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Bringing sexy back to fashion while redefining gender codes

By Jackie Mallon


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International catwalk regular Teddy Quinlivan who came out as trans at the height of her modeling fame in 2017 told guests at the Fairchild Media Group’s Diversity Forum last week, “We are really on the precipice of a cultural turning point.” Speaking on a panel entitled, “Redefining sexuality and style for any gender, what will it take?” she said that society is finally ready to accept new forms of gender expression and representations of sexiness that rise above cliché.

“Creatively breaking new frontiers and rewriting codes is more revolutionary than just putting a dress on a boy,” said Quinlivan who was first discovered by Louis Vuitton's creative director Nicolas Ghesquière and has walked for Gucci, Marc Jacobs, Fendi, Caroline Herrera, Dries Van Noten and Dior to name a few. The concept of a boy in a dress is an oversimplification of gender fluidity and is, believes Quinlivan, already dated. “We can do it in a less obvious, less surface way.”

This timely conversation happens to coincide with the opening of the exhibit "Fashioning Masculinities, The Art of Menswear," at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and just a few days before Timothée Chalamet borrowed from Nicolas Ghesquière's Spring 22 womenswear runway for his shirtless Oscars look of slim tailored pants and cropped beaded jacket. Fashion more than any other career is about identity and self-expression but Quinlivan does not understand why gender has been so ingrained in clothing.

She is joined on the panel by Ludovic de Saint Sernin, the 27-year-old designer who has forged a reputation at Paris Fashion Week for igniting menswear despite creating with no gender in mind, His dual focus is not male and female but sensuality and sexuality. His signature item has become an eyelet brief which has sold out but he is also known for spaghetti strapped sequins, transparent chiffon wrap tops and bra style items worn with low rise pants. Both speakers are members of a progressive generation smashing the guardrails that have kept the international fashion industry following the same narrow lane since fashion shows began over a century ago. They met at the height of Phoebe Philo’s Celine era, which Quinlivan refers to as “an intellectual, anti-sex moment in fashion,” and identified in each other kindred spirits who wanted to be unapologetically sexy.

But first, Quinlivan had some personal business to take care of. While the weight of bearing her secret had begin to take its toll, she said it was concern about the rise in violence against the trans community under the Trump administration that motivated her decision to reveal her true identity. This outweighed any fear of potential career backlash.

“I wanted to prove that trans people can do incredible things and not be pushed into some Jerry Springer narrative,” said Quinlivan who felt that coming out at the peak of her success would hold brands’ feet to the fire. If they’d loved her when they thought she was a cis female would they still book her as a trans woman? Being trans was a part of who she was but it did not define her.

The return of sex to fashion

De Saint Sernin cites his influences as “cultural icons who had a unique relationship with sex,” such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Madonna and references Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. His brand messaging is personal, describing it as “a journal that could have an impact.” When he first showed in 2017 no one knew who he was but that anonymity allowed him to carve out his own narrative of what he refers to as “homoerotic visual acceptance.” Authenticity has become a tediously overused word in brand strategizing but de Saint Sernin's decision to walk in his own show for fall 22 put the creator squarely at the heart and soul of his brand. "I paint self-portraits," said Frida Kahlo, "because I am the person I know best." Similarly, De Saint Sernin used his catwalk as canvas because he knows no other way. “I was just living my dream," he said, "a message of self love.”

Quinlivan cautions brands to seek only truth when venturing into this uncharted but exciting territory. “Brands have a desire to be as provocative as possible. It gets to a point where it's exploiting people to gain publicity, to go viral,” she said. Exploring new expressions of gender and sexuality will only work if it’s meaningful and not merely for headlines.

“We’re really blessed to be able to express ourselves, to be who we really are,” said de Saint Sernin who acknowledges that not all individuals are in such a position. Sometimes simply being true to oneself is the bravest thing a person can do. “But we’re not here to teach people how to react to us.”

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Teddy Quinlivan