Bringing issues of diversity to light in the fashion world has been Prof. Ben Barry’s goal since he was 14. The Ryerson School of Fashion associate professor is behind the Ben Barry Agency, a unique modelling agency for models who don’t necessarily fit the size 2 demographic.
His agency has been making waves in the fashion world. Last December, he was named the director of the Centre for Fashion Diversity and Social Change, which is Ryerson University’s newest research centre.
The Ryersonian talked to Barry about the motivation behind the centre and its goals. The centre has just launched its first project, Refashioning Masculinity, and will have a fashion show May 5 at the Ryerson Athletics Centre to promote the project.
The Ryersonian: How did you get involved with spreading diversity in fashion?
Ben Barry: For my PhD and master’s research, I looked at how female consumers look at models of different ages and sizes and races, and how they influence their purchase behaviour as well as their body image. I found that when consumers saw models who looked like them, they increased purchase intentions. They felt included and body confident. When they saw models who didn’t look like them, particularly the ideal that was unattainable to them, they felt discouraged, insecure and distanced from that brand. So what the research really showed was that it’s not about replacing a size 2 model with a size 16 model, but about increasing the spectrum of models … So it wasn’t diversity for the sake of diversity, but it was looking at the spectrum of consumers buying from us. We should reflect them in our advertising and on our runway.
(Ben Barry Agency origins)
R: What is the Refashioning Masculinity project?
BB: Certainly as a male consumer I sort of lived from personal experience where there were very limited ideals. It celebrated what didn’t really look like me or any of my friends. And I knew that fashion sold to men, as they do women, specific gender norms. I decided the next stage of my research will look at men … this project looks at how men use fashion to construct and reimagine their gender identity. (I realized) that fashion is a lens to change the world, to engage communities, (and) a research centre will be a really terrific addition to the school of fashion, FCAD and to the university as a whole. There aren’t a lot of universities that have a degree in fashion. We are the only graduate program in fashion and so this would really show a Ryerson take on fashion. And so this Refashioning Masculinity project is the first project of many from the research centre.
(Refashioning Masculinity project)
R: You’re having a fashion show with this project. Why?
BB: Most fashion shows sell clothes. I wanted to sell the idea that fashion is a tool to promote social justice and social change and create a dialogue as to what masculinity means and what it could do to make it inclusive and to challenge a lot of the norms around it. This was a way for me to share my research with people of Toronto, government and industry. And that’s the goal of the research centre — to conduct research that deals with the issues of fashion and diversity and social justice, but to use creative mediums. Engaging students and faculty to share this research with real people, with industry and government, to get them to realize that sometimes creative mediums can sometimes communicate so much more beyond just the written word. And you can engage people that would never read an academic paper.
(Gender and fashion)
R: Has there been any negative feedback on the centre?
BB: Nothing has been directed to me about the research centre. I know in my work before, there’s often skepticism from industry. There’s often challenges the industry centrally premises that fashion is selling an aspiration or dream. A dream that’s unattainable. And so you’re challenging that, you need to segregate fashion for men and women. Challenging that you need to use a size 2 model to sell garments. You’re challenging the whole model of the fashion system. And because of that, I think industry can be scared and resistant to change because you go against how many people have built their entire careers.
R: What are some of the goals of the research centre?
BB: The idea for the research centre is all about collaboration. There’s so much talent at Ryerson, in particular so much creative talent in FCAD. So how do we bring together the academic research and creative work and show how creative work can help us understand the world better and also share our research? We focus on creative methods of research and creative modes of dissemination. After May, we are going to include other faculty projects and open it up. It’ll be a very collaborative thing … but it’s about positioning Ryerson as the international leader. So developing partnerships with international fashion schools to have global collaboration on research projects and conferences. So this can be an international hub of work on using fashion to promote social change.
Really the motivation is to use fashion to change the world. That’s the goal. Fashion connects all of us, we all choose clothes in the morning, and you can use fashion to make the world better. And so I want to develop collaborative projects that do just that. By working with students, other professors, all over the world, we can use fashion to design and create a better world.
(Ben Barry’s view on research)