Androgynous models are the new stars of New York Fashion Week

It’s Saturday and New York Fashion Week (NYFW) is in full swing. The room is crowded with models, designers, hair and makeup artists, and others frantically preparing for a show in midtown. One designer calls out to the male models to line up and take off their shirts. They comply, each nonchalantly revealing the rippling abs and chiseled shoulders that are the tools of the male modeling trade. One of them stands out from the Zoolander pack. She’s wearing a sports bra.

Female male model Marcia Alvarado tends to surprise people that way. She is masculine to the point of passing as male—not only in fashion, where she’s signed to an agency’s male division and frequently models menswear on the runway—but also in her everyday life.

“Half the people [in fashion] don’t even realize I’m female until I start undressing,” Alvarado, whose first name is pronounced ‘Mar-SEE-a’ told the Daily Dot during a break in the madness when we stepped outside for a cup of coffee. “And that’s kind of the way I’ve been living my life—I don’t really correct people because it makes them uncomfortable.”

This is the Tampa, Florida native’s first year modeling in NYFW and her one-year anniversary of modeling, period. After spending a few hours talking to Alvarado over the course of the next week, it becomes clear that she is used to being the odd man out, as it were. A military brat who moved frequently growing up, she’s comfortable with her own difference yet skilled at warming people to her quickly. At 33-years-old and 5’8”, she’s too old and too short—not to mention too female—by established male model standards. She’s already got a successful, well-paying career as a structural engineer; in her youth, she played college basketball and was a math prodigy. She’s a lesbian in a committed relationship with a beautiful woman who is launching a career as a fitness model and trainer. Nothing about Marcia Alvarado’s life screams “male model.”

Yet when the Daily Dot met agender modeling superstar Rain Dove later that week, Dove insisted Alvarado is “the next big thing in fashion.”

“She has the George Clooney vibe,” said Dove while prepping backstage at VERGE, the largest queer fashion show during NYFW. “She breaks a lot of barriers in fashion: height, ethnicity, age, sex and sexuality. She breaks every single standard, but she’s the best. I’m so excited to see where her career goes.”

Dove has been breaking many of those barriers a step ahead of Alvarado, modeling menswear and insisting on being photographed in lingerie and dresses to call out the absurdity of rigid gender roles in fashion. 

Alvarado and Dove are part of a growing circle of masculine and androgynous female and genderqueer models who model mostly menswear. Like Casey Legler, Elliot Sailors, Ryley Rubin Pogensky, Erika Linder, and others, they are carving out a place for the handsome butch in an industry long dominated by hyper-feminine standards of beauty. Much of their fan base is found on social media: Dove has 17.6K followers on Instagram, while Sailors has 26.K of her own.

The market for androgynous models expands

For these models, masculinity is not a costume or trend to be taken off at the end of a shoot. All are also queer-identified, and their success as male models is a sign of LGBT inclusiveness in advertising as much as it is a style choice.

Alvarado, Dove, and Pogensky all walked in the VERGE show on Sept. 17, and Sailors sat front row as a VIP guest. Roughly 1,000 people attended the show in a cavernous room at the Brooklyn Museum, a testament to the sea change in fashion where queer designers use queer and trans models to showcase gender-bending style that is authentic to its community roots. The event, organized by the butch fashion blog Dapper Q, has exploded in size from its first incarnation in 2013. That year, according to Dapper Q editor-in-chief Anita Dolce Vita, it was a thrown-together event in a bar basement. Now, it’s the biggest showcase of queer design at NYFW.

Dapper Q is partly behind this sea change. Dolce Vita, an oncology research nurse by day who runs Dapper Q along with a cadre of passionate volunteers, told the Daily Dot that she’s been cast into an unexpected role as coach for models like Alvarado. 

“I never expected Dapper Q to take off the way it has,” said Dolce Vita over coffee. “And you know, all of us are having these great opportunities. For fashion week now I’m being asked to cover all these shows. I was just at an event where they were asking me to put them in touch with models for these high-end designers. So I’m like an agency now, in a way.”

