The Real Catwalk Triumphantly Returns for NYFW 2021

Inclusivity, body positivity and diversity-first mindset.

The struggle for diversity in the fashion industry has been a long one, but the movement took a leap forward in 2018 when body-positivity model and advocate Khrystyana began hosting The Real Catwalk, an open-to-the-public fashion and lingerie runway which includes models of all shapes, sizes, creeds, colors, sexualities, and gender expressions. Normally a guerilla-style pop-up event, the original Real Catwalk took place out in the open and under the lights of Times Square, in front of hundreds of onlookers and with hundreds of models, both professional and novice. Initially inspired by former Victoria’s Secret CEO Ed Razek’s trans-and-fatphobic comments in a now-infamous Vogue interview, The Real Catwalk has since then expanded internationally, hosting a similarly styled public display in Trafalgar Square in London. Khrystyana, along with hundreds of her fellow industry disruptors, have successfully transformed this body-positive event into a regularly held celebration of both fashion and inclusivity.

But this year, with the fallout from COVID-19 and the roadblocks it is causing for live events, a large public gathering was obviously not possible. Instead, Khrystyana + co. decided to move forward with a private, much smaller runway show, one curated without public spectators and with less than 30 models. Taking place inside a massive, high-ceilinged, and well-ventilated hall in Manhattan’s Spring Studios, the event’s main challenge was clear: how would The Real Catwalk’s messages be shared with a wider audience, while remaining safe through this global pandemic? The answer: film it!

For The Real Catwalk 2021, named the “Essence” rendition to reflect its paired down nature, the handpicked roster of models shows off the event’s famed diversity-first mindset and growing influence; from folks like disability advocate Bri Scalesse and trans-male model Chett D’Angelo to ichthyosis-awareness activist Jeyźa Gary and gender non-conforming Latinx model Vidal Chávez. The runway walkers all sported outfits by NYC-based queer designer Guvanch, with bolts of airy fabric wrapped around their bodies, tied with colorful bows, and topped with oversized silk flowers, mimicking the aesthetic of a fresh bouquet just-purchased from your favorite NYC bodega. Eventually, once the models hit the end of the runway to face the press cameras, they all shed their artifices of loveliness to reveal their near-naked and even lovelier true selves,  in bras, panties, and various underthings. Some beamed; some cried; some laughed; some danced. But every participant had an emotional response, which is understandable, as allowing oneself to be that vulnerable with the rest of the world is daunting — yet worth it.

Now out, the three-minute-long video recaps the models’ gorgeous looks while bumping to bouncy, uplifting music. Along with showing the models strutting at Spring Studios, the film also features quick shots of dozens of real fans of the movement, filming themselves at home playing out their own version of this year’s Real Catwalk.

V were honored to be in attendance that day, experiencing the energy which permeated Spring Studios: a renewed hope, grateful happiness, and the knowledge that those present were taking a powerful stance and making a difference in the fashion industry… come hell or coronavirus.

We spoke to a handful of The Real Catwalk models for their responses to the day:


Liz Harlan, model, artist, and social activist

“The first Real Catwalk was powerful because we took over Times Square without a permit and commanded space to be seen, and once the photos of us all came out, the movement went viral. It’s been incredible to watch how much The Real Catwalk has grown over the years. This is the first time the show has had a more traditional layout of a standard runway show which I believe has elevated the movement. Instead of commanding space in the streets we are commanding space in the fashion industry’s own physical area. Casting with this kind of diversity is still rare, but hopefully, our continued work will inspire many more shows to follow suit.”

Cory Wade, model and diversity advocate

“The truth is, we are all beautiful and worthy… and you don’t need me to tell you that! It’s up to each and every one of us to own our individual beauty unapologetically.”

Jari Jones, Black Trans plus-size model, producer, and social activist

“I hope that one day, diversity becomes a necessity in the fashion world, where having difference is not only celebrated but is seen as a necessity for a campaign or brand to really take off. Representation will always be a key in societal change, and The Real Catwalk is a big part of that. I’m hoping to inspire those who have been told they’ll never be good enough. Specifically young trans girls, specifically plus-size folks, specifically Black people. We are enough and we deserve to take up space.”

Thaddeus Coates, Black plus-size male model, queer illustrator, and self-love advocate

“I want to see plus size men on fashion covers, in editorial spreads, and on more runways. It’s 2021, it’s time to expand and open up that threshold.”

Jeana Turner, model and alopecia advocate

“This season of The Real Catwalk was about being covered, adorned by things other than your authentic self, and then ripping that off to reveal your true nature. So for me, it was more than just shedding the flowers… It was about my journey with hair loss. Back on America’s Next Top Model, during the makeover when I got to take my wig off, that was semi-staged. But this time, for the first time, I was able to reveal myself on my own terms. I was able to really live through that. And it felt really, really good.”

Lynley Eilers, plus-size petite model, actor, and activist

“It was so empowering for all of us models to be side by side because each of us carries a special presence and community that we are representing. Most of us would never be seen on a traditional runway, so it’s amazing to feel like we are setting the bar, showing the world that this is the new expectation; this is what every runway should look like. There is a demand and a need for more representation, for more size inclusion. In my opinion, there is no excuse at this point.”

Justin Stewart, model, cleft advocate, and inspirational speaker 

“Inclusivity is a hard fight to win, but I think there have been some great strides recently, some clues that we are heading in the right direction as a society. Modeling is such a beautiful thing. Anyone should be able to enjoy this craft no matter their race, creed, gender. No matter what unique difference you have, or the beauty standards that other people have placed upon us, everyone has the potential to bring out their inner model.”

Daniele Lee, model and vitiligo advocate 

“Looking at the other participants’ faces and expressions after they walked the runway was so inspiring. They all seemed to be glowing with pride, and happiness, and fulfillment. Seeing everyone’s reaction after, I can tell that this walk meant something special to each one of them. As for me, the moment I took the fabric off, I was on a euphoric high. I never felt so empowered! My inner child would be blown away from all the inclusivity and representation.”

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