Designer Gaby Bayona on Diversity and Representation in Fashion

Words by Megan Jenkins

  • Photo by Andy Fernandez.

    Photo by Andy Fernandez.

  • Photo by Jill Schweber for Wolf Circus.

    Photo by Jill Schweber for Wolf Circus.

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When speaking about Vancouver’s Gaby Bayona, those who know her often land on the same idiom, said with equal parts admiration and incredulity. She’s the founder and owner of five bridal lines, two flagship stores, one production warehouse, and an alternative modelling agency with nearly 40 people on its roster, making it hard not to arrive at the same conclusion: Bayona is wise beyond her years. Known for making waves in the bridal industry with her modern and not-too-frilly gown lines Truvelle and later Laudae, Bayona began some of her most innovative and community-focussed work in 2018 when she launched Stranger Agency: a modelling firm intended to increase diversity and representation in commercial photography.

“It came out of my bridal companies. We wanted to make sure we were representing everybody who wears our dresses on our social media, but it was getting really difficult,” Bayona says, seated at Gastown Italian restaurant Di Beppe. “I was talking to a few people who own businesses about how difficult it is to cast in Vancouver. I was also flying outside of Vancouver to cast so I could get more diversity.”

Her eventual response to the problem does well to encapsulate her spirit and her business acumen: “It got to the point where I was talking about it so much that I just needed to either do something about it, or stop complaining,” she says. Recognizing the intractable issue of fashion’s love for thin, white, extremely tall models, Bayona launched Stranger Agency in April 2018 with a roster of around 20 diverse male and female models.

The positive response from the commercial industries in Vancouver was instant, proving that Bayona had tapped into an important moment for the city. The agency, which represents models who are “stranger than your average” (including photographer Taby Cheng and, full disclosure, this writer), invites people of all ages, heights, weights, shapes, heritages, and aesthetics to submit for representation, and has placed talent with Lululemon, Aritzia, Blume, and more.

Successes aside, Bayona knows there’s more work to be done. Things are changing in the fashion world, but not quickly or drastically enough. She would know; Bayona’s mother, a talented seamstress and designer, introduced Bayona to the industry when she was a teenager. After designing custom dresses in her mother’s shop for a few years, Bayona turned 20 and grew hungry to strike out on her own; she started with Truvelle, and over the years, expanded into what is today a modest bridal empire.

Now 26, Bayona has spent nearly half her life in the bridal and fashion industries, and she consequently knows many of their nuances well. This is partly why the absence of such agencies like Stranger baffles her. “An interesting statistic in America specifically is that 50 per cent of American women are considered ‘plus,’” she says. “However, the representation of models out in the world, in ads and all that, are not reflective of that 50 per cent.” Fashion’s inclination towards these “typical” models is not only non-representative and socially irresponsible, Bayona points out, it also leaves money on the table. “The more I do research on this,” she says, “the more I realize that if you are not body positive, you’re just doing bad business.”

The issue of representation is not the only thing Stranger seeks to fix. For many models working in metropolitan cities, your contract with your agency functions like your bible. Want to cut your hair? Clear it with your booker. Breaking out? Let your booker know. Put on a few pounds? Lose them. And try to stave off body dysmorphia and disordered eating all the while. Bayona knew from the start that her agency would be different: she would create a space for people to model non-exclusively and part time, with the promise of safe, respectful, and creatively-energizing work experiences. Now in its second year and seeing only an increase in its successes, Stranger is testament to the changing winds of fashion both in Vancouver and abroad—changes that Bayona herself has helped to usher in. See? She really is wise beyond her years.