Alvarado was perfectly poised for these opportunities. She’s shot several photo sets for the blog, but it was also at last December’s Dapper Q show that she met other androgynous models for the first time.

“When I came last year, I had never seen this many studs in one place in my life. It was like another planet,” recalled Alvarado. “I met Rain at this show last year, too. And then about two or three months later I came back for work and stayed the weekend with her. She was really instrumental in getting me the courage to do this.”

Dove finds herself in a mentorship role for emerging androgynous models, as she is well aware of challenges inherent in the job.

“I do try to help people attain resources as fast as possible so they don’t have to start where I started,” said Dove. She continued: 

“Being an androgynous model is one thing, but a lot of what we’re up against is the way we stand for certain values, such as our sexualities, or if people with our look are common enough to be part of the consumer market. Right now, if you are entering the LGBT modeling market, you are investing in yourself. This isn’t something you are going to make money off of. You have to come into it as a warrior, like really fighting for something bigger. You can’t just be a model, you have to be a movement.”

Ready for their closeup

“You have to come into it as a warrior, like really fighting for something bigger. You can’t just be a model, you have to be a movement.”

The market for androgynous and genderqueer models is expanding, Dove and Dolce Vita both agree. With the increasing acceptance of LGBT people due to this year’s massive marriage equality victory and transgender visibility through superstars like Caitlyn Jenner, advertisers are less skittish that using out models and performers might be a liability or drive away conservative consumers. And with the LGBT population growing with each generation, advertisers are scheming ways to speak to them in their own language. 

The irony of Alvarado’s look, though, is that she’s kind of stealth—passing so well as a man in photos and everyday life that it’s not immediately clear she’s female.

“When me and my partner go out, we are read as a straight couple. We don’t deal with a lot of the stigma,” Alvarado explained. “People ask what my pronoun is, and I’m like ‘I’m Marcia!’ It doesn’t bother me, though, if my friends slip up and call me a guy or whatever. A lot of people are fighting for their identities.”

While a struggle for acceptance is part of these models’ lives, the atmosphere backstage at the VERGE show was celebratory. Queer and trans models crackled with excitement as designers and assistants fitted clothes to their bodies. The show leaned masculine in terms of style and models, as it stemmed from the Dapper Q aesthetic, but it also featured femme models in bikinis and dresses. The cast was far more racially diverse than Fashion Weeks tend to be: while the majority of models at VERGE appear to be people of color, NYFW is nearly 80 percent white in its model makeup. 

Designer Fabio Costa—a Brazilian who scored second place on season 10 of Project Runway and just barely missed taking season four of its All-Stars spinoff—had the typical air of exhaustion that can be expected backstage at a NYFW show. He took a moment to explain to the Daily Dot how Alvarado became a muse of sorts for his line, Not Equal.

“I wanted someone who had [certain] characteristics: [who] wasn’t necessarily female but wasn’t necessarily male, but could just fall between genders,” Costa said, as bodies swarmed around him in the crowded backstage room. “She was able to come to my studio and see the collection as it was just starting to come together… so I got to do a test run, just try shapes and get a feel for the collection. It helped me set a direction for silhouettes and models.”

Gender-neutral clothing is gaining prominence in fashion, Costa said. For example, the iconic London department store Selfridge’s recently did away with gendered sections completely at its stores, and the kind of tomboy and butch fashion that Dapper Q features through clothing lines like Wildfang and Saint Harridan can now be found on the shelves at the Gap and Bergdorf Goodman, thanks to Ellen Degeneres. Sailors is even the new face of H&M, starring in a campaign that has her wearing a suit, man-spreading on a stoop, and casting smoldering, handsome looks toward the lens.

Now Alvarado—along with androgynous models to come—is poised to ride the wave. Still, there’s one person that never could have predicted she would end up in the male modeling business: her mother. The Daily Dot met Alvarado’s mom, Rebecca Jones, during her first-ever visit to New York, and asked her if she ever had imagined her daughter becoming a model.

