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I remember the first time I realized plus-size women were not seen as desirable in mainstream (read: white) culture. It was 2004, plus-size model Toccara Jones had made her debut on America’s Next Top Model, and for some reason, she seemed a hard concept for America to grasp. A beautiful, confident, happy plus-size woman? No way. As for me, a young Black girl, I knew plenty of Toccaras. The Black community has always embraced thickness, so to us, Jones didn’t seem out of place alongside the other women on the show. She was a model, it was a modeling show; it just made sense. After all, Black women are largely responsible for plus-size fashion’s growth as an industry—although they’re rarely given the credit they’re due.
Growing up, I remember seeing my mother and other plus-size Black women shopping at stores like Ashley Stewart and Lane Bryant. These shops always seemed to be strategically placed in or around Black areas, where plenty of plus-size women lived and wanted to look as good (if not better!) than their straight-size counterparts. Since then, the plus-size fashion market has exploded. In fact, a 2018 Coresight Research report estimated that consumers were poised to spend upwards of $24 million per year plus at size retailers by 2020.
Still, it seems that as the industry progresses, Black women are getting left behind. Virtually none of the top plus-size models or influencers are Black, despite the fact that Black women were some of the very first to make waves in the biz. Before Tess Holiday and Ashley Graham, Mia Amber Davis (RIP) and Wyinnetka Aaron worked with mostly “urban” clients in the early 2000s, long before social media and the #bodypositivity movement came along.
The truth of the matter is, without Black women, there would be no plus-size fashion industry—so why can’t we reap the benefits of the industry we helped create? For further insight, I asked five Black plus-size pioneers to share their thoughts on how far plus-size fashion has come and, more importantly, why Black women are not getting their well-deserved seat at the table.
The Media Maven
Marie Leggette, Editor-in-Chief of TheCurvyFashionista.com
Leggette is the owner of The Curvy Fashionista, a digital platform she started back in 2008 for plus-size women seeking the latest info on all things fashion and beauty. On the subject of plus-size fashion, she feels passionately that Black women’s contributions to the industry’s growth have been major.
“Black women have laid the foundation, pushed the envelope, and have innovated fashion in a variety of ways,” insists Legette. “Also, when you look to the influencer space, the earliest pioneers in blogging have been Black women,” she says.
So, why the industry’s current white-washing? Leggette feels the plus-size movement has been influenced by outside forces. “I think in many ways, we have innovated with limited resources,” she explains, “but mainstream media has tried to co-opt [plus size fashion] to keep the same beauty standards within the plus space.”
Liris Crosse, Fashion Model
Liris Crosse, often referred to as the “plus-size Naomi Campbell,” has been strutting down runways worldwide for over 20 years. The model, author and confidence coach wants Black women to be recognized for all they have done for the plus-size fashion industry.
“Black women have always accepted and been confident in their plus-size figures with the help of mothers and aunties that loved themselves,” says Crosse. “We have built and pushed the plus fashion world forward in so many ways, without the full recognition of what we deserve.”
Crosse, who was the first plus-size model winner of Project Runway, knows her race plays a role in how she’s viewed in the biz. “I feel white models, bloggers, influencers and events have been perceived to be more mainstream,” she explains. “There still hasn’t been enough normalization of Black plus models in these spaces, although we’ve always been here.”
Essie Golden, Blogger at EssieGolden.com
A well-known influencer who has worked with major companies from Kohl’s to Loft, Essie Golden runs her own personal blog as well as successful Instagram account, Golden Confidence. She’s made many strides of her own in the industry, but she is quick to recognize those that came before her.
“If it wasn’t for women like Mia Amber, Tocarra, Gabi Gregg, Queen Latifah and Monique, none of us would be as far as we have come,” says Golden. “They opened so many doors for others. Most of those women I mentioned don’t get any of the credit they deserve.”
“Myself and many other Black women have done so much work in the fashion space,” says Golden, referring in part to the Golden Pool Party, an annual event she started in 2015 to encourage women to embrace their bodies at any size. “My pool party inspired so many women, and even helped inspire a scene in a TV show, yet I wasn’t invited to be part of it,” she says, referring to the body-posi pool party shown on Shrill. “Black women are allowed to be your inspiration but not allowed to be a part of things we are inspiring,” she notes.
The Events Expert
Gwendolyn DeVoe, CEO of DeVoe Signature Events
If you are remotely involved in the plus-size fashion industry, you have heard of Full Figured Fashion Week (FFFWeek). The event’s creator and director, Gwendolyn DeVoe, started out as a plus-size model in the late 1980s and eventually moved to creating events tailored to plus-size women when she saw an obvious lack. FFFWeek event has been hailed as one of the premiere events showcasing plus-size designers, models and personalities. Due to COVID-19, this year’s event will be completely digital for the first time.
“From the early days of ‘church’ fashion, the style of Black women have been admired and copied,” says DeVoe. “On the plus-size side, more than half of the indie fashion designers I know are Black women. So, the contribution is quite significant,” she says.
Still, she feels Black women have been unfairly ranked to a low level in the plus-size fashion hierarchy. “[Large plus-size retailers] love for us to manage their stores, bring in the customers and use our social media to influence our followers to buy the brand, but we are never invited to sit at the corporate table,” she points out.
Jasmine Elder, Fashion Designer and Creator of JIBRI
Contemporary plus-size fashion brand JIBRI has been a staple in the plus-size fashion world since Jasmine Elders released its debut collection in 2009. After over a decade in the biz, she has plenty of thoughts (and quite a lot of confusion) regarding the erasure of Black women in the plus-size fashion industry.
“I don’t really understand the concept,” she admits, throwing out reasons for this upsetting reality. “Greed perhaps? Disregard for creatives or creative minds? A misunderstanding of the cycle of creativity? Or perhaps a basic replication of Big Fish Eats The Little Fish?”
Elders has a little advice for larger companies who take cues from lesser-known Black designers: Work together. “If your team is ‘inspired’ by Black indie designers, don’t be,” she says. “Contact them for collaborations, hire them as designers, invest in their brands, but do not continue to copy via inspiration.”
It’s evident that the plus-size fashion industry owes a debt to Black women, and perhaps it is time for that debt to be paid. A good place for companies to start? Hire more Black women, showcase more Black women in mainstream campaigns and give Black women the equitable seat at the table they helped build. After the contributions they have made and continue to make, they more than deserve it.