(Runway)

For Plus Size Models At NYFW, Change Is Good — But Is It Enough?

The industry is shifting, but there’s still work to be done.

Peter Do
Peter Do runway 2021

For the first time in years, New York Fashion Week Spring 2022 felt like a celebration of curves. Designers like Christian Siriano and Laquan Smith had diverse models walk the runways, as expected, but it was the first time that inclusivity on the runways seemed to be the rule and not the exception. Behind the scenes, for these models, castings are beginning to feel like they finally have an open-door policy for those plus-size. More opportunity equals more visibility, and that’s cause for celebration. Yet, despite that, the work is still not over. In fact, for many — particularly models who do not fit the “palatable plus” body type — fashion week’s inclusive umbrella has yet to cover all.

“Even though the industry has come so far in terms of representation … I don't often end up in physical situations where I am surrounded by more types of bodies and abilities and identifications in the same room working for the same brand, [and I did this season],” says Lauren Chan of JAG Models who walked for both Christian Siriano and Peter Do. “I find that incredibly exciting because the energy is so promising; You’re able to really see the progress that we've made just by scanning a room at New York Fashion Week these days.”

While The Fashion Spot has yet to release its annual diversity report, a look through the collections presented this season at NYFW shows a common thread: Curves. Leading names like Paloma Elsesser, Jill Kortleve, and Precious Lee — who had a particularly outstanding week, winning The Daily Front Row’s Breakthrough Model Award — walked, of course. And so did fresh faces like Gwyn Moore (for Coach), Tatiana Williams (for Siriano and Markarian), Grace Brown (for Siriano and PatBO), and Devyn Garcia (for — brace yourself — Gabriela Hearst, Jason Wu, Brandon Maxwell, Studio 189, Jonathan Simkhai, Altuzarra, and Staud).

Christiano Siriano

“A show might have three plus-size models in it, but they could have cast 40. And that's important because as plus-size models, we're getting more opportunities. And the public might not see that progress,” Chan says. “I didn’t go to a single casting this year where I was the only plus-size model or the only Asian model. Casting directors have been looking for plus-size new faces, which is also relatively new and very exciting.”

Without a doubt, doors are being opened. But how deep has inclusivity truly gone?

Despite this clear progress, many of the same issues NYFW has toiled with remain. Curve models cast often fit a similar build: Hourglass, chiseled features, and on the smaller end of the size spectrum. There is more room for deviation, certainly, but not enough to make casting for NYFW welcome to all quite yet.

“I want to have a [real] shot,” says Gia Love of BTWN Management, who closed the Chromat show this season. As a visibly plus-size, Black, trans model, she has witnessed firsthand how this industry’s performative inclusivity can only handle one marginalized identity at a time, if that. “I don't mind going and not getting it, but I at least want to have a shot.”

Love explains that designers typically have a specific model type in mind pre-casting, limiting that available opportunity to a small subset of the curve market. There’s no room for someone like Love – who falls outside the “palatable plus” body type — to show up and show out. Rather, attending open casting calls unrequested is a waste when designers already have specific girls in mind.

“Equity is about not just having one person on stage, it's about meeting the needs of the customers you're serving,” she says. “I think a lot of people are not intentional about inclusivity for the greater good of humanity and society, and the quality of life and wellbeing of the people who need to be represented.”

Rather than prioritize true inclusivity, Love and many models like her feel as though designers continuously use a token diversity hire to appease spectators and abide by new industry norms, where un-inclusive casting will be called out. This does little to push the needle and, on the flip side, hurts models like Love who are continuously left out of the conversation, even from designers who claim to “love” inclusivity.

Lynley Eilers of True Model Management feels similar. At the start of the week, she was thrilled to receive the news that she’d be walking in her first NYFW show. That excitement was quickly squashed by the feeling at her first fitting.

“​​Words cannot describe the eyes on me in a crowded room of ‘typical’ models and fashion people,” she says, recalling the questioning looks around her as she entered the room and explained that she, too, was a model. “These girls looked at me so confused, the people working the show, too, so confused of what I was doing there.”

At 5’4, Eilers is already at a disadvantage when it comes to booking fashion week gigs. Add visibly plus-size on top of that, and her chances dwindle to almost none. It’s why this moment meant so much to the young model, and why her treatment behind the scenes cut so deep.

She adds, “It makes me feel so invalidated.”

It’s impossible to measure all-around progress as each model experience within the industry varies greatly. Chan, for instance, felt completely embraced this season, especially after opening up about her pandemic weight gain.

“Over the past year and a half, like many women, like many people in this country, I gained a considerable amount of weight. And I was really surprised and happy to find that it didn't affect how I felt about participating in fashion week,” she says. “It was incredibly comforting to walk into my fittings, and have the team just add two inches here and there without any more than a quick comment and alteration.”

She adds, “That’s what happened at my Christian Siriano fitting: We added two inches to the waist of my pants. And I adore Christian because he would never, ever make anyone feel like that was an issue, and what he stands for is making incredible clothes for everyone.”

Fashion week has yet to celebrate all; There is an infinite amount of work to do. Yet behind the scenes, in castings and in conversations, there’s a dialogue picking up, one that has allowed a new generation of fresh, curvy faces to join the bunch. Nearly all top designers at NYFW this season using at least one curve girl is, to some, the bare minimum. However, it is more than what has ever been accomplished before. It is progress, true and tangible, and it marks a new sign of the times.

The industry is changing. And the momentum is finally back.