation, and I did then [when I applied],” she notes. Since her feature in Aerie’s initial campaign, she’s worked with the brand on other modeling projects as well. While she loves modeling, she also hopes to write and inspire others to embrace positivity and be their most authentic selves.
“It’s an impact, and I’m a part of that,” she observes.
The house was packed at the Aerie panel.
Diversity in the Hudson Valley
Although Aerie’s campaign is largely a national endeavor, it resonates locally as well. Aside from the panel at Marist, conversations about diversity and representation continue to take place at local colleges and community centers throughout the Hudson Valley.
“At Marist, we’re working to create cultural competencies in our faculty so they can create these inclusive spaces for students in our classrooms,” explains Dr. Williams. She mentions similar initiatives at Vassar College, which hosts a number of diversity outreach programs, including Vassar View, QuestBridge, Transitions, and Posse. Further afield in the Hudson Valley, organizations like the Women’s Leadership Alliance, Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, and the SUNY school system work to expand awareness of representation and promote conversations surrounding diversity throughout the region.
“It’s about being uncomfortable in those discussions, but having those discussions anyway,” Williams says.