CAMERON RUSSELL – TRANSFORMING FASHION
Models make for spectacular activist, says Cameron Russell. Mattie Kahn met with the top model in New York to discuss climate change, power and what we need to do next.
Cameron Russell, a fashion model, takes care to keep her best assets in tip-top shape. At shows and on the subway and in this sunny Brooklyn coffee shop where we meet, she sneaks in minute exercises—a short podcast, the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, a syllabus she found on Tumblr.
Russell, who won my heart three years ago when she delivered her now widely viewed TED Talk about beauty and privilege, is always reading and writing and listening. Her mind is fitter than a spin class.
Lately, Russell has been doing mental somersaults for climate. She wants radical solutions to global problems. She wants to educate the masses. Mostly, she wants us to face the facts. We have put our earth in a precarious position. We need to start dealing with that—stat.
Even so, Russell understands why too many of us hesitate to get involved. “For a long time, I was like, ‘Man, I do not want to read about the environment. This is too depressing. It’s too big. It’s too crazy. And there’s nothing that I can do.’”
But, inevitably, her inner activist kicked in. She rolled up her expertly tailored sleeves and got to work. Since then, she has raised awareness about climate issues in short videos, on social media, and as a correspondent for Vogue.com.
“I think fashion is poised to lead on climate,” Russell says, shrugging off those who dismiss the global trade. “We are so enormous. We are a consumer industry. And we are really, really creative. We make things that everyone is thinking about and wearing. We make things that people feel really personally connected to and emotional about. And to me, that means we can really move culture.”
As for where to get started—Russell has a few ideas.
When a woman understands how much power she has, she should start taking all kinds of risks.
CLIMATE IS EVERYONE’S ISSUE, BUT HOW DOES IT PARTICULARLY RELATE TO AND IMPACT WOMEN?
”I see climate as a very intersectional issue. I think it has a lot to do with race, class, and gender as well. People are sometimes surprised to find that out. But there is a gendered component to who is impacted. And this is a great example of it—80 percent of the subsistence agriculture in Africa is grown by women. And because they care for children and they care for the elderly, women can’t move. They can’t leave. So when climate change dries up Lake Chad, which it’s already doing, men can move around and find work. But women are tied to that land. They live off of what they harvest and make. And that should be a massive consideration when we try to hash out some solutions. These women are stakeholders. They need to be at the table.”
”When you start to realize that climate is going to touch everyone, you understand that we need solutions from all corners of the earth and from all the people that are going to be impacted. When we think of the people whose voices we need to value in moving forward, in mitigating and figuring out climate change, it’s really every voice.”
WHO ARE SOME OF THE MODELS WHO ARE CONTRIBUTING IN A REALLY POSITIVE WAY TO A CONVERSATION THAT YOU SORT OF PIONEERED IN THE BUSINESS?
”Models are spectacular activists, because they are some of very few women who have real access to media. Women from the Global South, especially, just don’t have access to media. The statistics are totally insane. And so when models decide to speak up, they can be quite powerful. Models like Alek Wek and Liya Kebede do a certain type of activism, which I see as related to climate. Lily Cole is deeply involved in this issue. It goes on and on. And the good news is it’s on the rise.”
”I think fashion is going to go through an insane transformation over the next five years. We have to reach the global tipping point at 2020, which would mean we’d need to reach peak emissions in that time and then we have to start declining. Fashion is one of the dirtier industries in the world, but it also employs almost one-in-six people. It’s not like we can shut it down tomorrow. And who would want to? What we do have to decide is what to do next. And that’s going to be enormous. That’s why it’s so vital that a business like H&M, which has such massive reach, is trying to have this conversation now. Because even if it’s just the tip of the iceberg, it’s really important to show other companies that it values this issue.”
EVEN IN 2016, DO YOU THINK WOMEN ARE STILL UNDERESTIMATED AS FORCES FOR THAT REVOLUTION?
”Yes, we know they are. It astounds me, truly. About 80 percent of garment workers are women. If you’ve been in a studio, you know that most of the people who work in fashion are women—except the real decision makers. It’s baffling. You have this whole industry that employs so many people around the globe. It’s probably 80 or 90 percent women. And the 10 percent that isn’t are the people in charge. That is totally wild.”
WHAT HAS TO CHANGE?
”It’s such a massive, essential question. I was just readingDrawing Blood by Molly Crabapple, and I picked up this little gem. Basically, she talks about how in many industries women don’t have power until they do. And when they get power, well, they don’t see all those little inequities that held them back and that other women and people below still have to overcome.”
”It’s complicated, because you don’t want to—by speaking up for those people or by focusing too much on those people—lose any of your own power or money or influence. But what you have to remember is that the business you’re in hasn’t been transformed. It’s just that your position in it has shifted. I definitely feel that.”
”From when I started to now, I’m a much more powerful model. And in some ways, it’s harder for me to see all the problems in the industry. But I try to remember that I do have some power and I think when a woman understands how much power she has, she should start taking all kinds of risks. I think women often look up at the person above them in a hierarchy at work and think, ‘I need to wait until I’m that person to make a move or to say what I believe.’ But if you keep waiting, you’ll never have a real excuse to speak up.”
When you start to realize that climate is going to touch everyone, you understand that we need solutions from all corners of the earth.
WHAT DO YOU TELL YOUNGER WOMEN AND YOUNGER MODELS, IN PARTICULAR, WHO MEET YOU AND TELL YOU THEY WANT TO BE INVOLVED AND GET ACTIVE?
”I think a lot of models want to be activists. And a lot of the time, it’s just about including them. I have a Google spreadsheet of models who are like, ‘Count me in!’ It’s a lot of basic organizing and some encouraging.”
”But I’ve been thinking a lot about what organizing models around these issues could look like in a more comprehensive way. There is a lot of interest. But it’s hard because models don’t work together that much. We do the shows together, but we don’t work together that much. And because we’re all at different agencies—and it’s better now that social media has made people so much more autonomous than they were when I started—it can be hard to band together. So, that’s something I’m working on.”
WHAT DO YOU SEE AS YOUR MISSION AROUND CLIMATE?
”I’ve been watching a lot of the presidential debates, recently. And everyone touches on growth and wages and the economy. But you know, I’m not sure that’s what our future looks like. I’m more interested in what’s going to be sustainable—a universal basic income, social security, better housing policies. That could be our future. So I’m looking to have that conversation outside mainstream politics.”
”We have this totally crazy reality that we have to face around climate, but when we talk about it we give these solutions that are just totally mundane and don’t even respond to that. To me, the solutions that are out there now don’t even do the problem justice. They either make the problem seem smaller than it is or they give us no hope. We need to go find out what credible radicalism looks like. We need to go find those ideas. And we need to use them.”