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It feels like we’re regressing. This thought about the state of plus-size representation at New York Fashion Week this season—well, the lack thereof—lived in my head for more than a few days before I finally said it out loud. Once I did, I couldn’t stop talking about it.
As someone who has been in the plus-size fashion industry for nearly a decade, in roles from blogger to editor to brand consultant, I’ve seen a marked improvement in plus-size representation in the fashion industry as a whole over the past few years. But frankly, when the bar is set so low that it’s basically on the ground, it’s not that hard to step over. The first NYFW show I ever attended, back in September of 2013, was also the first time a plus-size line was ever shown as part of the official fashion week schedule. With that six-piece Cabiria collection by designer Eden Miller, plus fashion week representation officially began.
Anyone looking to make change knows that progress isn’t a straight line, and this has certainly been the case when it comes to plus-size inclusion on the runway. The season after Cabiria’s debut there were once again zero models above sample size in official shows. It took another year to see body diversity again, with plus model Denise Bidot opening the diverse Chromat Spring/Summer 2015 show, signaling a promising change in how the new wave of young designers would approach casting.
Treated As A Trend
I’ve been actively pushing for increased options in plus since at least 2014, so I am constantly on the lookout for signs of progress, no matter how small. A few seasons back, it seemed like we were on the cusp of major change, with a variety of high-profile labels using curve or plus models for the first time, and a marked excitement for moments like 11 Honore’s gorgeous confetti-laced final walk. I’ve never once gone into a fashion week expecting proportional size representation (which would mean at least 67% plus models on the runway). I’ve not even expected 50% or 25%, a fact that is more than a bit sad when you think about it. Indeed, even the “best” seasons for body diversity have capped out at under 3% plus representation, so the bar remains low.
What I have expected, or at least hoped for, is some sort of continuous forward motion. Sure, that designer just included a token plus model last season, but hey, maybe they’ll add more to next season’s runway? Maybe more designers will see the glowing press and accolades brands receive when they embrace truly inclusive castings, and understand that they are missing out? Maybe they’ll realize it’s a major market with vast untapped growth potential, one that should be treated with the same respect and dignity as the straight size market? As a rule, I generally try to remain positive and celebrate these as steps in the right direction. Though that type of cumulative progress is much slower than I would like, it still pushes the proverbial needle forward.
Unless, of course, body diversity is treated as just a trend. Though they may be subtle, we can clock the signs of plus-as-a-fad of in the wording of press releases, and in the treatment of every new plus body included as some sort of “diversity achieved” badge. While those outside the plus community might think that curvier figures trending is a good thing, those of us in the field are skeptical at best, because as we all know: In fashion, fads are fleeting.
New York Fashion Week, Fall/Winter 2020
After attending a few days of shows and events this season with plus representation nowhere to be found, I needed to know if I was the only one who felt like things were not just stagnating, but moving backward. I was not. Almost every plus-size person I spoke with this Fashion Week felt it, too. Kellie Brown, founder of And I Get Dressed, summed up the common sentiment perfectly: “Last season felt more inclusive than ever in my opinion, and I immediately thought, ‘They think that body diversity is a trend and they’re going to take it away,’” she shared. “So this season when I saw maybe three women on the runway—with the exception of the Christian Siriano show, which is always inclusive—it reminded me that our work is nowhere near finished. Every plus-size industry insider that I bumped into had the same befuddled expression of WTF, as we navigated what felt like a massive step backward this go-around.”
As the week continued, not much changed. There were a handful of pleasant inclusive moments, however. In keeping with their inclusive brand ethos, Tadashi Shoji, a brand that has offered its ornate evening wear in true plus sizes for decades, continued to utilize plus-size models by showing six looks on plus women this season. Dennis Basso—the designer with one of the broadest size ranges of any brand shown at NYFW—sent four looks down the runway on plus models, and the impact was felt by tuned-in show-goers like stylist Nolan Meader. “What I loved was that he wasn’t just throwing plus size in. He was expanding the reach of his #bassogirl persona,” praised Meader. “The plus looks were cohesive, whereas with some designers, they often look out of place.”
Praise For Genuine Inclusivity
A couple of designers known for consistent body diversity on the runway, like Christian Siriano and Becca McCharen-Tran of Chromat, showed up for the community again this season. Siriano had more curve and plus models than any other brand for Fall/Winter 2020, with 11 looks from his boisterous Harley Quinn-inspired collection on bodies above sample size. Chromat stepped away from the traditional runway this season, but their innovative presentation in a sleek FiDi gym still brought the same infectious energy. The casting, headed up by director Gilleon Smith, was once again a beautiful look at what a truly diverse fashion show can look like, with a variety of body types, gender expressions, sizes, sexualities, and abilities represented seamlessly.
Only one plus-size specific collection was shown this season (Rene Tyler), and it was part of the Oxford Fashion Collective group show at Pier 59. Seeing visibly plus models, like Laura Lee, Veronica Pomee, Michaela Duerson, and plus model icon Liris Crosse strut down the runway in Tyler’s sparkly gowns was a welcome thrill, but the only of its kind. Some designers that have been consistently offering plus in the last couple of years, like Tanya Taylor and Rachel Antonoff, eschewed traditional NYFW live events in favor of digital presentations: A short comedic film series entitled #FASHUNweek, and a theatric (literally) lookbook, respectively. Both included a variety of body types in their digital media entries for NYFW, which is certainly appreciated, but with so few inclusive designers showing, I would have loved to see those clothes (and curves) on the runway. However, the onus should not be on a handful of designers who actually embrace the community to provide all the representation, particularly when many designers who make plus didn’t provide any.
