When I was a teenager, I made a bucket list. On it were things like “collect all the O.C. soundtracks,” “meet Lindsay Lohan,” and “walk a runway”—the last being the most far-fetched, given that I was a size 10 and the average model was not. (This was the early aughts, people, the dark ages of body positivity!) Ten years later, though, I crossed that goal off my list, walking Isabel Toledo’s spring 2014 show for Lane Bryant alongside models like Ashley Graham, Iskra Lawrence, and Precious Lee. It was a big moment—not just for me but because it was a major win for size inclusivity on the runway.
In full transparency, I was a one-show wonder. I stopped modeling not long after, and started my career as a fashion editor. But these days, I still pay close attention to body diversity as an issue, so I was thrilled that during the fall 2017 shows, there were a record 27 plus-size model appearances in New York alone. (That’s up from 16 the previous season and a mere six the one before.) The roster included Graham, Lawrence, Lee, and newcomers like Georgia Pratt and Jocelyn Corona, at shows as varied as Christian Siriano, Chromat, Michael Kors, Prabal Gurung, and Tracy Reese. And fashion fans were quick to celebrate this development; Glamour’s online coverage got more than a million clicks in just a few days. So now the question is, Will the industry keep doing better? Here’s how it can—and why it should.
First, let’s tackle the hurdles.Despite the recent leap forward, plus- size women still account for less than one percent of runway models, even though 67 percent of women in the U.S. wear a size 14 or above. Long-entrenched industry norms explain why: “When you make patterns for a new collection, you start with a size-2 base pattern” in order to spend as little money on fabric as possible, says Becca McCharen, the founder of Chromat, one of the first brands to make plus-size models routine in its shows. “That’s why designers usually show only one size on the runway; to make a bigger [additional sample], it means at least double all the costs.” Later on, based on what buyers order, designers produce more sizes.
Making that investment early can strain emerging brands: “Chromat is small, and I’m thinking about how to survive—how we can still be a brand in five years,” says McCharen. “But to us, including different shapes, sizes, races, and abilities on the runway is important. It’s what we do, so the extra money is worth it.” IMO, this is an area where I think it would be amazing for the Council of Fashion Designers of America to establish a fund for young designers to make bigger runway samples, which would give them the financial resources to be inclusive.
Big box modeling agencies could do a better job too. Most “plus” models range in size from 10 to 16, something designer Tracy Reese learned when she wanted a more diverse runway for her recent presentations. “I made size-18 samples,” she says. “But all the models that were sent to me from agencies were size 12 or 14. So we had to find models that fit our garments.” We’ll see more plus-size models at Fashion Week only if agencies actually represent—and promote—a wider range of women. “Boutique agencies like JAG have amazing curve models, but they fly a little bit under the radar at Fashion Week,” says casting director John Pfeiffer. “And when I reach out to bigger agencies, they don’t always suggest or represent plus-size models. So, when IMG [the industry juggernaut] decided to include them in its show package [for spring 2014], it made curve models more prevalent in the conversation.”
And sometimes everyone just needs to anticipate the unexpected. “I work with Michael Kors, who has the resources to plan ahead and have additional samples made in bigger sizes,” says Pfeiffer. When Graham was the only plus-size model on Kors’ fall 2017 runway, the brand was both celebrated and called out for tokenism. But Pfeiffer insists the plan had been to be more inclusive. “Ashley was not meant to be the only curve model in the show, but there were a couple of hiccups last-minute,” he says. “We had booked another model, but there was a conflict, and the deal fell through when there wasn’t time to recast or refit [the garment], since it was tailored to her body.” Of course, casting more than two plus-size models would have helped, but sometimes fashion is very much like real life, and shit just happens.
But—thankfully—there is progress.The runway triggers a real ripple effect: Using women of all sizes there means we see them in other places too. “Quite often the girls who walk the runway shows also [go on to] book the high-fashion editorials and big ad campaigns,” says Lawrence, who walked Christian Siriano and Chromat. “Being welcomed into Fashion Week makes me feel like I have equal opportunity.” Lee, who walked Siriano, saw how she reached women everywhere. “I got reactions from curvy middle-school teachers on Instagram, college friends via text message, an employee at the Apple store, even a little girl from Switzerland on Facebook,” she says. “I’ve been brought to tears on the spot from their moving messages.” And that kind of impact is exactly what brands hope for. “Casting has everything to do with how a viewer feels when they watch a show,” says casting director Hollie Schliftman, who works with Siriano. “I want to create a runway that feels open-minded so that women can visualize themselves in the fashion.”
And when they can visualize it, they buy it: When designer Reese planned, invested, and yes, scrambled to show more sizes, her online sales jumped 15 percent; in department stores like Nordstrom, her extended sizes sold out. Others, like designer Prabal Gurung, are going above and beyond by finding new outlets for plus-size shoppers to get their hands on high-fashion pieces. “We started working with a new e-tailer called 11 Honoré,” says Gurung, who also designs a plus-size line for Lane Bryant. “It’s a new size-inclusive luxury platform, which sells designer collections in sizes 10 to 20.” I’m betting his investment will be a success because, “women want to shop at a brand that cares about diversity,” says Lawrence. “They don’t want to be sold products from brands preying on their insecurities. Consumers have power because they’re investing their dollars.”
So what’s next on the runway?Which brings me to what will happen this month at the spring 2018 shows. I’m waiting—fingers crossed—to see how many plus-size models will march down those runways. “I think designers will continue to make a statement by using curvy models,” says Graham. “But I don’t think that every designer that has used curvy models has embraced this as a movement.” Meaning we may still be in the one-off stage, and that bigger models aren’t yet routine. But Lee has some words for designers who have any doubts: “You are capable. It’s time to include all sizes. By doing so, you are reshaping society—and uplifting women.”