American model Hailey Gates has been the face of fashion campaigns, but as the host of VICELAND’s States of Undress, her mission is to go beyond the garments.
The series kicked off last year and took Gates all over the world as she uncovered often-overlooked aspects of the global fashion industry. From cruising with Speed Sisters, the first all-female driving team in the Middle East, to creating a Fashion Week look out of grocery store items with Chinese internet sensation and designer Wang Shouying, Gates explored the common threads of where race, gender and politics intersect with fashion.
States of Undress starts its second season on VICELAND on June 6 and in eight episodes, will take viewers everywhere from the beaches of France, where burqas and burkinis are banned, to Liberia, where a domestic fashion industry is emerging as the nation recovers from the devastating Ebola outbreak.
FLARE caught up with host Hailey Gates to find out what audiences can expect this season and how fashion and beauty can shine a light on some intensely political stories.
States of Undress really focuses on the factors that influence how women present themselves in different societies. What prompted you to want to look into that?
For one, it was kind of a back door into a lot of complicated issues in the world we’re living in, without tackling it the way the news does. These fashion weeks are very interesting barometers for where a country is at so it ends up being a very useful tool to take the temperature of these places.
You mention that talking about fashion and beauty can be a sort of “back door” into some big topics. Were there some areas or topics that you felt were really important to explore this season, particularly given recent news?
Our first American episode looks at the rise of conceal-carry fashion among women here. I think it was really important for all of us to turn inward at this time and examine something that is as controversial as the gun debate. This year was so wild overall. Every place that we went to seemed to be at a sort of tipping point where they were dealing with something historic in their cultural evolution. We went to France at the height of Islamophobia when the far right was gaining a lot of traction. We did a piece in Thailand right when the King, the country’s longest reigning monarch died. It was chaos, everyone was wearing black. We did a piece in Lebanon, exploring the Syrian refugee crisis through these Syrian tailors that are working in Lebanese ateliers. To tell these stories in a different way has helped me make sense of things that I find hard to relate to or hard to digest when I’m taking in my news every morning.
Did you have a background in these types of nuanced cultural topics before hosting the show?
No, I didn’t. I’m very unqualified for this job—I studied play writing and experimental theatre—but I will say that a lot of the plays that I ended up making and things I was writing were based on topics like these. I was really drawn to why certain historical events were happening. So while it’s really surprising that I ended up doing a show like this for VICELAND, it also makes sense.
How did shooting season one differ from season two?
We did so much this season. We shot eight episodes in about four months—it was a very athletic process. I think this time I was interested in pursuing more niche events. I wanted to find those events to create an arc for these episodes. But also, because we had to shoot so quickly this time, we had to be more confident in our pre-production. Last season, I was so green—and I still am in a lot of ways—but this time we had a little less time to explore.
In this series, you’ve had some tough interviews, including sitting down with a man who threw acid on his wife. How do you approach those conversations as an interviewer?
For one, it doesn’t help if I come in hot. It doesn’t help if I make him aware of the way that I feel about an act like that, because that would make him immediately close off. In a place like Pakistan, I also opt to be more covered and that allows people to feel more comfortable speaking to me. I actually find it a lot easier to interview people I don’t agree with because I’m far more curious about how they’ve arrived at that place.
I feel like my approach is the same with people I agree with and those that I don’t. I just want to make them feel as comfortable as possible so they can share their story. Sometimes it’s not fun making small talk with people like that—to help them feel at ease—because all you want is for them to feel the wrath of what they’ve done, but I don’t make this program as an activist. I do it to help tell stories.
As much as we’re talking about making other people feel comfortable, you’ve personally done a lot of uncomfortable things in this show—like riding in a car with lion cubs, and in season two, going to a beach in France with a woman in a burkini where you know it was going to be a problem. Do you ever feel nervous or scared in those situations, and if so, how do you push through that?
Yeah, absolutely, but it’s not about me, really. There was a director who once said, “I’ll never make an actor do something I would never do myself.” Although this is obviously not a fiction piece, I’m not going to, for example, let this woman we’re speaking with go out on the beach by herself. I feel like if I was the sort of person who would do that, I wouldn’t be doing this job.
Having discussions with people you fundamentally disagree with feels very relevant right now. What advice do you have for viewers on how to do that effectively?
I think the open-carry fashion episode speaks to that a lot. I’m not a gun person by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s not something I feel comfortable participating in. But what I set out to do, and what we challenged the team to do with this one, was to make a piece about women and guns where all the women in the piece are pro-gun, but for different reasons. We attend a conceal-carry fashion show. This is an industry that is built off fear, people’s fear that something will happen to them or that their guns will be taken away. It’s a really different conversation also when you’re talking about women and guns, versus men and guns. A lot of these women’s reasons for carrying are very similar to, say, me and my friends, and those go back to general inequality. My response to that inequality was to intellectualize it and read feminist writing and make sure that I was asking for the respect that I deserve, and for them, they had a really practical response. We may differ on a lot of political views, but in the end, they’re voting to protect their second amendment rights, and they’re interested in that because they have very similar fears as other women—they just manifest those fears in different ways.
Given that you’ve travelled the world with this show, has it influenced how you personally dress or express yourself through fashion?
I don’t think so. When I started, I had this idea about what a female journalist in the field looked like. I went to [outdoor outfitter] REI and bought this hideous jacket with lots of pockets and thought that would make me look legitimate, but I ended up never wearing it. There were a lot of ideas in my head: I should look practical, I should look masculine, I needed to look a certain way to make people take me seriously. But what I ended up doing was actually leaning into my femininity, and that has opened up far more doors for me in terms of making people feel more at ease when talking to me. In the end, I’m mostly talking to women and the more that I can be myself in the field, the better.
You’ve gone to more than a dozen countries so far. Is there anywhere you’ve been wanting to take the show that you haven’t been able to yet?
This year we were planning to go to Iran, which I’ve been wanting to do for the past two years. We were coming back to the U.S. from Lebanon and landed at the airport in the midst of Trump’s Muslim ban and it was just flooded with protesters. It was very intense. The day after, the Iranians put a counter ban on Americans, which is totally understandable, but unfortunately, that nullified our visas. It was incredibly bad timing, but it also helped us tell the Lebanon story in a different way too. Part of what we were exploring there was this really small country dealing with the influx of Syrian refugees and figuring out how to accommodate them. Then I land in my own country and we’re not even having these conversations because we’re not even letting them in. It was heavy.