Dropping The Ball
Unfortunately, that sort of true allyship still seems a ways away. Many traditionally straight-size designers that now carry sizes 18+ did not include a single model above standard sample size on their runways. Sally LaPointe, with arguably one of the strongest collections this season, created saturated head-to-toe monochrome looks that would have looked equally stunning on plus models, had they been included. Brandon Maxwell, a designer who offers up to size 22 and who has had fairly inclusive runways in prior seasons, did not have any plus-size models in his 60-look show. The number of NYFW designers that offer extended sizing is already a tiny subset of the overall schedule, so for these brands to not cast plus models speaks volumes.
When designers did choose to cast one or two models in their show, that inclusion had the potential to feel tokenizing. For instance, while I was happy to see a plus model amongst the joyous chaos that was this season’s Marc Jacobs show, it did beg the question: Why, in an 80-look show, was there only one plus-size person? Jacobs currently offers up to size 20, but it would be all too easy for potential plus customers to miss that lone model amongst all the whirling, dancing, and celebrity cameos.
“It’s time for NYFW to feature more plus-size designers and become a true ally to the multi-billion dollar plus-size industry,” says Alissa Wilson, Editor in Chief of Stylish Curves. What’s more, in addition to dropping the ball on customer acquisition, this type of sparse inclusion also sends a clear message to many people within the fashion industry: Plus size bodies are so last season.
Inclusivity Off The Runway
Seeing gorgeous plus models on the catwalk is crucial to helping the fashion industry recalibrate their ideas about how fashionable or “aspirational” plus bodies can be, but runway representation is only part of the picture. Having plus-size people in decision-making positions is key, and can affect how a brand chooses to approach a market that comprises the majority of women, both during Fashion Week and beyond. But even within the framework of Fashion Month itself, size diversity needs to extend off the runway. Who is getting invited? Who is being photographed? Who sits in the front row? So few plus-size people are invited in the first place, and as far as seating arrangements go, it’s still quite rare to see larger bodies in the front row. Even those with extensive industry access, like Khalea Underwood, Beauty Editor at The Zoe Report, keenly felt the general absence of size diversity at this season’s NYFW. “[I]t’s almost impossible to see my demographic reflected on the runway,” said Underwood. “There are a few curvy models cast for shows here and there, but I dream of the day when sizes 2 and 24 can walk together in tandem — and it feels normal.”
The paucity of invites trickles down to another major area where representation is lacking in fashion week: Street style. Lydia Hudgens, photographer and one of the creators of the plus-size street style gallery at InStyle, set the scene: “In the past two years, I feel like the energy of NYFW has kind of shifted. When I first started shooting the plus-size gallery it was in a space where a lot of size-inclusive talk was happening—it was trending, so to speak.” Hudgens, who has been purposeful about shooting stylish attendees of all sizes, noted a shift this season, too. “I feel like people have kind of just gone backward—a speckling of plus models, either only high-profile or sizes 8-14. It’s genuinely hard to capture people outside the shows, fewer influencers are going, and overall the vibe feels different,” she shares. “February is always harder for size-inclusive street style because of the simple fact that people aren’t going to as many shows,” she said, adding, “The more we show up, the more we make ourselves seen, the better, in my opinion.”
Wilson noted the drop-off as well. “This year, New York Fashion Week seemed like it was losing its momentum for size inclusiveness. The same goes for street style,” she said. “What I noticed this year was a lack of variety of plus-size women included in some of these street style galleries. Often times you kept seeing the same plus-size girls.” That lack of variety can be a window to the biases of the photography community as well. If someone can only find a plus-size body stylish if there is a prestigious title attached to said body, they might want to examine why.
The Future Of Fashion Inclusivity
Despite all this, NYFW is still the best of a bad bunch when it comes to fashion week representation. Model Felicity Hayward just wrote an editorial for the U.K.’s Stylist, saying, “you have no idea how many steps ahead of London you are.” After perusing the LFW shows online and seeing a tiny smattering of plus models and even fewer plus attendees, I’m inclined to agree with her. Seeing visibly plus model Paloma Elsesser walk for Fendi seemed like a promising way to open Milan Fashion Week, but ultimately the inclusion of plus models at MFW started and ended with that one runway. That said, New York should take no comfort in having a slight edge on size inclusion, as this season has been a stark reminder that the whole thing is far too tenuous to rely on.
Brown, who has already been working for years to open fashion up to people of all sizes, ended NYFW on an all-too-real note. “My biggest takeaway from this season is that we have so much more work to do. We cannot relent in our work for inclusion in this industry,” she declared. Even though many of us are tired of having the same conversations, and wholeheartedly wish we didn’t have to fight for every bit of Fashion Month representation, those of us dedicated to making fashion more inclusive will keep up the Sisyphean task of fighting against the bodies of the majority of women being treated like a passing fad. We can only hope that our straight-size colleagues will join us, and maybe we can actually make some progress instead of sliding back down the hill.