Ashley Graham sauntered down the runway at Michael Kors on Wednesday, her ultracurvy frame swaddled in silver fox. Days earlier, Jacky O’Shaughnessy, 65, walked at Tome, her silver hair unfussily swept off her face. And at J. Crew, too, amonga cast of “real people” that included a yoga teacher and a stylist’s mother, was the actress and comedian Sandra Bernhard, vamping for the cameras as she pointedly told reporters that in the current political climate, “It is important that everyone be represented.”
Each woman in her way was pleading the case for diversity, a concept that lately has broadened to embrace not just minorities, but people of every gender preference, shape and age.
Not your conventional runway stars, they included the 39-year-old African-born Alek Wek, who walked at the Row; the amply proportioned Georgia Pratt at Tome; and Candice Huffine and Marquita Pring at Prabal Gurung, each wearing a waist-cinched midi-dress much like those paraded by the size 0 models.
“With all the things happening around us, I could not justify to myself the idea ‘Let me just make pretty clothes, escapist fare,’” Mr. Gurung said. “It all seems to me so tone-deaf.”
Besides, he said, as a designer, “I realize I have an audience, and a platform.”
“We are a medium that can take the message forward,” Mr. Gurung added.
While attempts to more widely interpret diversity reached critical mass on the runways this season, they were often met with skepticism. Parading just one plus-size model on the runway can, after all, seem perfunctory at best. But for many designers, inclusive casting was not a stunt but a visceral response to the current cultural tone.
“The marginalization of minorities has a lot to do with why I needed to put other kinds of models on the forefront,” Mr. Gurung said. “Why shouldn’t larger women and those perceived as ‘other’ walk alongside a Joan Smalls or a Gigi Hadid?”
A tendency toward inclusiveness is certainly reflected in the popular culture, by screen and stage stars like Cynthia Erivo; the transgender D.J. Honey Dijon, who models occasionally; and Ms. Graham, who made history last year as the first curvy woman to appear on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition.
For some designers it also makes sound business sense. “We wanted to represent all the faces, shapes, sizes and walks of life of the women who actually wear our clothing,” said Ryan Lobo, who, with Ramon Martin, designs Tome.
“Some of our retailers are excited about it,” Mr. Siriano said. “Others are still learning.” And Mr. Gurung, who produces a similar range of sizes, has just announced a plus-size collaboration with Lane Bryant.
Still, mirroring that range on their catwalks has been a challenge.
“We’ve tried for at least three shows to book what the industry calls ‘curve’ models, but the agencies wouldn’t give them to us,” Mr. Martin said. “There seemed to be an apprehension across the board about how we would represent these women, that working with them would smack of tokenism. There had to come a shift from that side of the industry before we could actually show them in our clothes.”
Today there are indications that that shift has arrived. A scant year ago, few agencies were signing women outside of a narrow spectrum of ethnicity, age or size to walk the runways. “These days we’re pushing to include in our roster people of all ages, races, sizes, body types and genders,” said Ivan Bart, the president of IMG Models. “We’re evolving as a society, and fashion, too, has to evolve.”