After witnessing a sharp decline in size integration efforts in the fashion industry in recent years, influencer Sarah Chiwaya’s concerns were solidified this September at New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2023 when she experienced a real shortage of models in plus size noticed on the catwalks.
“I hate that all of my fears that this season could be a major step backwards in terms of body diversity are proving to be unfounded, especially by many of the big names,” she wrote on Instagram.
As a popular plus-size shopping guide and brand advisor, Chiwaya has witnessed the plus-size fashion industry struggle to regain momentum in the wake of the pandemic. Loft trimmed its plus-size division in spring 2021 after a very public PR effort in support of the plus-size community and Old Navy’s recent Bodequality initiative — an attempt to restructure the brand around size integration and the Include sizes 0 to 28 in all stores – scaled back after less than a year as profit expectations were not met.
With plus-size options already so limited, cuts like this felt like a blow to disappointing consumers. “It takes a big moment or someone with a huge platform to get brands to change,” Chiwaya told TZR. “And even then, it’s just tiny steps forward. It can sometimes feel insurmountable.”
And then, even slower than retail, is fashion week.
According to The Fashion Spot’s seasonal report, NYFW’s body diversity was steadily increasing from spring 2016 to spring 2020, with the number of curvaceous models booked increasing from 14 to 68 at its peak. From then on, the industry experienced a more drastic decline, with only 27 plus-size models being presented in autumn 2020. Due to the pandemic, the following year was miserably represented as many designers took a step back to show IRL – when fashion week resumed in full form in Spring 2022, the number rose to 48. In Fall 2022, it remained constant at 51 Plus-size models are cast, which is 5.09% of all castings, according to The Fashion Spot. To be clear here, that’s 5.09% representation for a community that includes 68% of American women.
“We still have a long way to go,” says Jaclyn Sarka, agent and co-owner of JAG Models. “We’ve had so many great pre-casts this season that every casting agent has reached out. We had so many fabulous new faces going to these auditions and we were excited when we got fit for confirmation. And then suddenly you see the same faces on the catwalk as last season.”
She adds, “If there are 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 changed the fashion landscape. In “olden days,” as many put it, a magnifying glass was placed on brands to see who prioritized inclusivity over those who didn’t. In the years following the divisive 2016 election, “representation” became the hottest word in fashion and media. Everyone had a different definition of the term, but no one wanted to skip the conversation at the risk of being canceled.
One statistic in particular was swirling around in those days and grabbing the attention of many: a report that put the value of the plus-size fashion market at $24 billion. The growth potential was enormous and many designers and brands aroused interest. Whether they were hoping to capitalize on it through size expansion, or just to nudge the body positivity social media folks who had been getting louder, the public shift towards size inclusivity was well-documented.
“I think COVID has a lot to do with it [the shift backward], to be honest,” says Sarka, explaining that during financial turmoil, many brands stuck to what felt safe. Despite the market potential, going plus size is still an economic risk that requires a high initial and long-term investment (from fabric to fittings to marketing and more). So many designers chose to focus on the client they already had in mind, rather than trying to expand into a new — and, in their eyes, riskier — audience. “[Designers] didn’t think outside the box,” Sarka continues. “So it’s going back to what we were thinking a few seasons ago, where it was like, ‘I could use one or two [curve girls]but it is, because who knows what the economy will do.’”
The curvy luxury shopper is not as established as the mass-market consumer. There are many reasons for this, including price point, poor marketing, and accessibility. Then, of course, there’s the age-old stipulation that this part of the market is only for the thin and elite, which oversized eyes and heads deters from the slim possibility that they, too, might partake in the rare world of high fashion.
This isn’t just an American issue, as many European fashion weeks have historically prioritized slim figures. However, Copenhagen Fashion Week surprised many this season with its powerful display of body diversity at shows like Aeron and A. Roege Hove. But with September fashion month still in full swing, it’s unknown how London, Milan and Paris will fare.
Culturally, too, the conversation seems to be shifting backwards. Once considered plus-size leaders, celebrities like Rebel Wilson and Adele have made headlines for their massive weight loss. Y2K fashion rose along with the era of punishing beauty standards of extraordinarily thin bodies. And with nearly everyone gaining weight during the pandemic (the American Psychological Association reports the average American gained 29 pounds in the first year of lockdown, with 61% reporting unwanted weight changes), the race to lose it all is on .
