This season New York Fashion Week was a revolutionary one for size diversity: Overall, Glamour counted 208 appearances by models above sample size—a number largely inflated by the presence of three major plus-size brands. Canadian retailer Addition Elle debuted its latest collaboration with Ashley Graham, as well as a capsule with model Jordyn Woods at Skylight Clarkson Square, one of the week’s official venues; fast-fashion brand Torrid also presented at Skylight; and subscription service Dia & Co. hosted its show as part of CurvyCon, a size-inclusive fashion conference happening concurrently to NYFW.
Progress, yes—but as an editor who spends half her time in the realm of high fashion and the other half in the world of plus-size fashion, I can tell you that the disconnect between these shows and the rest of New York Fashion Week was real. Although two of three plus-specific brands showed at the same venue where Prabal Gurung and Anna Sui presented their Spring 2018 collections, had top hair and makeup teams, and cast well-known models like Graham, Precious Lee, and Georgia Pratt, all three were left off the “official” schedule, which is manned by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA).
The fact is, anyone can host an event between September 7 and 13 in New York and say it’s part of Fashion Week. But to be accepted onto the verified schedule is quite exclusive. It’s a technicality, but it’s one that’s important to signal legitimacy and acceptance—and to get the industry to show up.
When I called the CFDA hear their reasoning behind the brands’ exclusion, Marc Karimzadeh, the organization’s editorial and communications director, told me that neither Addition Elle, Torrid, nor Dia & Co. applied to be on the Schedule. Translation: It’s not the fault of the CFDA. But if you’re a realist like me, you’re probably thinking: Even if those plus-sized brands did apply, it’s not likely any of the three would be accepted.
“Typically, we don’t put designers who haven’t shown before on it,” says Karimzadeh of the Official Schedule. “We didn’t even for Sies Marjan.” (Fashion fans know that the CFDA not giving Sies Marjan—a buzzy line designed by Dries Van Noten’s ex-designer that was nominated for the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent at the organization’s very own awards show this year—a spot on its schedule is pretty nuts.)
“There are various factors that contribute to qualification,” says Karimzadeh. “Among them: two years in business, an active list of wholesale accounts, inclusion in editorial coverage.” And the toughest factor for fast-fashion and mass-market brands: the quality of the goods. “In order to have credibility, you have to have a product that can stand with the best of other designers,” says Karimzadeh, though the CFDA wouldn’t go into specifics as to what that entailed.
If you’re a believer in true integration for straight- and plus-size clothing, the CFDA’s stance is kind of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s hard to see how a plus-size brand’s garments would ever compare to a label like Sies Marjan, given the systemic issues facing plus-size clothing—like lack of design education, absence of resources like bigger mannequins and looms, low price points, and other challenges in achieving the correct fit for a diverse set of bodies. And on the other: It’s refreshing to hear Karimzadeh hold mass-market plus-size brands to the same standard as a onetime Dries van Noten designer.
But this really isn’t about the CFDA—it’s about Addition Elle, Torrid, and Dia & Co. And I wanted to know what they thought about the disconnect. So what did their brand representatives say when I asked if they cared about being excluded from the Official Schedule? For the most part, they DAGF. Each of the women said that the shows they hosted weren’t for buyers or to gain access to fashion’s inner circle, but for their customers. “The plus-size community has been ready for a long time to participate in Fashion Week,” says Nadia Boujarwah, co-founder of Dia & Co. “And we are doing our part to make sure that’s possible for her.”
Dia & Co.: Community First, Then Clothes
The first plus-size brand to host a fashion show during NYFW was Dia & Co., which presented during CurvyCon. The convention, organized by bloggers Chastity Garner and Cece Olisa, billed itself as “a two-day event that brings plus-size brands, fashionistas, shopaholics, bloggers and YouTubers into one space to chat curvy, shop curvy, and embrace curvy.”
For its runway debut, Dia & Co. recruited some well-known plus-size models, including Marquita Pring. “There’s a strong sense of community,” Pring said backstage. “Everybody’s so excited to be here. And we’re all here for the same reason: to put curves out there. The energy is infectious.” The ‘good vibes’ atmosphere was refreshingly palpable: As models made their way down the runway, the crowd cheered and called out the pieces they were planning on buying. In terms of how this stands up to the rest of NYFW, Pring—who’s previously walked for high-fashion designers Prabal Gurung and Tome—says it simply doesn’t. “There’s nothing that compares to CurvyCon,” she says. “This is where everybody comes together.”
The runway also set the stage for an open dialogue with consumers—after the show, Pring spoke on a panel alongside Dia & Co. cofounder Nadia Boujarwah, Fern Mallis, Stacy London, and Emme Aronson.
As far as why a brand like Dia & Co. would do this for the customer—it’s an expensive marketing tactic, plus CurvyCon was sponsored by the company—Boujarwah says it gives women a chance to be included in part of the highly publicized event that is NYFW, and thanks to Dia’s “see now, buy now” model, it allows them to shop directly for clothing they see on the runway.
It’s worth noting that the company is trying to make the clothing better than the usual plus-size fare. Dia & Co. introduced its first designer collaboration with Nanette Lepore; debuted a capsule with Tanesha Awasthi of Girl With Curves; and though not involved in the making of it, put Rebel Wilson’s new collection on display. On a bigger scale, Dia & Co.’s NYFW event was meant to help move the needle forward in terms of options. “What we showed is the vision for what true size inclusivity in fashion is,” Boujarwah said. “So far we’ve had conversations with people from mannequin manufacturers and form manufacturers to design schools and design educators to aspiring designers. We’re setting up the future, so that in five, 10, 15 years, all designers come into the industry with size-inclusive clothing as a norm.”
