Our focus for 2021 was to encourage everyone to #BeAChangeMaker. Whether these are small changes in our everyday lives or seismic shifts, our individual actions are paramount to a safer, kinder planet.
For Pride Month, we sat down with some leading #ChangeMakers of the LGBTQ+ community who are making transformative waves within the industry to hear how they have navigated their own paths, and where they see room for change.
We sat down with non-binary model and activist Faye Fillingham, to discuss breaking the mould, finding your style and creating change within the fashion industry.
- Tell us about your style and who inspires you?
My style is all about shape and feel. Playing with shape definitely gives me a chance to recreate the way my body looks depending on how I want to express myself. Because having an assortment of clothes that can be styled a more feminine or masculine way depending on where I'm at, I like to keep tones neutral to minimise what I am buying. It's funny to think of what inspires me with the way I dress because wearable fashion is generally either male or female facing. There are so many incredible designers and people in the arts who play with queer expression but I think for the for the most part it is quite an extroverted way.
For me, practicality and minimalism are as important as gender expression. For that reason I’ve always been attracted to brands with a practical function like hiking brands or skate brands which have explored genderless clothing out of necessity for their culture. Recently there have been some amazing brands focused around minimalism and sustainability like Riley Studio that have started to inspire a really interesting style and I’m very excited to see that develop and take inspiration from them too.
- Was there a moment or turning point in understanding your gender identity?
I heard an interview on NPR of someone talking about their experience of being non-binary. They explained feeling one gender one day and another the next. Their experience was the first time I’d heard anyone talk about being non-binary in any form and I suddenly felt a wave of vindication after years of not having a way to describe my own experience. It really is a wonderful thing to know your experience is shared and normal.
There’s a difference between recognising your gender yourself and coming out about that gender publicly. The moment I realised I really needed to come out, was an experience I had whilst modelling. My gender had been solely male for a few months and the stylist put me in a wedding dress. It sounds like a ridiculous kind of problem, because when you’re modelling you always expect to be put in clothes that you would never wear. But, because I was still in quite an emotional point in coming to terms with how to identify it was hard to deal with.
My mum would always encourage me to wear dresses when I was younger and I hated it, so that moment really touched a nerve for me. A couple of weeks later I shaved my head. In some way it was a sign of protest but it also felt like a moment of reclaiming my identity and a symbolic “spiritual” cleansing as it were. That was when I realised that it was important to not keep this identity to myself.
- What challenges do you face being non-binary in the modelling industry?
I started modelling when I was 25, not as a way to make money, but as a way to reclaim and start to re-love a body that I had felt hasn't really been working for me for quite some time. I am certainly very privileged to have that path open to me as it has helped me to feel confident in my own skin.
I think we’ve all seen the industry changing over the past couple years with regards to race, size and gender. I do think that most big brands are using marginalised groups to sell clothes without truly supporting them but there are some incredible new brands emerging from this movement. It's good to see that consumers have implemented some change and I’m hopeful that public perception towards marginalised groups will start to improve.
I don’t think what being ‘non-binary’ means has been talked about much in the media, and it still requires some education for people to get their heads around. It is an umbrella term for lots of different ways of identifying, and I’m sure I still can’t relate to all the ways people identify - but it is fun to try. However, times are changing and I have had my first castings for ‘non-binary’ roles this year which is definitely exciting.
- Do you believe there are enough brands that cater to non - binary needs? How does gender neutral fashion help eliminate these problems?
I think people get confused when I explain what being non-binary means. Most people identify some part of the non-binary experience in themselves. Probably, most of us have been denied an experience because of our assigned gender at some point in our lives and felt confused and hurt by that experience.
Perhaps, people think that this is what we mean by non-binary. But, when we talk about non-binary experience we’re talking about an experience of body and mind. What's important to realise is that the experience of a gender that doesn't match your body can feel traumatic and alien. The simple task of clothing yourself, becomes wrestling with your body. When shopping for instance, the first hurdle we come to is which section do we shop in as a non-binary person. What gender do we want our body to be?
