It was just one more subtle shift forward when Ottawa-born Ben Barry received a Governor General award in November for advancing the cause of women. At 25, he is the first man to receive the annual award.
Barry is founder and CEO of the Toronto-based modelling group, Ben Barry Agency. The prestigious award recognizes Barry for spearheading a movement to “fashion a new paradigm” — promoting a realistic and positive view of beauty in the fashion world.
Looking to close the gap that divides the unrealistic images of Hollywood fashion from the everyday consumer, Barry’s goal over the past decade has been to transform fashion from images of skinny, young and smooth to a mirror in which we see ourselves.
It’s a move that industry professionals believed spelled disaster. At a young age, Barry has made his idea of beauty his mandate — and success has far from eluded him.
It all started at age fourteen. A young friend of Barry’s who had spent thousands on fashion school could not get work. Barry sent her pictures to the Ottawa Life Magazine editor to help promote her look. The magazine called Barry back, booked his friend and the Ben Barry Agency was born.
Barry reminisces, remembering the youthful idealism of his first effort.
“That first booking was exciting, but it was exciting because I was helping a friend enter the modelling world and challenging everyone inside the industry who said she was too big to model.”
“I was not afraid to say what I thought about the rigid ideal of beauty. I was not worried about jeopardizing my career or ruining my business because I was living at home with my mom, without the worry of rent or grocery bills. Should my business fail, I would simply go into grade ten the following year. The modelling agency became my extracurricular activity, the same way some kids go to hockey or dance after school.”
It was a big, seemingly fast leap from that innocent beginning, to the Ben Barry Agency today, which includes a head office in Toronto and a client list featuring Coca-Cola, Macy’s, Dove, Old Navy and Holt Renfrew. Over the years, celebrities also started paying attention, among them Madonna, Demi Moore, Oprah Winfrey and Lucy Liu, all of whom embraced Barry’s idea of fashion and beauty.
“In my opinion, beauty shines from the inside out. I feel beautiful when I am with those I love or engaged in a favourite activity. Anyone who has been in a relationship knows that the typical face and body gets dull very quickly. It is character that makes and keeps people beautiful.”
It is that same vibrant character that Barry finds attracts Barry to his models.
“When I search for models, I look for people whose character and personality will reach out to consumers and inspire consumers to reach back. I stop people on the sidewalk who are dancing along to music blasting from their headphones, or on the bus who are in the middle of an argument with their friends. I feel their energy, and I know that if they convey it in this moment, they can do so on the runway or in front of the camera.”
Barry’s ideas, considered revolutionary within the fashion industry, captured the appreciation of feminist advocacy groups and led to the nod from Governor General, Michaelle Jean. Jean calls Barry’s work “positive, determined action to undo stereotypes and redefine society’s idea of beauty.”
Barry credits the compassion and empathy of his philosophy to his experience as a gay man.
“My sexuality provides me with a personal, first-hand understanding of how it feels to be excluded and, more so, how empowering it feels to then be included. It has allowed me to always ask, whenever I create media: Who is included and, more importantly, who is excluded?”
In a short time the Ben Barry Agency has become known for its use of diverse models; those of widely different sizes, races, ages and abilities.
While others would bask in the success and recognition, head south and book a spot in an Arizona spa for the winter, Barry is kicking into the high gear instead — to work on his PhD.
Building on his fascination with stereotypes, Barry is researching perceptions of beauty across the world in his thesis. The end product will be his second book, Beyond Beauty: Discovering, Challenging and Redefining Beauty. The first, Refashioning Reality, was directly focussed on transforming the fashion industry.
When Barry stops to consider his accomplishments at age 25, he responds humbly, acknowledging the deeply personal roots of his ambition.
“What drives me is the feeling of being excluded and unvalued. When I was growing up, I remember being picked on by my classmates and teachers because I did not excel in sports. I had interests that were not considered masculine. Never would I want others to experience this feeling. So I am driven to do my part.”