Torrid: Pics or It Didn’t Happen
At Torrid, the energy was more turned down than at Dia & Co., likely because of the lack of actual customers and community members in the audience. When I grabbed Liz Munoz, the brand’s senior vice president of product, for an interview backstage she made it clear the brand’s motive was optics. “How many images of a girl that’s big do you ever see walking a runway?” she asked. “I know it’s a first for me. This is a powerful moment to put something out there for America to see what plus fashion can look like.”
Sure, that sounds like a noble cause—but a whole fashion show just to get pictures? To Munoz and her team, “the trickle-down effect,” as she called it, makes it worthwhile: “We get new designers [at Torrid] that have to fit on a girl who’s a size 18, and they’re always like, ‘I can’t picture it’—because there’s no picture of it. Because there are no images out there.” According to Munoz, that lack of reference imagery also affects the way that women above a size 14 are able to dress. “It’s not because they’re not bright or that they have no fashion sense; it’s just that it’s hard to relate when you never see fashion images [of someone like yourself],” she explained.
Munoz also knows that when there are images for the customer to go back to, she shops better. “That’s why one of our biggest things in marketing [at Torrid] is a monthly mailer,” she said. “It has 30 pages of looks, and our customer comes into the stores and goes, ‘I want that.’” Now, if you came up in the Internet age, you likely thought mailers were a thing of the past (I know I did). Then again, you may think the same about Fashion Week—when I suggested that the conceit of a runway show felt outdated to Munoz, she agreed but argued: “I think our presence here is more symbolic than anything—it’s a ‘fuck you’ to everybody who says we’re not good enough.”
Hosting a proper fashion show also gave Torrid a platform to showcase its model search, which narrowed down 15,000 applicants to a top 10, who then walked down the brand’s runway. A positive outcome of the program is that it provided a cast of women who were visibly plus-size, as many brands that cater to this demographic are receiving an increasing amount of scrutiny for not using actual plus-size women in its marketing and e-commerce. (FYI, “plus-size” models generally range between a size 12 and 14. And some brands they model for don’t even make sizes small enough to fit them.) “Our girl wants to see herself,” Munoz says. “So we made sure to have girls up to a size 22.”
Addition Elle: Getting Legit
“We’re finally on the real menu of New York Fashion Week,” Roslyn Griner, vice president of marketing and visual display at Addition Elle, said of the brand’s first turn at Skylight Clarkson Square. Their previous two shows were part of Kia Style 360 and, “this was kind of like being on Broadway instead of off-Broadway,” she said. “We want to deliver fashion democracy where style isn’t limited by size. And to me, fashion democracy meant I had to be on the main stage, where mainstream fashion is being shown.”
Before Addition Elle could swim with the big fish, though, Griner said the brand had to up its garment game. “I wanted to get us to the next level—the last two shows, we’ve kind of just shown what we had,” she says. “This show, the merchants designed a collection that was specifically for Fashion Week.” To build on that, the brand also adopted a new merchandising strategy: Its latest ready-to-wear and lingerie collections followed a see-now-buy-now structure and are both immediately shoppable at their New York City pop-up store. This new approach “forced [the merchants] to say, ‘OK, I don’t want to be embarrassed, I want to be sure that I cover all the trends [and not subscribe to the] conventions of plus-size fashion,’” Griner explained.
Given Addition Elle’s developments, it seems they’re ready to leave other plus-size brands in the dust—but Griner insists her strategy to legitimize the retailer includes the others. “I love the fact that Torrid is also showing [at Skylight],” she said. “Because then it says that this isn’t just a one-off. When there are multiple brands showing, it strengthens the positioning of plus brands on the main platform. I would like to see all those brands that were at CurvyCon come here!”
It’s also important to Addition Elle’s legitimacy that the models they use, including Ashley Graham and Marquita Pring, are being cast for designer shows like Michael Kors and Christian Siriano. “It’s all happening slowly but surely,” Graham told me backstage. “We can’t expect all curve brands to be under the CFDA, but you can expect to see some curves in the CFDA shows.” This season that meant her turns on the Michael Kors and Prabal Gurung runways. As for next season: “We’re seeing a lot of the same designers [using curve models],” she said. “It’s great that they didn’t use them in a token season. But next time it’s like, ‘All right, Baja East; all right, Fenty; all right, Phillip Plein; all right, Marc Jacobs; where y’all at?’”
When it comes to the future, Addition Elle’s Griner admitted she would like to see the brand on the CFDA’s official schedule (as opposed to simply paying to be featured on the Fashion Calendar). And she believes that it’s in the organization’s best interest to recognize brands like hers. “It would say they care about the money of this customer,” she said. “We hear about all these high-end designer brands going bankrupt—it’s kind of a bad time for fashion, and they’re closing a financially beneficial door.” Of course, Addition Elle stands to benefit from the CFDA’s stamp of approval—but Griner made one final, indisputable point: “Why would you want to deny yourself their money? It’s all the same color.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Despite the initial confusion of who’s showing where and what’s “legitimately” NYFW, the result of this season’s shows sent a pretty clear message: It’s time to stop calling size inclusion a trend. We’ve seen the number of plus-size models on designer runways increase steadily every year. And now, plus-size brands are following suit with efforts of their own—not in order to be part of fashion’s elite club, but rather to bring their customers with them. It may not be a permanent change, since it’s a marketing tactic, and it could lose its wow factor after some repetition. And as Fashion Week continues to lose its relevance, designers (plus or not) will come up with new ways for their customers to see and shop their collections. Regardless, it seems that size diversity at NYFW has turned into an evolution—and true integration is on the way.