Fashion Rule Breakers is an original A Plus Lifestyle series: Each month, we profile a fashion designer, model, organization, or icon who is a fashion rule breaker — someone who acts outside mainstream industry standards to make a positive difference.
Typically people imagine a model as someone who fits Western European conceptions of beauty — a person who is youthful, lean, and tall, with perfectly symmetrical features, flawless skin and hair. Model Del Keens, however, does not exactly fit this description, yet has worked for such big brands as Renault, Calvin Klein, Levi's, and Diesel Jeans.
It was with the help of Ugly Models, a London-based agency representing character models, that Keens was able to gain such international attention. After moving to Berlin, however, he found no similar agency existed — so he created his own and called it Misfit Models. Today, just under 600 models are being represented there, and as its name suggests, most don't look like the people on your usual Vogue cover.
By carving a space for models of all shapes, sizes, ages, and walks of life in an industry that often celebrates only one type of look, Keens is being a fashion rule breaker.
If you're wondering what kinds of people choose Misfit Models, the casting call on the website says it all: "Do you stand for who and what you are, on the inside as well as the outside, but don't give a damn about what fashion dictates, the latest 'Two Week Diet; or the right society-nose, nor do you possess the prescribed Body Mass Index? Then you could be the next, genuine MISFIT MODEL."
While the agency's philosophy touts inclusivity, unfortunately not everyone who reaches out can be represented. In a Skype interview, Keens spoke to us from Berlin and let us in on what he looks for in a model, besides their obvious unique features.
"A good model is a good working man, or a good working woman," he said. "It's not specifically beauty I'm looking for, but just if they can sell a product."
He added that Misfit Models helps provide an opportunity for anyone, no matter their physical appearance, to get their start in the modeling world and have their 15-minutes of fame.
"I think in fashion they want everyone the same size … but I think a good sort of look for a guy might be a redneck-type, like a person who is a builder and who works with their hands. Or a taxi driver, or a bus driver, or an everyday happy-looking person ... "
While there are more and more unconventional models gaining mainstream recognition today — Madeline Stuart, a model with Down syndrome walked the runway at NYFW last year, and Mariah Idrissi a hijab-wearing model, was recently featured in a campaign for H&M — there is still much work to be done to give these people more visibility in the media.
Misfit Models helps close the gap, but Keens notes you'd be hard-pressed to find many agencies like it around the world. Beyond providing a space to help unconventional-looking models get paid work, the agency creates a sense of community.
Keens told us many of the models, himself included, had been bullied at some point in their lives for being different, but at Misfit Models, they are celebrated for those differences. "Whether you're wearing the wrong kind of clothes, or shoes, [have] the wrong look, everyone gets bullied in life. It just depends what level of bullying you've experienced. I had some girls come in who had birth marks on their faces, and I bet they were bullied at school, because kids can be cruel."
Keens spoke of one model in a wheelchair whose "beauty shined through" when she was hired to do a campaign about the rights or people with disabilities. "There are not many people who take on disabled people as actors and models, and we get a lot of them."
Though the agency certainly gives some a newfound sense of confidence, Keens told A Plus helping people feel comfortable in their own skin wasn't the reason he created Misfit Models.
"It wasn't a goal of the agency, it just happened because I accept everybody and anybody as long as they can do the job that's asked of them. And I don't put people in categories. Like, someone asked me the other week, 'What kind of disabled people have I got?' I don't know. Because what is disabled?"
Regardless of Keen's intentions for creating the agency, Misfit Model's message of body-positivity has helped at least a few models come into their own and feel wanted for the features they might have otherwise been made fun of for. Keens points to one model's story as an example.
"There was a young guy who had just turned 18 when I signed him named Oguz. He was about three-foot tall, and he was being bullied in school because of his height, and he was a bit overweight. And now he's come out and embraced being a model, and he's doing work with lot of other agencies that will take him. So being a model has given him a new hope in life that he's not going to be living on scrap meat, [but] that he can always be on TV doing something, and get paid for it. And also, I discovered him on the street, I chased him down — which is rare for me — I don't normally chase people down, and offered him my business card and said, 'Hey, would you like to join?' And he joined!"
Keens' advice to a person who may not fit conventional beauty standards and is having trouble learning self-love and acceptance is a blunt reminder to stay true to yourself, and to not let negativity in the world affect you.
"Fuck the world! Get off the couch and do something with your life. Don't worry about what other people say. Find something you're good at and do it. You might be good as a car mechanic, you might be good as a model. Do what you think is best for you, and don't worry about the haters, because they are always going to hate. Don't worry about what other people say. Fuck 'em. Just get on with your life. That's what I do."