Having witnessed a sharp decline in fashion’s size-inclusivity efforts in recent years, influencer Sarah Chiwaya’s worries solidified this September at New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2023 when she noticed a real lack of plus-size models on the runways.
“I hate that all my fears about this season being a major step back in terms of body diversity are proving founded, especially from many of the big names,” she wrote on Instagram.
As a popular plus-size shopping guide and brand consultant, Chiwaya has seen the plus-size fashion industry struggle to reignite post-pandemic. Loft cut its plus-size division in spring of 2021 following a very public PR effort to support the plus-size community, and Old Navy’s recent Bodequality initiative — an effort to restructure the brand around size-inclusivity, bringing sizes 0 to 28 into all stores — was scaled back after less than a year as it has failed to meet profit expectations.
With plus-size options already so limited, cutbacks such as these felt like a blow to let-down consumers. “It takes a big moment or someone with a huge platform to get brands to change,” Chiwaya tells TZR. “And even then, it’s just tiny steps forward. It can feel insurmountable at times.”
And then, crawling at an even slower rate than retail, is fashion week.
According to The Fashion Spot’s seasonal report, body diversity at NYFW was on a steady incline from Spring 2016 to Spring 2020, with the number of curve models booked increasing from 14 to 68 at its peak. From there, the industry saw a more drastic drop, with Fall 2020 only showcasing 27 plus-size models. Due to the pandemic, the year following had abysmal representation as many designers took a step back from showing IRL — once fashion week resumed in its full form in Spring 2022, the number jumped to 48. In Fall 2022, that remained consistent, with 51 plus-size models cast, which according to The Fashion Spot, equates to 5.09% of total castings. To be clear here: That is 5.09% representation for a community that comprises 68% of American women.
“We still have a long way to go,” says Jaclyn Sarka, agent and co-owner of JAG Models. “We had so many great pre-castings this season, every casting agent reached out. We had so many fabulous new faces go out to these castings, and we got excited as we got fit-to-confirms. And then all of the sudden, you end up just seeing the same faces on the runway that you saw last season.”
She adds: “If there’s 53 to 63 looks, why can’t there be 10 to 15 models above a size 0?”
Sarka attributes the polarizing shift between pre-pandemic representation and now to how drastically COVID has shifted the landscape of fashion. In “the before times,” as many have deemed it, a magnifying glass was placed on brands to scope out who prioritized inclusivity over those who didn’t. In the years following the divisive 2016 election, the buzziest word in fashion and media became “representation.” Everyone held a different definition of the term, but no one wanted to skip out on the conversation for risk of being canceled.
One statistic in particular swirled in those days and caught the eye of many: a report placing the value of the plus-size fashion market at $24 billion. The potential for growth was massive, and many designers and brands caught interest. Whether they hoped to capitalize on it through a size expansion, or just get in the good graces of body positivity social media folk who had grown increasingly vocal, the public pivot toward size-inclusivity was well-documented.
“I think COVID has a lot to do with [the shift backward], to be honest,” Sarka says, explaining that when financial turmoil hit, many brands stuck to what felt safe. Despite market potential, diving into plus sizes is still an economic risk, and one that requires a heavy initial and long-standing investment (from fabric to fit models to marketing and more) at that. So many designers chose to focus on the customer they already had developed, rather than attempt to expand into a new — and in their eyes, riskier — demographic. “[Designers] weren’t thinking outside of the box,” Sarka continues. “So it’s going back to how we used to think a couple of seasons ago where it’s like ‘I can use one or two [curve girls], but that’s it, because who knows what the economy is going to do.’”
The luxury curvy shopper is not as established as the mass market consumer is. There are many reasons for this, including price point, poor marketing, and accessibility. Then there is, of course, the age-old conditioning that this section of the market is for the thin and elite only, closing off plus-size eyes and minds from the slight possibility that they, too, could participate in the rarified world of high fashion.
This is not an American-only problem, as many European fashion weeks have prioritized slender figures in the past. However, Copenhagen Fashion Week surprised many this season with its powerful display of body diversity at shows such as Aeron and A. Roege Hove. But with September fashion month still in full swing, it’s unknown how London, Milan, and Paris will perform.
Culturally, it appears the conversation is shifting backward as well. Celebrities who once were elevated as plus-size leaders, like Rebel Wilson and Adele, have made headlines for their massive weight losses. Y2K fashion surged, along with the era’s punishing beauty standards of extraordinarily skinny bodies. And with nearly everyone gaining weight over the pandemic (the American Psychological Association reports that the average American gained 29 pounds in the first year of lockdowns, with 61% reporting undesired weight changes) the race to lose it all is on.
