Modelland: Another Bogus Attempt to Democratize the Fashion World
Supermodel/businesswoman/TV host Tyra Banks announced the creation of a model themed amusement park called Modelland in February, slated to open in the Santa Monica Place shopping plaza late in 2019. The park gets its name from Banks’ young adult novel of the same name, in which tokenized misfits (overweight, short, and albino) go to Modelland boarding school in order to become models, gain superpowers and escape evil forces… or something. Reading the summary alone made me confused, and the book has understandably been slammed as terribly convoluted and, in my favorite review, '“a befuddling mess of dreckitude.” Modelland is meant to follow the mission of the book by Disneyland-ifying modeling for regular folks. What the park will entail is a mystery, as the website contains nothing but a logo, “Coming Soon” and “Step Into Your Light.” So what does it really mean to “bring modeling to the masses” as Banks claims Modelland is sure to do?
This isn’t the first model headed business venture based on selling the model image. 1995 saw the opening of theme restaurant Fashion Café, owned and endorsed by titans Naomi Campbell, Elle Macpherson, Claudia Schiffer, and Christy Turlington. Picture the Hard Rock Café/Planet Hollywood, but make it fashion, complete with a red carpeted entrance, iconic pieces like one of Madonna’s tour bustiers, and a gift shop with both Fashion Café branded merchandise and actual designer clothes.
The gift shop is analogous to the venture’s fatal flaw. Fashion Café tried to straddle the line between demographics that couldn’t be more different - tourists and the fashion elite. Average Joe and Jane (picture the stereotypical Middle American tourist: fanny pack, bucket hat, I Heart NY shirt, face perpetually hidden by a camera) were to be convinced they were stepping into a higher social strata than they could ever normally achieve simply by paying an exorbitant amount for “Naomi’s Fish and Chips.” The glitz and glam and signs that literally say FASHION (in case you didn’t get the theme) were to serve as evidence that the fashion elite would ever be caught dead at such a gaudy establishment, eating greasy diner food. Co-founder Tommaso Buti said it all upon the café’s opening, explaining "With something like this, you cannot go too deeply into fashion. The public is not that educated and not that interested. They want to see more the glamour and the entertainment of fashion."
Maybe I’m a cynic, but a major part of fashion’s allure for everyday people is its unattainable image. Supermodels are lauded as queens and goddesses because they represent an elevated version of the mundane. For the majority of the American population, the runway represents a kind of stairway to a heaven that they could never buy their way into. Models are the women that have strutted their way up. Banks claims Modelland is intended to help everyday people to “be the dream version of themselves”, but - disregarding the sheer falsity of that statement, as if acting as a model in a ticketed theme park is changing someone’s life - how can that dream be delivered, barring diets and plastic surgery? The sad truth is that most people don’t want to see themselves on the runway, they want that “dream version” that the media and the fashion world has told them exemplifies beauty. Part of fashion is gatekeeping, par for the course for an industry built on subjective art and rampant materialism. The magic is in the fantasy.
I loved America’s Next Top Model’s inspirational premise, modeling challenges and reality TV drama. I also know that at its core it was just a TV show, and out of its 24 seasons very few from its roster of (almost entirely traditionally attractive) winners have broken into the industry in any substantial ways, putting many question marks behind Banks’ repeated declaration on the show that ANTM has “changed the definition of beauty.” But the only fault I can attribute to the show itself is its insistence that it has truly diversified modeling. It is simply an appendage of a static and dream fueled industry that if deconstructed would fall apart.
This isn’t to demonize the modeling industry, which I personally find to be a fascinating portion of pop culture. The 90’s supermodel boom is one of my favorite phenomenons. It is important to not let our desires for widened beauty standards and equality cloud the reality of a cutthroat industry that is literally based on selectivity. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but as a culture there are certain glamazons we want to look up to. And after all, isn’t aspiration and continuous wanting the American way?
Feature image via from The Devil Wears Prada (2006).