As the new faces of Simply Be, Iskra Lawrence and Gabi Fresh showcase this season's biggest trends in the brand's new campaign. And as Deputy Fashion Editor Hannah Banks-Walker discovered, they've also got a lot to say and you're going to want to hear it...
On one of those last glorious days of summer, when the sun is just setting and the air is punctuated with the first falling leaves of autumn, I met Iskra Lawrence and Gabi Gregg (a.k.a Gabi Fresh) to talk about their roles as Simply Be’s new campaign stars.
As a model, Iskra fronts American Eagle’s lingerie line Aerie, she’s been a cover girl for LOOK and she recently stormed the catwalk at New York Fashion Week. Gabi is what can only be described as a super blogger; she has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat and her work is regularly picked up by major news outlets in her native America, including The New York Times.
Together, they’re quite the power couple. But far from being intimidating, Iskra and Gabi are like the best friends every girl needs. During our conversation, we cover everything from body shaming to Beyoncé and all the while, they both talk openly of their own struggles with self esteem and how they overcame it with serious aplomb.
In a world that’s so often seen through an Instagram filter, Iskra and Gabi are like a breath of fresh air. No filter needed…
Hannah: First things first: Iskra, congrats on your appearance at New York Fashion Week! As your first time on the catwalk there, how did it feel?
Iskra: You know, there were transgender women there and women of different race, heights and sizes, and I’m just looking at them all and thinking, I don’t need to look like anybody else, they all look so beautiful because they’re different and that’s what’s nice. We’re all beautiful in our own way and that’s what I loved about the show so much.
Gabi: I love that they’re actually doing something.
H: I think New York is quite good for that. Christian Siriano always uses a really diverse model line-up, which is always really lovely to see. I feel like London has a bit of catching up to do.
G: I just want to get to the point where it’s not a big deal; I want it to get to the point where it’s not a headline. Every time a plus sized model is given something it’s a headline when it should just be normal.
I: I think there are so many more brands in New York, it’s bigger. I’m excited. Hopefully London will catch up.
H: Gabi, the big question that springs to my mind is how did you start building your brand? How did you go about it and how do you think it’s become so successful?
G: I started my blog in 2008 and it was the first plus sized fashion blog in the US that focused on personal style. It spread really quickly, just through word of mouth because it was filling a niche that nobody was talking about back then.
I think a lot of it had to do with timing, and on top of that I’ve always been super authentic. Back then, I didn’t know it was even possible to earn money from it; it was really a passion project. I was just sick of not being represented and I didn’t feel like there were any outlets for me. The magazines and media that were talking about plus sized women, I felt like they were targeting older women. I was like, I’m 21, where are the resources for someone my age who really wants to participate in the younger fashion trends and runway trends?
Within a few months I was on Good Morning America, the New York Times and from there it just grew really organically.
I: That’s such an important shift that’s happening in fashion, that you’ve been able to find resources and inspiration that is not biased; that is just people passionately putting out what they love. You can relate to that and it makes you feel like you trust them and you have this relationship.
H: How did it feel when you got the call from Good Morning America?
G: It was so surreal, I was living on my friend’s floor at the time… I was super broke, I had zero dollars. Then suddenly it was like “Umm… Good Morning America want to interview me can we use your apartment?”. She was like, “If people only knew that you’re on TV and people know who you are but you literally have no money, no place to live”. I said, “Yeah, pretty much”! It started like that and it was so surreal, and even to this day I’m always pinching myself and I can’t believe this is my life.
H: You’re the new faces of Simply Be- can you tell us how that came about?
I: I’ve been modelling in the SB catalogues and I think they just saw how much I love the brand. I really believe in it. The fact that, yes, you can dress trendy, you can dress cool, you can dress feminine – there’s all these different styles that you can find at Simply Be that doesn’t make you feel like you’re segregated and you’re part of fashion and it doesn’t matter what size you are.
G: It has such a good size range, it’s amazing. I’ve worked with the team before as a blogger on campaigns, but this is my first TV advert, so I’m really excited about that. I’ve always loved the brand; it’s been around for a while, like back when I was blogging before. Since then, so many brands have launched plus sized ranges, but Simply Be has been among the first that really offered us fashion forward options. I’ve always been one of their biggest fans, so when they approached me to do this, it was a no brainer.
H: How do you girls both feel about the term plus sized?
I: I think it’s such an individual thing, some people love the fact that they have a label that they feel they can put their stamp on and own. It is so individual and I love that I’m seeing more women of diverse size and if that’s what pushes it forward then let’s do it. It’s all about trying to make it more inclusive and make fashion accessible for every woman.
G: I always look at the term plus sized or even fat as a descriptive term, for me it’s just an easy way to find clothing, right? For those of us that are plus sized, we need to know where to shop; if I’m looking for clothing I need to know where to go. So, I think it’s just useful and functional.
H: How do you both feel about modelling in general? A lot was made about ‘underweight’ models during NY and London
I: I think modelling is a wonderful way to express yourself, it’s a shame that any size gets shamed- that’s not the way we move forward because there are beautiful women of all sizes. A certain size doesn’t mean health and it’s just working on making sure we’re healthy. I am so grateful, even though I thought initially that my relationship with the fashion industry was negative in the sense that it pushed me to want to lose weight, it actually meant I was able to really find myself and was able to build myself from the ground up and to realise that I was so much more than an appearance or an image.
