If you wear yoga clothes as much as we do, you probably don’t pay much attention to high fashion catalogues. And even if you did notice Barneys New York’s spring campaign, its imagery—beautiful people in beautiful clothes against a beautiful background—wouldn’t have surprised you at first glance.
But look a little closer, and you’ll find a resoundingly body-positive message. The Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters campaign featured 17 transgender models alongside their friends and family. In yoga terms, you might say it acted with intention, celebrating its subjects with clarity and respect.
As part of our conversations about The Practice of Leadership, we chatted with Chris Edwards, a 20-year advertising veteran who is currently writing a memoir about his own transition from female to male, about the campaign.
YogaJournal.com: We’ve been discussing ”aspirational” imagery in the yoga world and beyond. As an ad exec, what’s your take on creating images that “sell” vs. those that represent a wider array of human experience?
Chris Edwards: Ah, “aspirational.” Yes that is a major buzzword in the ad biz and is always one of the first adjectives listed in casting specs. I can’t speak for everyone in the industry, but what I’d always try to do is find people who are both aspirational and real. By that I mean not perfect or “modely” looking — a regular person. Someone who could be standing next to you in line at Starbucks. And while there’s no magic body type we go for, I will say that in advertising we do tend to avoid extremes.
YJ.com: What was your first response when you heard that Barneys was featuring all transgender models in their spring campaign?
CE: I think I actually cringed. I was worried they were gonna go over the top with it and sensationalize what it’s like being transgender to draw more attention to the ads. I pictured trans women all glammed up like drag queens because that’s the stereotype the media tends to promote.
YJ.com: What about when you saw the campaign itself?
CE: I was surprised, impressed, relieved … upset I wasn’t asked to be in it : )
YJ.com: What did you appreciate most about it as an “ad guy”? And as a transgender person?
CE: Hmmm, it’s hard to separate the two … the ad guy in me appreciated that by launching with an eight-page spread they were able to create an impact and show the range of different types of people who are transgender. Bruce Weber as the photographer was huge. I also loved that they used “real people” as the models. The tasteful black-and-white photography and copy gave the piece a certain gravitas, which was the right tone when trying to raise awareness.
As someone who transitioned, I appreciated the way Barneys portrayed transgender men and women as regular human beings, highlighted the role of supportive people in our lives and allowed our stories to be told respectfully in our own words.
YJ.com: Do you think the campaign had any kind of impact for the transgender community, the fashion world, ad agencies, or beyond?
CE: Well, over the past few months the transgender topic has been in the news and infiltrated pop culture quite a bit—in an increasingly positive way. I wouldn’t say that the Barneys campaign itself was responsible, but it certainly helped. There seems to be a groundswell of positivity and acceptance both in the media and society as a whole. Philippine fashion model Geena Rocero’s “coming out” Ted Talk has garnered over 2 million views and she will be featured in the September issue of Glamour. Trans actress Laverne Cox, who’s performance in Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black won her an Emmy nomination, has also done a great job paving the way. And with the success of Netflix’s series, others have followed suit: Amazon’s series Transparent premieres in September and VH-1 and MTV are both developing their own transgender docu-series.
State by state, laws are changing in favor of transgender rights with regard to insurance coverage and anti-discrimination legislation. There’s still a long way to go but things are moving in the right direction. I think widespread understanding will lead to widespread acceptance, which is why I decided to write BALLS.
Chris Edwards is an award-winning copywriter/creative director and blogger for The Huffington Post. He transitioned openly at the top ad agency in Boston in 1995 and writes about his experience in his upcoming memoir, BALLS. Find out more at chrisedwardsballs.com.
Image via thewindow.Barneys.com.