The market is demanding plus-size fashion be taken seriously - but what does high fashion think?
By Susan Daly
Wednesday February 17 2010
Real women eat their dinner. Real women are an average dress size 14. And real women are 'infiltrating' high fashion, gracing catwalks that were previously only stalked by impossibly thin models.
Or are they? It's hard to tell over the trumpeting noises that have accompanied new forays by high-end mags and designers into the world of the larger model. Germany's best-selling magazine, Brigitte, has just published its first issue that is totally devoid of 'traditional' models. Brigitte -- with an average readership age of 48 -- is not at the cutting-edge of fashion. However, when its editor-in-chief Andreas Lebert announced his plans with a press release that proclaimed Brigitte's stand against an industry that he says "is anorexic", it was reported in the international press.
British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman fired off a letter to designers last June criticising them for supplying "minuscule" sample garments for photoshoots, forcing Vogue to hire models "with jutting bones and no breasts or hips" to fit into them.
There was also excitement when US Glamour magazine published an unairbrushed photograph of plus-size model Lizzie Miller (she's an Irish size 12-14).
The praise for Glamour's decision to display Miller's small roll of belly flab was disproportionate to the prominence of the picture in the magazine. The pic measured three inches by three inches and was buried back on page 194 of the issue.
Still, the rapturous response does indicate a public appetite for fleshier models.
A scene in the movie The Devil Wears Prada explains how decisions on a hem length or fabric colour made by the powers-that-be in high fashion trickles down to the high street.
Is it possible that the trickle-down effect has reversed? Take the case of designer Karl Lagerfeld, currently being praised for shooting plus-size burlesque star Miss Dirty Martini for high-fashion US glossy V, who scorned the decision by Brigitte to make itself a model-free zone.
The magazine, he claimed, was being unduly influenced by "fat mummies sitting with their bags of crisps in front of the television, saying that thin models are ugly".
Either Lagerfeld's had an epiphany or he's realised he's out of step with the public. The more democratic world of the internet is producing a growing number of self-styled "fatshionistas". These plus-size, style-obsessed bloggers are publishing blogs like Musings of a Fatshionista and Fat Girls Like Nice Clothes Too.
Twentysomething teacher Gabi Gregg has appeared on US television speaking about her Young, Fat and Fabulous blog.
The content is similar to other personal style sites -- she posts photographs of herself in her favourite outfits.
She also alerts her readers to plus-size clothing lines and other plus-size bloggers. Her mission statement is only quasi-political: "I'm a fun-loving girl who happens to have a flair for fashion. I'm just trying to change the world one fat girl at a time."
The market has started to wake up to this sea change in demand. ASOS.com has launched a 'Curves' section. In Ireland, simplybe.ie has run a Curvy Competition for the past three years to discover new plus-size modelling talent. The king of positive body image acceptance, Gok Wan, crowned last year's winner.
Simplybe.ie's commercial manager Brenda O'Sullivan says there is a demand for "fashionable clothes that weren't just exaggerated sizes but were tailored for the curvier lady". As for whether she believes high fashion has truly embraced the larger woman, O'Sullivan is adamant: "Absolutely not -- yet size 16 is the best-selling size in the market place."
It's a feeling echoed by Jules Fallon, co-owner of Irish model agency 1st Option, which supplies models for high-end designers. The demand for plus-size models has been growing so much that Jules has stepped in front of the camera herself in recent times.
"We are finding the demand is coming from all angles," says Fallon. "I think it's definitely changing."
Nonetheless, Fallon has just had a troubling experience sending some of her girls to model in the London Fashion Week.
"One of the girls had a 35.5-inch hip measurement and the agency refused to put her through, saying the absolute limit was a 35-inch hip," says Fallon. "In Spain, they check the Body Mass Index of the models in Madrid Fashion Week to make sure they are a healthy weight. London is just crazy."
The fashion industry appears to be singing from different hymn books from country to country.
A judge on Australia's Next Top Model says there is no market for plus-size models in Oz.
"We could have a plus-size model win the competition and she would end up doing catalogues for Target (department store)," says Charlotte Dawson.
Kristi Kuudisim, one of Ireland's most in-demand plus-size models, says she never even considered modelling as a career option until she moved here seven years ago.
"In Estonia, they just want skinny models." She claims there still are not very many plus-size models working consistently in Ireland but that she is getting busier by the year.
"I notice even the fashion magazines in the last six months have had bigger models in them. Six years ago, you wouldn't find one," says Kuudisim.
"I don't think it's a novelty -- but there are certain clothes that look better on skinny women. But there should be a market for both because there are some clothes that look better filled out."
Kuudisim rejects the notion that the use of plus-size models is normalising obesity. "A plus-size model is still a model," she insists. "You have to be toned. I don't sit on a couch doing nothing. I don't starve myself but I eat healthily and work out."
So the demand is there -- is it just a case if when, not if, the high-fashion industry gives in wholeheartedly to it?
Kuudisim says the nature of the work she is attracting is changing. "I'm being called to do a lot of editorial work (high-end magazine photoshoots)," she says. "That didn't happen before."
Jules Fallon thinks that magazines like Vogue, Glamour and V are "testing the water". There has been debate over the real value of highly publicised shoots carried by US Glamour and V when the plus-size models used are frequently depicted nude or semi-nude. Is this promoting the larger woman in the context of fashion, or simply fetishising their bodies?
Then there is the argument that what fashion considers plus-size ("anything from a size 10 or 12", says Kuudisim) is not so in the real world. 'Plus-size' model Lara Stone is a size eight, but because her body shape is not androgynous -- she has hips and breasts -- she is lauded as a poster girl for the fuller-figured woman.
"The likes of Vogue are not going to change overnight," says Jules Fallon.
"But I do think the day of heroin chic look is binned and gone. LA celebrities are a good watermark of where the industry is at. The 'lollipop ladies', heads bigger than their bodies, are disappearing. They are starting to change their attitudes that being skinny is not going to necessarily get you a job."
Whether the runway can be as fashion-forward is still up for debate.
WISE UP AND SIZE UP
The fashion and beauty industries' small steps towards accepting plus-size women ...
2004: As part of their 'Campaign for Real Beauty', Dove cosmetics' global survey finds that women "believe in a broader definition of beauty than the narrowly defined ideals most often portrayed in popular culture".
2006: Former celebrity stylist Gok Wan teaches 'real' women to be self-confident about their shape in his hit Channel 4 programme, How To Look Good Naked.
2007: US Glamour announces its 'First Annual Figure Flattery' issue in October and makes America Ferrera, star of Ugly Betty, its cover girl. Website Jezebel noted how trim Ferrera appeared as a cover girl in contrast to a shot of her taken at the Emmy Awards on the week the issue launched. Glamour insisted the cover picture had not been digitally slimmed.
2008: Whitney Thompson becomes the first plus-size contestant to win America's Next Top Model.
2009: German magazine Brigitte announces in November that it is to make its pages a "model-free zone", inviting "real people" to model for fashion pages.
2010: Designer Karl Lagerfeld shoots plus-size burlesque star Miss Dirty Martini for the February 'Size' edition of high-fashion US magazine V.
The 2010 advertising campaign for plus-size high-street store Evans arranges a bevy of plus-size models in an homage shoot to the famous 1990 cover for Vogue which featured supermodels Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Tatjana Patitz.