There's reason to celebrate — but also work to do.
Though COVID-19 has challenged the fashion industry at large, the conversation around diversity — particularly size inclusivity at fashion week — has continued to pick up speed amidst the turmoil. And as another (mostly) virtual fashion month rolls around, many are pondering how far we have really come, and what issues remain to be deconstructed. Because while progress is important, the reality is that many plus-size women still don’t see themselves represented in the ways they’ve been longing for, and that’s what still needs to change.
Last September showed huge wins for size inclusivity: Versace’s casting of three curve models made global headlines, while Paloma Elsesser continued to appear across European runways, including Fendi. In December, the IMG-signed trailblazer made her Vogue cover debut, praised for “changing fashion for the better.” Precious Lee — who appeared in Versace’s Spring 2021 show — recently starred in a new campaign for the legacy brand, while also modeling for Area’s couture collection.
Clearly, despite pandemic-induced obstacles, the push for fashion to embrace size-inclusivity is intensifying.
“It’s great that we have brands like Versace including multiple curve women," says Alexis Ruby, who has appeared in Vogue Italia, Elle UK, and on the runways of Tommy Hilfiger and Marc Jacobs. "But, I'd like to see more brands including multiple curve women [rather] than just a few here and there. Give the people what they want.”
Take last season, for instance. While the European shows included a handful of standout moments, only 34 plus-size models were used in total during fashion month (14 in Milan, 12 in New York, and the rest sprinkled between Paris and London), according to The Fashion Spot. By the same study, that drop from 46 plus-size models in Fall 2020 equates to just 1.48% of all models cast. While change is occurring, the pace has been slow, thus emphasizing the need to continue the momentum following major runway wins.
Ruby adds, “We're definitely heading in that direction. I just think baby steps are what's happening and I wish we were taking dinosaur steps.”
Small spurts of momentum cannot and should not detract from the larger work that still must be done in normalizing size diversity on the runway. This is an issue Ruby sees: the concept of “the perfect curve,” a body ideal that’s largely risen since plus-size fashion went mainstream in the mid-2010s. And while some are pushing to represent the full spectrum of curvy bodies — women of larger sizes all carry weight differently, after all, making “plus” a spectrum, not a singular checkbox — finding models above a size 16/18 without an hourglass figure is rare.
Darrin George of GMLV Casting — who has cast Chromat’s monumentally inclusive shows, alongside Gilleon Smith — notes that the changes seen over the past few years have been “refreshing,” despite the amount of work ahead. Chromat has been a pioneer when it comes to fashion week inclusivity, casting beyond lines of size, race, gender, sexuality, etc, and truly aiming to represent the world at large right on the runway.
“Creative teams need to introduce progressive players that contribute to the evolution of fashion and break the mold to redefine traditional standards of beauty,” he says, stressing the importance of reflecting diversity behind the scenes, as well as on the catwalks.
George adds, “This is a movement, not a moment. Many designers and brands are jumping on the bandwagon when it comes to social justice — whether it be, LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter, body positivity, etc. — for a season or two, which is motivated by social media attention. But these attempts often come across as temporary creative concepts. An inherent change and shift in the industry has to come from a place of authenticity and persistence.”
Tyler McCall, Editor-in-Chief of Fashionista.com, notes that the recent wins are particularly encouraging as they come from across the sea.
“Europeans have been slow to sort of accept size inclusivity on runways,” McCall says, “so seeing these big European brands accepting that last season was big for me as well.”
She continues, “The fact of the matter is that Chanel, Versace, Alexander McQueen — these are brands that a lot of other designers look up to, including up-and-coming designers. Because they have long legacies, they have the power to set the standard in fashion, and for me, that is why it's so big and impressive to see this push happening with these big European houses.”
And what’s better: When the moment warrants less of a headline.
“I'm glad to see that it is becoming less newsworthy and more expected for designers to utilize their platforms to show their garments on a range of different sizes and attributes and races and abilities and genders,” says Becca McCharen-Tran, founder of Chromat.
Under her leadership, Chromat has become a pillar of inclusivity at New York Fashion Week, stressing that diversity means all, and not simply “one of each.”
“For us, casting reflects the world in which the designer operates,” McCharen-Tran says. “I think what we're seeing now with more diversity in all aspects is due to the fact that more designers from various backgrounds are being celebrated.”
A major issue that lies ahead, however: Tokenization. While a new wave of curve girls rise to the ranks of leading icons like Ashley Graham, Candice Huffine, and Tara Lynn, a question arises of whether or not the gates have been opened to a new generation. Following those who’ve paved the way, the industry must now make room not solely for women who fit those sought-after molds, but also for those whose body types have yet to be represented on the runway.
As Ruby explains, “not enough women are getting seen to be able to make waves on their own,” commending IMG — her mother agency — for including new, diverse models like herself in show books, rather than relying on the same girls season after season.
At large, the conversation seems to be centered on “who’s next?” rather than “what’s next?”, focused more on the face of the movement than the message itself. Because while Lee and Elsesser may be the leaders of today, more importantly, the focus should be on the change they’re implementing from the top down.
The reliance on the token curve girl can also lead to designers becoming lazy when it comes to casting: Rather than create a diverse set of sample sizes to reflect the casting call, they design for specific body types whose measurements they are already familiar with. If Jill Kortleve (a popular curve model who wears around a size 8) is who a sample size is modeled after, then the same fit won't work for Hunter McGrady (a Sports Illustrated star who wears a size 18/20), for instance. It can signify that a designer is merely chasing the clout and attention of whichever curve girl is most popular at the moment, rather than doing it for reasons of true inclusivity and representation. And that, in turn, has an effect on the consumer.
“I have friends who watch runway shows but could never even imagine looking up these clothes to see if they could fit in them,” Ruby says, adding that without a more diverse runway, it can be difficult to envision how clothing looks on anyone above a sample size. "It needs to be shown that these garments will look just as good on someone who is a size 14/16/18."
"I have friends who watch runway shows but could never even imagine looking up these clothes to see if they could fit in them" — Alexis Ruby
And it’s more than simply giving one look to a curvy gal — which, can, unfortunately, feel like an afterthought or throwaway look from the collection. The message should be to emphasize diversity across the spectrum. Not just all size zero girls and one 16, but every number in between.
But 2021, in McCall’s eyes, is the best time to experiment with change. As designers pivot to video presentations, giving them more leeway and time in advance to plan, she encourages them to take full advantage of that opportunity to emphasize their dedication to diversity. “If you're going to experiment with these new kinds of formats, and these new ways of showing fashion, then you can also experiment with expanding what your brand looks like to include body diversity.”
McCharen-Tran echoes that point, reminding designers that fashion week, without a clear purpose or standpoint, can seem frivolous when paired against the issues of today’s world. She explains that now more than ever, diversity should be incorporated into the DNA of a brand, not something that’s to be studied in books, but rather, is a natural extension of those crafting ideas from the ground up.
“If you're starting a new project right now,” she questions, “how is it contributing to making the world a better place? A world where people are treated with respect and equity on all levels?”
Ruby adds, “We're going to continue demanding change. And we make such a louder sound when everything we do is together as one community.”