As much progress as there is still to be made in the name of body diversity within American fashion (and there's plenty), the runways of New York Fashion Week are no longer off-limits to plus-size models. Retailers are beginning to listen to their customers and expand their size offerings, and more brands entering the market for the first time, seizing an opportunity they'd ignored for far too long. Starting in earnest back in 2004 with Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, mainstream fashion magazines began casting plus-size models like Ashley Graham in their pages to much fanfare, setting the stage for consumers to harness the power of social media to amplify conversations around brand campaigns that celebrate diverse bodies — and, conversely, to tear those that don't to shreds. At the very least, inclusivity is not being ignored.
Which makes it all the more puzzling to watch Fashion Week after Fashion Week go by in London, Milan, and Paris and see barely any change in the range of bodies sent down the runway, or shown within the social media accounts of most luxury brands. Establishment European fashion has not acknowledged that women who wear above a size four even exist. According to The Fashion Spot's annual diversity report, of the 30 curve models cast in the fall 2018 shows, only three walked in Paris (two for H&M and one for Alexander McQueen), while none walked in either London or Milan. Compare that to New York, where curve models were appeared on 10 runways, with two labels — Christian Siriano and Chromat — casting a combined 19 in their shows.
"We always get very excited after New York that London's going to follow suit," says Anna Shillinglaw, founder of U.K. modeling agency Milk Management, which reps big name plus-size models Robyn Lawley and Denise Bidot along with a host of rising stars. "As an agency, we're extremely disappointed in London."
Models at Chromat's fall/winter 2018 presentation.
Seeing newcomer model Betsy Teske book London-based Alexander McQueen during Paris Fashion Week for both the spring 2018 and fall 2018 seasons was a high point, Shillinglaw says, but back home, it felt like too little, too late: "We were really devastated. We'd done all that work, and it was the same shit, basically."
Shillinglaw grants that it's mostly high-fashion designers that have failed to move with the times. On the commercial and editorial fronts, work is more diverse than ever. A former model herself, Shillinglaw set out to build a curve board with as much diversity and editorial potential as its straight-size counterpart. Where models over a size two were once relegated almost entirely to commercial work, she now books girls on jobs ranging from Vogue Italia spreads to the Savage X Fenty campaign.
The U.K. is also home to many brands that have been leaders in bringing younger, cooler clothes to the plus-size market; brands like ASOS Curve, Elvi, and Simply Be, which Shillinglaw calls some of her best clients and "well ahead of the game." This makes sense considering the average British woman wears a U.K. size 16 (the equivalent of a U.S. 12, and the largest size produced by most fashion brands).
Some critics claim that size diversity isn't as necessary outside of the United State because American women are bigger than Europeans. This is somewhat true — the obesity rate in the U.S. is 38.2 percent, higher than any other country, versus 26.9 percent in the U.K., 15.3 percent in France, and 9.8 percent in Italy — but it still doesn't account for the number of size-zeroes on the runway, particularly since every brand needs to serve a global clientele to succeed in 2018.
"Europe is old, conservative, and very stuck in their ways," says French model Clémentine Desseaux, who says there still isn't enough of a market in her home country to build a viable career as a plus-size model. "They know what works and what’s safe and do not even try to change things up for fear of losing what they have." Frustrated by the lack of work in France, Desseaux moved to the U.S. in 2011 where she signed with Muse Model Management, landed campaigns for brands like American Apparel and Eloquii, launched her blog, Bonjour Clem, and her creative agency, Les Mijotés, and earned the recognition of publications like Vogue and New York magazine.
In 2016, she co-founded the All Woman Project, a nonprofit initiative dedicated to promoting positive, diverse, and unretouched representations of women in the media. Now, she says she gets daily messages from French women who ask her to bring the project back home.
"Growing up, I always had this feeling that we were ten years behind on everything, and that’s certainly the case with size diversity," she says. "France has a lot to learn and to catch up on."
One sign that designers are, at the very least, wising up to the dollars at stake? Karl Lagerfeld, whose disparaging comments about fat women have been well documented over the years, recently teamed up with subscription retailer Stitch Fix on a plus-size collection, which launched in May 2018. While some plus-size bloggers cheered the collaboration, others weren't happy to see a designer with such a poor track record with the plus-size community profit off its spending power. One European plus-size online retailer, Navabi, has also secured more than $34 million in venture capital funding since it launched in 2010, putting it ahead of many of its American competitors.
Models at Christian Siriano's Ashfall/winter 2018 presentation.
According to Don Howard, executive director of apparel industry consultancy Alvanon Inc., which works with brands like Adidas, Levi's, and Burberry, the progress (or lack thereof) on the runway doesn't necessarily convey what's going on behind the scenes.
"There's not one client around the world that doesn't ask us about plus-size," he says. "So I think there's a difference between what might be happening that's not on the runway and what's definitely happening because they know there's a market need." Non-Western cities, which are often left out of discussions around size inclusivity because they aren't considered fashion capitals, are also lagging behind the U.S. in many cases (in South Korea, for instance, it can be challenging to find women's clothing larger than a size 6610 — equivalent to a U.S. size 6 — in stores), but there is movement in the right direction, usually in response to outspoken local women who want to see themselves represented in the media and see their sizes carried in stores.
Perhaps designers around the globe would do well to take a cue from Christian Siriano, who recently revealed that adding plus sizes to his line tripled his business. Starting that movement on the runway was important because fashion is so visual, he said in an interview at the 92Y: "You have to put it in people’s faces… We’re all stubborn, even me. So when it’s on the runway, it’s there." And once it was there, retailers were able to see the potential in the full range of sizes, place orders, and help make sure the pieces actually got produced.
However, the groundswell behind a cultural shift like this is most likely going to come from one place: social media. "It's all opportunity. And the more plus-size people who become vocal and spend money on clothes, they're going to gain more and more attention from brands," says Howard, adding that wherever he goes, be it Australia, Germany, or China, there is some movement, for an obvious reason: "People who are creating great, fresh clothes for inclusive sizing are gaining a lot of traction because there's a market for it."
On the runway, says Shillinglaw, it's up to designers to make a conscious choice to embrace inclusivity, since it's impossible to even consider diverse bodies — even an "in-between" size eight or 10 — if every sample garment made for a show is a size two. Still, she remains hopeful that the change she's seeing on the commercial and editorial fronts will carry over throughout the industry.
"I do feel that, especially in the last couple of months, there's been a big shift in a positive direction," she says. "If a casting director is casting a campaign, and we email from the curve board and say, 'Do you mind if we sent you a curve package?' A year ago, people would get really angry with us, and be like, 'No, we didn't request that. Send us what we want.' And now they're like, 'Yeah, we'd love to see some of your curve girls.' And then they get requested and then they book the job… the briefs we're getting from casting directors and brands are more inclusive, and I definitely don't think it's a fad. I think it's something that's here to stay."
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