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Defying industry ageism at London Fashion Week

At London Fashion Week, the notoriously exclusionary fashion industry has a tiny step towards being more inclusive.

Political activism informed a number of shows at New York Fashion Week earlier this year, and the London event kicked off with a furore of its own, as a number of models over the age of 45 protested outside the main venue against industry ageism.

According to Vogue magazine, the average age of a runway model is still just 17 years old. Youth is prized above all else, meaning any model or shopper who has the gall to age often finds that the industry moves on without them.

“People seem to think that once you reach 40, you’re not interested in clothes and you don’t buy anything but that’s simply not true,” says Jilly Johnson, the former model behind the campaign. “A huge percentage of clothes are bought by older women so fashion is making a huge mistake by ignoring that grey pound.”

Johnson, aged 63, recently wrote of a moment where she realised the huge disconnect between fashion industry she loves, and the “real life” in which women marry, have children, and age — and how one fails to cater to the other.

“While the runway is undoubtedly a fantasy world, it is also the arena where the fashion industry displays its most cherished ideals, holding up the models as idols to be worshipped by ordinary women,” she says. “What message does it express when this vision of style paradise excludes anyone old enough to remember The Silence Of The Lambs, let alone have a wrinkle?”

However, just days after Johnson and her fellow protesters held up placards displaying slogans like “fashion has no age limit,” Simone Rocha surprised audiences with an inclusive show that celebrated beauty at all ages.

The designer worked with legendary fashion casting director Piergiorgio Del Moro to create an age diverse models line-up for her new collection, with actresses and models who were idolised in the Sixties and Seventies taking to the catwalk alongside the usual debutantes. They included Benedetta Barzini, Jan de Villeneuve, Marie-Sophie Wilson and Cecilia Chancellor.

This isn’t the first time a designer has cast an older model in a campaign; Jessica Lange, Joni Mitchell, Catherine Deneuve, Helen Mirren and Joan Didion have all starred in ads for fashion and beauty brands. But highly publicised stunts are one thing; combating ageism in the long term is another.

Brands and designers are well aware of the purchasing power held by older demographics; women aged over 50 spend nearly $7 billion annually on clothes. And the top ten womenswear retailers are enjoying growth due mainly to the 50+ market, according to industry analysts.

Isn’t it about time, then, that brands quit pretending that the teenage girls in their ads are the ones who can afford their clothes? Perhaps as more shows like Rocha’s  take place in the high fashion sphere, a willingness to embrace these mature, style-savvy consumers will trickle down to the high street.

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