How A Plus-Size Girl Navigates the Pin-Thin World of Fashion

Illustration by Silja Gotz

Recently Georgina Burke, a 24-year-old plus-size model who regularly wears Céline, Helmut Lang, Lanvin, and Givenchy, went into a designer shop to try on some jeans. When she asked for the pair she wanted, the salesperson said, “What? No, those aren’t going to fit you.”

Burke is the first plus-size model to have a major contract in years (She’s the face of Torrid, a retail chain known for trendy plus-size clothing.), and she’s also a tireless, enthusiastic shopper. Designer pieces in her size, however, can be as hard to find as nonjudgmental salespeople. She knew the jeans would fit — she already had a few pairs — and demanded them. “I was like, ‘I earn money off my size, so listen you stupid little girl…’” she says. “There are people who are so into fashion they can’t open their eyes.”

If they did, they’d see that the average woman today wears a size 14 (In 1985, she wore a size 8.) and that there are more options than ever before for larger clothing that’s not muted and shapeless, from places like Torrid or the plus-size e-tailer Eloquii. Many fast-fashion stores, like H&M, Forever 21, Wet Seal, and Mango, also have new plus-size lines. “They’re making clothes that a size 2 or 4 would wear,” says Gary Dakin, who runs the modeling agency JAG, which represents only women size 6 and up. “Before, in the plus-size modeling community, the girls rarely wanted the clothes they were modeling, and now they’re posting them on Instagram at the shoot.”

Still, in high-end fashion, the sizes remain mostly on the small side. For the most part, designers don’t make clothes larger than a size 12 (And stores tend to order fewer of the larger sizes as well). Burke used to have a Barneys New York salesperson who’d call her to rush over when the store had bigger sizes in stock. “I’d come in and be like, ‘Oh my god, I love this,’ and they wouldn’t have it in my size,” she says. “She was like, ‘I feel sorry for you.’”

In this way, the luxury market seems to be lagging behind general culture, which has embraced more size diversity. Some of the most famous women right now, such as Kim Kardashian, Nicki Minaj, and Kate Upton, have built their careers at least partially on not looking like twigs. Plus, a surefire way to have a hit pop song today seems to be with lyrics about how great it is to have an ample booty

Top-shelf designers, though, continue to be mostly inspired by women whose frames could be confused with a clothing hanger. “It’s such exciting times for plus-size clothing, and there are a lot of brands coming up, but it’s still on the cheaper side,” Burke says. “There’s no brand that’s doing amazing fabrics and really detailed designs. It just baffles me that there isn’t a high-end brand that does larger clothes.”

Georgina Burke

Photo missgeoburke/Instagram

Some do have plus-size lines, like Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren, but they keep these offerings quiet. In particular, stylists and models say that the Michael line by Michael Kors, which launched in 2007, is beautifully done, but the company doesn’t promote it. “We agree that it’s a beautiful line,” the company said in a statement to Yahoo Style, “and we do send for plus-size opportunities when we have the appropriate samples and are approached. Michael prides himself on being able to dress women of all shapes and sizes, and making them feel and look good.”

Part of the reticence about going bigger with these lines is that designers want to keep their clothing aspirational — but thinking that, stylist Christopher Campbell points out, is a strange way of looking at something we’re supposed to wear. “In fashion, it’s all about the skinnier the better, and then you hear things like, ‘Well, we don’t want to destroy the integrity of the clothes,’” he says. “Clothes are functional. They’re made to flatter a person’s body. It’s not the other way around. I think it’s become a reverse in a way. We now think we have to mold our bodies to fit into these clothes.”

Nicolette Mason, who runs a plus-size fashion blog and is a columnist and contributing editor at Marie Claire, adds that there’s also an antiquated point of view out there that larger women don’t want to wear the same kind of clothes that they see on the runway or in fashion magazines.

“There’s a gap in understanding that a woman with my body type does want to wear miniskirts, mini dresses, and sheer fabrics,” she says. “It’s controlled by this idea that she should cover up her body. All women regardless of their size are influenced by the same culture and want the same trends and the same type of clothing. That’s not a very radical concept.”

Recently Dakin was talking to a major department store retailer who told him designers didn’t invest much in larger clothing because “women are always trying to get down a size.”

“Let’s stop shaming the situation,” he says. “A 14 is beautiful. She doesn’t always want to be a 12. Women want to have boobs and butts. They love having curves, and the designers should be embracing that too.”

Campbell says this attitude also exists because of misogyny in the fashion industry. “Clothes are being made by gay men for women,” he says. “A lot of gay men think, ‘Let’s make everyone look like a boy.’ That doesn’t celebrate a woman’s body. A lot of times gay men design clothes in an abstract way without keeping in mind a woman’s figure.”

Campbell cites the Dolce & Gabbana corset dress as a great example of a garment that was made with real women in mind. “What fashionable woman doesn’t want to have one of those?” he says. “It celebrates a woman’s figure. It makes them feel beautiful and sexy, and let’s be honest, they can get laid in it.”

With celebrities like Lena Dunham, Christina Hendricks, or Sofîa Vergara on the red carpet nowadays too, there are more opportunities for designers to show off what they can do with different body types besides Jennifer Aniston’s. “These celebrities need to be dressed, and sometimes it’s a one-off made specifically for them by the designer,” Dakin says. “It gets them great exposure. Women can say, ‘Lena wore this, and I want it.’”

Practically speaking, making these clothes for curvey figures is a challenge for designers who are used to catering to women who are all limbs — especially if they need to produce a lot of them. “It involves another fit model or another set of samples,” Dakin says. “It’s really expensive, but let’s face it, they have the money.”

And there’s money to be made: Plus-size apparel represents almost $18 billion of the $116 billion women’s apparel business, and in the past year, it has grown 3 percent. Some retailers and designers, though, believe that plus-size women aren’t willing to pay what women who are a size 0 might for their wardrobe. Camy Newman, the owner of retail store Pop Up Plus, agreed that this has been a problem for her in the past. Pieces in the $200 range didn’t tend to sell, but she said that concern over price could be overcome with the right education about quality materials and fit.

Dakin, too, said that he thought major designers would get on board at some point as long as they were selling the clothes. “It’ll be, ‘Oh my god, we’re selling out of the 10s, let’s add more 12s,” he says.

As for Burke, she’s not giving up on changing things. “I want to shop where the clothes in the magazines comes from, and I want to be next to Cara Delevingne in ads,” she says. “When someone tells me I can’t do something, I go harder and want it more.”