H: Iskra, I know you were previously told to lose weight by members of the fashion industry. How did you rebuild your self esteem after this? And how do both of you maintain a positive body image?
I: It took a very long time, from when I was 15 to nearly 20. As a teenager your body is just changing so you’re generally just figuring out who you are. When I figured out that I could be more than that and brand myself and become a strong, confident woman – that’s why I made it. It had nothing to do with size or shape.
G: I don’t consider myself a model, so it’s always a little weird for me to be on this side of the camera because I like to be in control of my pictures and writing about my images. I’m still getting used to that. But I think that it comes down to the importance of representation and knowing that people seeing someone my size and also my race in an ad campaign is changing how they see themselves. For me, it’s important to be part of that change.
“There’s been the illusion that unless you have to have the perfect body, which for so long has been presented as tall, slim and white. It’s about re-educating all those people and luckily we’ve had the chance to use our voices to do that.”
H: Why do you think the media, and society in general, is still so obsessed with women’s bodies?
G: I don’t think you can pin point the one reason, I just think it’s ingrained so deeply in our society from literally centuries ago, if not longer. Although body type and beauty standards might change over time, the control over women’s bodies hasn’t changed. The patriarchy demanding what women should look like, then adopting that and telling each other what we should look like… it’s always the same. I think each of us is helping to change it one at a time, but I think on a large scale, it’s tough. But, I think we’re going in the right direction and I think social media and the internet have really helped the conversation in a big way and in a way that wasn’t possible before.
I: There’s been the illusion that unless you have to have the perfect body, which for so long has been presented as tall, slim and white. It’s about re-educating all those people and luckily we’ve had the chance to use our voices to do that. To re-educate and say “No, the goals, the aspirations should be just embracing and being happy with what you have and understanding that you can’t be perfect because perfect doesn’t exist”. Changing that conversation, and that’s what’s happening, is so important and it’s great to be a part of it.
G: For the first time we’re really seeing a shift like in the way people are finally understanding body shaming and what privilege is. We’re having all these conversations on a large scale, it’s not just these niche, small feminist groups that are talking about it, but it’s in the mainstream media.
H: Talking of body shaming, have you both experienced that online? And how do you deal with it?
G: Something weird about me is that I just don’t care. But, I do understand why it affects people. I have many friends who are very affected by it. I just have a very thick skin when it comes to internet trolls <laughs>. I remind myself that they are living a very sad life and are projecting a lot of it on to me. They can’t say anything I haven’t said to myself and I know they’re not happy.
Also, I’ll go onto Beyonce’s Instagram page and see everyone is leaving such horrible comments and I think, if they can say this about Beyonce, then nobody is perfect enough, right?! People are always going to say things which makes me feel better.
I: Yeah, the fact I got over my own demons and I’ve battled myself in the mirror, so really, I’m my toughest enemy and I’ve managed to get over that.
H: Do you find that it’s mainly women, or men, or a mix?
I: For me, it’s mainly men. I can’t remember the last time I got a negative comment from a woman. Men, when they look on social media, they get stuck on the image and they don’t understand or don’t read the captions. They think I’m posing in a bikini for them, to get their attention.
“Human beings are flawed and it’s okay to show all sides of yourself.”
H: In terms of your style and what you wear, do you have a favourite piece from the collection you’re modelling?
G: I love the leopard print and faux fur coat, but there are so many pieces that I’m obsessed with. I love all the leather leggings and pants, all of the graphic tees. I love the edgier, more urban street style look.
I: Yeah, there’s a cool shaggy cardigan that I absolutely love.
H: Do you have any style icons or anyone you look to?
I + G: Solange!
G: There’s so many good ones…
I: I look for inspiration from my friends, the people around me. I mean, in New York, there are so many people I’ll stop and say “where’s that from?”. It’s so nice on social media to see girls with similar shapes rather than just looking in magazines.
G: I love Amber Riley’s style, Dani Vanier, her style is amazing along with Callie Thorpe – they are a few of my favourite plus sized bloggers. Yeah, I almost find more inspiration from my peers. And I love Solange’s style and Beyonce’s- Rihanna’s another one.
I: Yeah, she can literally wear anything.
H: You are role models to so many girls now, and I just wonder how that feels? Do you see yourselves as role models? Do you get a lot of feedback from your followers?
I: Yeah, the feedback is incredible, the feedback is what keeps you going. In my bedroom, my bedside table, I got it especially designed to keep all my letters in there. It’s incredible. That’s what I mean, if you’re having a down day or any questions or anything, you can go in there and read it and it’s all okay, it’s what I’m meant to be doing, I’m so grateful. I don’t want to see photoshopped images of myself anymore, I don’t want to change, I just want to be me and I want to feel beautiful doing that, and I want to be able to model being me and being healthy, and that’s the number one thing.
G: For me, it’s so weird to call myself that because that’s not what I set out to do, but I do know that some people look up to me and sometimes I feel pressure. But at the end of the day I just remember that all I can do is be myself – good and bad. I’m just a perfectionist in life and I’m becoming more and more okay with the fact that human beings are flawed and it’s okay to show all sides of yourself and that’s what makes someone a better role model. Showing both sides and not just being a perfect image.
Shop Simply Be’s AW16 collection online right now.