How these mature models are flying the flag for the older generation
The catwalk is no longer the sole preserve of flawless young models. As Belfast Fashionweek launches today Lee Henry talks to three local people who are taking part in the event.
For those in the flush of youth, with pearly whites, flawless skin, luscious locks and fine figures to match, the world of modelling was made. Magazine covers, prestigious international shows, glitzy catwalks and big budget marketing campaigns have historically been reserved by the fashion fraternity for those on whom life is yet to make its mark, twenty or thirty-somethings who find themselves decades away from that first grey hair or even the hint of a crow's foot, and the general public, in turn, have grown to expect the same.
Brimming over with naive self-confidence, willing and able to put in long hours behind the scenes, and driven by the promise of riches beyond their friends' wildest dreams, the aspiring Giseles and wannabe Jamie Dornans of the world have reaped the resulting rewards, strutting their stuff on billboards and dancefloors from LA to Ibiza as muses for the industry's elite. Providing they maintained their physiques and showed up on time, there was always work to be had.
As the 21st century continues apace, however, times and tastes are changing, and rapidly at that. Today, readers, retailers, consumers and even governments are demanding that more minorities and generic demographics are represented in mainstream advertising, and as a result, the monopoly on modelling has been broken.
In 2016, thankfully, the transgender community is beginning to find a visual voice, plus-size models are now ubiquitous - with even the most conservative designers overcoming their fixation with size zero fashions to factor the larger lady into their collections - and mature models are increasingly flying the flag for those growing old gracefully, embracing their greys, their wrinkles, their age and their look with a confidence that is wonderful to see.
Cathy Martin, founder of Belfast Fashionweek which launched today, and owner of CMPR marketing and PR consultancy, represents many of Northern Ireland's jobbing older models.
"As our population ages," Cathy observes, "and the older population in Northern Ireland increases in size, so too does the requirement for products that suit this ageing generation.
"Those products need to be marketed, so it's only natural that the models wearing or using the products in the ad campaigns are of a suitable and appropriate age."
With the Belfast Fashionweek showcase unveiled, Cathy says one of the shows, Fifty Over Fifty, which will be staged in partnership with Age NI, will form an important style platform for 50-plus men and women here.
Siobhan Casey, Age NI's marketing director, says: "We are delighted to be associated with Belfast Fashionweek's new Fifty Over Fifty showcase to highlight how fashion, style, image and body confidence are important at any age - we all want to look good and feel great.
"Being part of Belfast Fashionweek's Coming of Age themed event this season demonstrates how the fashion industry is positively reflecting our ageing population and shows that older people are valuable and visible, in fashion as in life.
"We're looking forward to seeing Age NI volunteers and ambassadors on the catwalk, showcasing the best SS16 looks for men and women in later life and we'd love to see fashion-forward Age NI supporters of all ages at the show, too."
Cathy adds: "CMPR represents six older models, and they have marketed all sorts, from shopping centres and fashion outlets to travel and bank products.
"It is rare that even a 20-year-old would get enough purely photographic or fashion work to make a full-time living from modelling in this country; we just don't have the industry or the buying population.
"But there is definitely a demand here for older models, and most do it part-time as a hobby that they enjoy."
Denise O'Neill (52) from Lisburn originally modelled "as a bit of fun" in her early 20s, learning about the art of posing and composition from a friend, who was also a member of an amateur photography club.
Having married and given birth to two children - Claire, now 23, and Mark, now 20 - many years went by with only family pictures taken at home or during special occasions, weddings, birthdays and holidays abroad. The seed was sown, however, and Denise once again found herself posing for real at the tender age of 50.
"The opportunity arose initially from my passion for promoting grey hair as a positive choice for women which I had been doing via my blog, Grey is OK!, since September 2011," Denise explains.
"I had observed that older women in general were under-represented in the world of advertising, beauty, fashion and media, and I wanted to contribute and show that older women could and should be part of this world.
"Through my interest in the 'grey revolution', as I like to call it, I connected with a Nottingham-based company, White Hot Hair, which produces and sells products specifically for caring for grey hair. Jayne Mayled, the founder of the company, invited me to be a model on a two-day photoshoot. It was a wonderful experience and whetted my appetite to get back into modelling."