Over the past couple of years I’ve seen more brands with a gender neutral focus like Riley Studio pop up and start to get a bit of weight behind them. That's very exciting for me to see. It is genuinely a pleasure to go to a shop and not have to choose a gendered style of ‘male’ or ‘female’ before you start shopping. Clothes are just clothes. But, for the most part brands aren’t considering this for their customers. I think generally we don’t see the systems that work to control us because we’ve been in them for generations. Clothes are used to signify so much - wealth, culture, gender, class etc. and each of these “looks” have ways of acting and levels of respect attached to them.
For example, to me, feminine signifiers in fashion such as high heels, long nails, long hair etc have always felt as a system of control which have somehow become ‘fashion’. For me, these “feminine” symbols are all inherently impractical. They require more time and more money to maintain and, because of their impracticality, mean women are often bystanders to life rather than participators.
Male signifiers seem, to me, to be no different in the way they control men and they hold their own oppressive nature by imposing hypermasculinity. By segregating items into categories of male and female, we create barriers where people can feel uncomfortable buying clothes that aren’t from their assigned gender area in a shop. If you step outside male and female items as a concept and look at it for what it is, it's pretty laughable that people get angry about assigned males wearing fabric in the shape of a skirt but not in a trouser. People don't get angry about the clothes, they get angry about what they mean. For me, when brands like Riley, who categorise items as gender neutral fashion, essentially ‘people clothes’, it feels like a form of protest. It says “we won’t take part in these systems of control and we will let the consumer make their own choices”.
- What conscious decisions do you make to be more sustainable?
I think it's so hard to be sustainable living in a system of consumerism. Educating yourself on ways in which brands sell the idea of ethical, sustainable products whilst delivering products that are not really these things is very important.
A lot of big brands are saying things like “we’re making our products 40% sustainable”, which seems like a joke when we know the money and resources they have at their disposal. I think these brands should be avoided altogether. The main thing I do is to have a small wardrobe of high quality items that will last. That way I buy less. I’d rather save up and buy something that will see me through a few years then buy something that will last me a season. I think it's super important to be aware of design for this reason and being conscious of what is a fashion items and classic design.
Generally when it comes to sustainability I think that the best thing to do is to live minimally. That requires some self exploration about what are things that are essential to you in your life and what you can go without. In my opinion minimalism is a win-win for you and the environment around you. Simply by reducing what we need, we reduce the time we are spending to make money and gaining it to spend on our health, mental wellbeing and with the people we love.
- What piece of advice would you give to others who are going through a similar journey to you?
I suppose self acceptance is the only way to get through life in general. It is scary to know people use our differences against us. I think though, once you understand and accept yourself and you are comfortable with who you are, you are in a position of power - even if that's just in your mind.
I think we need to discuss the issues affecting us from a space of openness and understanding of others' opinions, even if they seem evil to us, and try to educate each other on our experience of the world.
I know it's hard for people to get their head around being LGBTQ+, my family are a traditional, working class, northern bunch and it seems much easier to shrug off how gender assignment has actually affected their own lives. Many of my family members suffer from the problems caused by hypermasculinity and patriarchal oppression but they are unwilling to address these issues because I’m sure going down that path is both scary and painful.
I think most people don’t see that they are affected by the same issues we are but in a different way. Maybe that's a good way to approach those conversations. From a place of shared experience. Being assigned a gender at birth means putting some kind of importance on gender. Our gender is portrayed as a part of our personality, and dictates how we should live our lives. As soon as I realised my own gender is fluid and subject to dramatic change it became less important to which gender I felt at one time. The more importance I was putting on it being “wrong” the more I was fighting against. Accepting it makes it easier to manage emotionally.
All of the above, and spend time with people who love you for who you really are. Don’t hide that - it will eat you up to live in a lie.
Instagram - @fayefillingham
Images by- Louis Charnaud /@lou.c.aptures