All of this, of course, has contributed to less of an interest in representing larger sizes on the runway. Even some designers who did utilize a token curve girl did so without a size expansion. Take Collina Strada, who sent model Alva Claire down the catwalk — as documented on Chiwaya’s Instagram — and yet, according to the brand’s website, does not sell above a size 10. As made evident, the problem extends far beyond what’s showcased at fashion week; moments such as these signal inclusivity but can’t follow through for shoppers.
“It still feels slightly tokenism, with one or two [curve girls] and then everyone else is the same size,” says Adam Hughes of JAG Models. “There’s nothing even between a 0 and a 14 [showcased]; it’s just that everyday sample size of 0 and then [the token plus-size model].”
Model Michaela McGrady even wonders if designers may now be counting on receiving bad press or social media attention called out for lack in inclusivity to benefit their bottom line.
“We live in a capitalist society, so this attention and eyeballs are going to equate to money,” she explains. “Whatever things we’re clicking on, reading, posting — I even thought twice about [calling out this problem on Instagram] this week. Because do I bring more attention to these [problematic] brands? Do they deserve to have the attention put on your brand at all?”
A report released in February 2022 by InStyle found that 20% of shows listed on the official CFDA calendar offered a size 20 or above. And 70% of designers offered a size 12 or above, though a majority of them stopped at a 14/16. To leap into a size expansion — not just putting one curve model on the runway, but truly offering more sizes — requires a deep investment from designers, many of whom still do not see the immediate value, do not want their clothes worn by an expansive size range, or do not have the capability to do so, given that size-inclusive design is not taught in the nation’s top fashion institutions.
The slow shift away from representation these last few years is a shock to those newer to the conversation. But for people like model Jordan Underwood, NYFW’s lack of body diversity is to be expected. Rather than fight a losing battle, they’ve instead turned to support from likeminded members of the industry from brands like Berriez by Emma Zack, which presented a collection in Brooklyn last weekend on a vast array of body shapes and sizes; Wray; and RCA Public Label by Renee Cafaro. Plus-size fashion has always thrived from the inside out, and these labels are living proof of that.
“Aimless yelling about the lack of body diversity without uplifting the fat models that are ready and willing to get booked is going to produce zero change,” Underwood wrote in praise of Berriez, having walked in the brand’s runway show. “We have an example of a brand that is doing the work to include people of all sizes, races, abilities, and genders in their work, during and beyond NYFW.”
All this said, there were some big name designers on the official CFDA calendar who showed a commitment to body diversity and those moment should be celebrated. Christian Siriano, of course, is reliable. And Tommy Hilfiger made exciting noise by not only featuring buzzy faces like Ashley Graham, Paloma Elsesser, and Precious Lee, but also sending two plus-size male models down the runway — a never-before-seen occurrence.
“Fashion has an overall problem with inclusive casting, but plus-size men are arguably one of the least represented groups,” says influencer and editor Bella Gerard. “Multiple curvy male models walked the Tommy runway, and their looks were intentionally styled. They could’ve played it safe and put these men in the collection’s oversized puffers and chunky knits — as many designers tend to do when including curve models purely for optics — but instead, they wore gorgeous trousers and coats, tailored to perfection. It was certainly a bright spot on what’s been a noticeably non-inclusive New York Fashion Week.”
Many of those who shared their thoughts for this piece noted that it appears designers are turning away from body diversity as plus-size consumers are not their target audience. The representation is always feel-good, sure, but at the end of the day, fashion is a money-making machine. Yet how can plus-size shoppers be turned away before they’ve even gotten a chance to walk through the door? Siriano has made it clear that plus sizes are among his biggest sellers — is he the exception, or merely an example his peers refuse to follow?
There’s no easy answer to these questions. But one thing that’s clear is that a new method of change must enter the fashion landscape if we’re to have body diversity on the runways in a meaningful way. And most likely, that change must come from within. Not from within the plus-size community, where speaking out is already an everyday activity. But for those who have the power to leverage their voice, regardless of body type, and bring back value to the importance of not just representation but size availability.
“We’ll feel complete when we don’t need to talk about this anymore,” Sarka says, “when this is a conversation that we don’t have to keep screaming about.”