O'Neill subsequently learned about, and joined, Model Magic, one of several closed Facebook groups created by fashion professionals based in Northern Ireland to connect models with photographers, stylists, agents, training organisations, paying clients and other models as a means of encouraging participation in the industry, forming networks and ultimately assisting careers.
Denise says: "And I got my first paid modelling job at the age of 52 for the Forestside Shopping Mall AW15 campaign in September 2015. I had to pinch myself that it was really happening. There was a full team of people there, including advertising agency staff, the photographer, the fashion stylist, the make-up artist, the hair stylist and the other models taking part - and a dog.
"I was shown a storyboard picture of what the theme of the shoot was about, so that I was aware of the aim of the campaign, which was helpful in preparing me for the type of look that was required.
"I arrived at the shoot without make-up and was transformed into an elegant lady of style. It was great to be pampered and to dress up in beautiful clothes. We had such great craic and I enjoyed every minute."
One of Denise's co-models during that shoot was Garry Jackson (53), owner of Garry's Barber Shop on Holywood's Main Street by day, mature model by night (and the odd weekend).
Unlike Denise, Garry came to the modelling game later in life, at the invitation of Cathy Martin herself, who contacted him through his wife, Mari, about a specific job "because she felt I was just what they needed", says Jackson, which is to say a handsome man in his early 50s with a keen sense of style and penchant for personal grooming.
Aside from the Forestside job, Garry has since bagged paid work for Cookstown-based tailor Dee Graham, and has had to turn down other job offers due to his busy barber shop business.
"I was philosophical about modelling, when the offer came in from Cathy," Garry admits. "My only concern was that the job might be embarrassing or cheesy, as my mates would have had a field day with that.
"But it was very enjoyable and I got to meet and work with some very nice professional people who really put me at ease and made the whole experience very relaxed.
"I would recommend it to anyone thinking of taking it up. I would say that if the opportunity arises, just do it.
"It's really good fun."
Of course, it's not all primping and preening, laughter and modest pay cheques.
The day rate for models of all ages here is vastly inferior to that enjoyed by their counterparts based in London, for example. Although clients are increasingly seeking out older models to represent their products, jobs here remain few and far between. And then there is the little matter of the 'look' to consider.
Derek Dubery, a 49-year-old civil servant and part-time male mannequin, relocated to Northern Ireland from his native Kent in 2004 and subsequently entered the fashion arena after friends and workmates suggested he had what it took.
Derek describes himself as someone with a "quite well-developed sense of style, so the most difficult aspect of modelling so far has been wearing clothes I wouldn't usually be seen dead in. But that's the essence of the job. You try to make the best of the clothes you've been given".
All of the models agreed that confidence comes with age, and that the opportunity to express their artistic sensibilities in middle-age was one to be welcomed and not shunned.
Denise, for instance, was encouraged to take up the baton once again "by my own self-awareness, my determination and my self-belief that I could offer something", while Derek has used modelling as a means of shrugging off a lingering shyness.
"To be honest, this isn't something that the younger me would have ever imagined doing," Derek says. "I was a very geeky child and it's literally taken me half my life to grow out of that.
"I suspect that I'm now overcompensating somewhat.
"Doing fashion shows with four or five ex-Miss Northern Irelands is a slightly surreal experience, for example. You certainly need self-confidence and maybe being older helps with that."
As for the wider fashion world, Denise believes that companies such as M&S and Boots are leading the way in offering consumers a new, more representative aesthetic that speaks to and includes the older generation rather than ignoring and patronising men and women of a certain age.
She adds: "Their glamorous campaigns feature older models along with younger models and that is groundbreaking. I think that advertisers are finally realising that they have to cater for all age groups and show diversity, and this is a good thing for older models.
"I am an optimistic person and I really do believe that the industry is changing in its attitude and becoming pro-ageing, though more change is needed. Older people, just like younger people, want to look good and spend their money on fashion and beauty products, as well as all the other products and services to enjoy in life.
"We must remember that life doesn't stop when you are 50-plus. In fact, it gets better."