“No! I always thought it would be my other daughter. She’s a professional cheerleader. I always thought she would be the model,” said Jones. “Marcia’s very photogenic, but I didn’t expect it. I didn’t understand about androgynous modeling, that it was a real niche. But it works really well for her.”

Alvarado’s mom recalled Marcia growing up not as a tomboy, “but really more like a gentleman.” Her pride in her daughter is clear, without a touch of the discomfort some parents have when asked about her gay child’s coming out to her years ago.

“We had a convo when she was about 14. I remember her telling me ‘I think I’m gay.’ And I said, well, let’s be sure. Later she came back and said, ‘I’m pretty sure,’” said Jones with a laugh. “And you know, you really don’t have to do anything when your child comes to you with that. Just accept them. You’re gonna love your daughter, you’re gonna love your son. You don’t have to do anything but continue to support them and be there for them.”

Jones said the one piece of advice she did give her daughter was to wait until college to come out fully, recalling that a few other parents had “issues” with Marcia, and high school in the 1990s had a different atmosphere than today.

The need to stand as a symbol for LGBT youth is not lost on Alvarado and the other androgynous queer models. When asked what feels more subversive—being a stealth female in a more traditional menswear show, or working at a show like VERGE that represents the face of the queer fashion community—Alvarado’s face lit up when talking about VERGE and the Dapper Q scene.

“This show tonight is going to mean a lot more to me,” said Alvarado. “There’s a lot of personal growth involved. Everyone that’s not on the runway wants us to sort of speak for everybody. So there’s a lot on our shoulders at this particular show, to represent our world. We’re all embracing it.”

Dove concurred, sharing that she frequently gets messages from some of her tens of thousands of online followers. Those missives can range from romantic fanmail to cries for help. “I get a lot from people who are in oppressed situations and say they were gonna give up. A lot of people have reached out and said they were in bad situations and really need me to be successful,” Dove said. In some ways, the pressure is on to represent opportunities and even survival for young gender outlaws everywhere.

A new kind of pinup star

There’s another way that models like Alvarado and Dove serve the LGBT community: Sex symbols filling a historic void of butch imagery. They bring a new kind of pinup to the many people of all genders and sexual orientations who are attracted to masculine women.

Alvarado shyly shrugs off the suggestion that she is emerging as a butch pinup. But even through a veneer of politeness and professionalism, she admitted that her sex appeal is part of modeling—and that she often gets hit on by gay men. “People are starting to question themselves now, too, even the straight women. Sex sells in the industry,” Alvarado said.

Alvarado’s first year in the fashion industry hasn’t been without its obstacles. She came to New York in June for Rainbow Fashion Week, a Pride event. During the visit, she said, she walked from agency to agency carrying her comp card—and was turned away at each one for not meeting the minimum height requirement for either gender (for women, it’s 5’10”). Now, she’s signed to Salient, an agency that represents tattooed and otherwise alternative models.

“I’m 5’8”. But the photography that I take, because I’m so thin, I can look like I’m six-feet-tall,” said Alvarado. “And I really didn’t think it was going to prevent me from being a model—you know, somebody always likes the way you look. I don’t mind getting rejected. I have thick skin from college basketball.”

After the VERGE show, Alvarado sat outside the Brooklyn Museum with Dove and a crowd of new friends. It had been a long day without enough food or water, but the energy was still high. As the group began to walk down Flatbush Avenue toward a Mexican restaurant where the models would refuel at last, Alvarado turned to show the Daily Dot her phone.

“Look! I have 999 followers on Instagram now. This is going to drive me crazy,” said Alvarado.

One of the hair and makeup artists walking in the small group quickly pulled out her phone and opened Instagram to follow Alvarado, helping boost her up to 1,000. It was kind of a precious moment in the arc of the next-big-thing: probably the last time she’ll see her online following in the triple digits. Satisfied for now, Alvarado shoved her phone back into her pocket, and walked off into the Brooklyn night.

Photo via thealvaradoexperience.com (C) Used with permission

Mary Emily O'Hara

Mary Emily O'Hara

Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.