All of this, of course, has contributed to less interest in representing larger sizes on the catwalk. Even some designers who used a token curve girl did so with no size increase. Take Collina Strada, who sent model Alva Claire down the runway – as documented on Chiwaya’s Instagram – and yet doesn’t sell over a size 44, according to the brand’s website. As has become clear, the problem goes well beyond what is being shown at Fashion Week; Moments like these signal inclusivity, but don’t really catch on for shoppers.
“It still feels slightly symbolic, with one or two [curve girls] and then everyone else is the same size,” says Adam Hughes of JAG Models. “There’s not even a 0 to a 14 [showcased]; it’s just this everyday sample size of 0 and then [the token plus-size model].”
Model Michaela McGrady even wonders if designers might now expect to receive bad press or social media attention called out for a lack of inclusivity to improve their bottom line.
“We live in a capitalist society, so that attention and eyeballs are equated with money,” she explains. “Whatever we click, read, post – I even thought twice about it [calling out this problem on Instagram] in this week. Because I pay more attention to these [problematic] Brands? Do they even deserve to draw attention to your brand?”
A report published in February 2022 by InStyle found that 20% of shows listed on the official CFDA calendar offered a size 20 or larger. And 70% of designers offered a size 12 or larger, although the majority of them stopped at 14/16. Getting into size expansion — not just bringing a curvaceous model onto the runway, but truly offering more sizes — requires a major investment from designers, many of whom still don’t see the immediate value and don’t want their clothes worn by an expansive will have size range or will not be able to do so as size related design is not taught in the country’s leading fashion institutes.
The slow move away from representation in recent years comes as a shock to those new to the conversation. But for the likes of model Jordan Underwood, the lack of body diversity at NYFW is to be expected. Instead of fighting a losing battle, they have instead turned to support from like-minded members of the industry, from brands like Berriez by Emma Zack, who launched a collection spanning a variety of body shapes and sizes in Brooklyn last weekend; wray; and RCA Public Label by Renee Cafaro. Plus-size fashion has always evolved from the inside out, and these labels are living proof of that.
“Aimless yelling about the lack of body diversity without cheering up the fat models who are ready and willing to be booked isn’t going to make a difference,” Underwood praised Berriez after walking in the brand’s runway show. “We have an example of a brand that strives to include people of all sizes, races, abilities and genders in its work during and after NYFW.”
All that said, there have been a few notable designers on the official CFDA calendar who have embraced body diversity and this moment should be celebrated. You can of course rely on Christian Siriano. And Tommy Hilfiger made some exciting noise by not only showing vivacious faces like Ashley Graham, Paloma Elsesser and Precious Lee, but also sending two plus-size male models down the catwalk – an unprecedented event.
“Fashion has a general problem with inclusive casting, but plus-size men are arguably one of the underrepresented groups,” says influencer and editor Bella Gerard. “Several curvy male models walked the Tommy runway and their looks were styled on purpose. They could have played it safe and tucked these men into the collection’s oversized puffers and chunky knits – as many designers do when they use curve models just for looks – but instead they wore beautiful trousers and coats that are tailored to perfection . It was certainly a bright spot at a noticeably non-inclusive New York Fashion Week.”
Many of those who shared their thoughts on this piece noted that designers seem to be turning their backs on body diversity since plus-size consumers aren’t their target audience. The presentation is always a feel-good factor, of course, but at the end of the day fashion is a money machine. But how can plus-size shoppers be turned away before they even get 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 just an example his peers don’t want to follow?
There is no simple answer to these questions. But one thing is clear: a new method of change must enter the fashion landscape if we are to have body diversity on the catwalks in a meaningful way. And most likely, this change has to come from within. Not from the plus-size community, where talking is already an everyday activity. But for those who have the power to use their voice regardless of body type, re-elevating the importance of not just representation but size availability.
“We’ll feel complete when we don’t have to talk about it anymore,” says Sarka, “if this is a conversation we don’t need to shout about anymore.”