photography sophy holland written by Ashley canino
WORDS: ASHLEY CANINO
Elliott Sailors is making an impact with her shorn hair, enviable bone structure and a forward-thinking worldview. The model seamlessly moves between tailored tuxedos and leather mini-dresses, driving conversations around gender fluidity and beauty ideals. A couple of years since her menswear debut, Sailors’ public identity has expanded into actress and activist. Her raving supporters demonstrate that progressive change is in fashion. In conversation, Sailors is equally fascinating—smart, eloquent, self-aware.
How do you think modeling influences our social context?
I think that fashion, more than modeling influences our social context. That being said, who is wearing that fashion is absolutely more and more a part of the social landscape, especially as it becomes more readily viewable to the masses through social media. Modeling influences our social context in the sense that it relays to the viewer not only what is “socially acceptable” but “socially desirable” as well. When models come from a context of social responsibility I think it gives our job not only more meaning, but greater satisfaction and fulfillment.
What has the fashion world yet to embrace that you feel it needs to?
The fashion world is increasingly supportive of a wider-range of humanity. We are seeing more models of color, more models in a range of sizes, more models who are transgender, and more models who are older. Do I think there is work yet to be done? Yes I do! But as someone who has been working as a model for more than a decade, I do think that the fashion world is certainly moving in a more inclusive direction.
When the press first got wind of your transition to menswear modeling, there were quite a few responses accusing you of co-opting the transgender struggle for your own personal gain. What sort of response did that trigger in you? How do you feel general sentiment has changed, or not changed, toward you over time?
Really? I only knew of one article, which was referenced in other articles and interviews after, generally defending where I was coming from or just being quoted to ask for my response. I think the general sentiment since the beginning has been that I am in no way making any kind of statement about trans life or culture, because it is not my place to comment. I am just living my own life and have my own self-expression. When people have asked what has been different for me, I have answered honestly. There have in fact been times when I was pulled out of a women’s restroom or stopped physically before entering. It is true that people discuss, in front of me, my gender and try to figure out what “it” is. I am not seeking pity nor in any way demeaning, belittling or even comparing my experience to others. I have been more than clear about the fact that the reason I have found these experiences upsetting is not on my own behalf, but on behalf of those who have lived these kinds of situations, and much worse, time and again throughout their entire lives. I am a trans ally and I am supportive of all human beings being allowed to live the life that brings them the greatest freedom and joy.
What does gender mean to you?
Gender is how you identify personally, whether that be male, female, or any space in-between, which can include gender-fluid and androgynous. Gender fluid can be felt as an overlap of genders or a feeling of gender identity that may not be the same everyday. Androgynous is having both masculine and feminine traits simultaneously or you could say gender ambiguity. I experience myself as both gender fluid and androgynous, but honestly why do we have to use labels for everything?
Can you tell us about any experiences that stand out as defining the difference between modeling as womenswear versus menswear?
I don’t have any specific experiences I can think of at the moment. I would just say that I find working in menswear generally a more chill and relaxed environment, but I still love working in womenswear too. That’s the fun for me—being able to go back and forth!
What inspires you?
I am inspired by people who are true to themselves and honest in their experience of finding their truth. I personally love gender ambiguity in fashion, and I am a big fan of designers from Yohji Yamamoto to Billy Reid. I am inspired by my parents, who do not agree with how I live my life, but never let their opinion get in the way of their love and respect for me and others like me.
When do you feel the most beautiful?
I feel the most beautiful in black, white and blue.
When do you feel your most powerful?
I feel the most powerful when my hair is back, I’ve had a good night’s sleep, and I’m living an authentic life.
Tell us about any projects you are working on or have coming up.
One of the projects I’m most excited about at the moment is Tom Is Not A Boy. This is a collective of artists and creatives—in fashion, fine art and design – from which I am currently gleaning inspiration. I am building and supporting a collective of people who are committed to the same freedom of self-expression I was discussing earlier. My partner, Olimpia, and I will be working with these artists and brands to support and develop their identities and existence in the world. I am also looking at acting in a web series dealing with the concepts of spectrum – both gender and sexuality.
When you think about the future, what are you most excited for?
I am most excited about finding ways to have people feel safe, understood, empowered and self-expressed.