New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2023 Felt like a step back from representing plus size models

Having witnessed a sharp decline in fashion’s efforts at size inclusion in recent years, influencer Sarah Chiwaya’s concerns were reinforced this September at New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2023, when she noticed a real lack of plus size models on the runway.

“I hate that all my fears about this season being a big step back in terms of body diversity are proving to be founded, especially by many of the big names,” she wrote on Instagram.

As a well-known plus-size shopping guide and consultant, Chiwaya has seen the plus-size fashion industry struggle to reboot post-pandemic. Loft discontinued its plus-size division in spring 2021 after 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 inclusion, bringing sizes from 0 to 28 across all stores — down after less than a year after failing to meet profit expectations.

With plus-size options already so limited, cuts like these felt like a blow to disenchanted consumers. “It takes a big moment or someone with a big platform to make brands change,” Chiwaya tells TZR. “And even then, it’s just baby steps forward. Sometimes it can feel insurmountable.”

And then, creeping along at an even slower pace than retail, is fashion week.

According to The Fashion Spot’s seasonal report, body diversity at NYFW was on a steady trend from spring 2016 to spring 2020, with the number of curvy models booked increasing from 14 to 68 at its peak. From there, the industry saw a more drastic decline, with Fall 2020 featuring just 27 plus-size models. Due to the pandemic, the following year saw a dismal representation, as many designers took a step back from showing IRL – once fashion week resumed in its full form in the spring of 2022, the number jumped to 48. In the fall 2022, this remained stable, with 51 plus-size models cast, which according to The Fashion Spot, equates to 5.09% of total castings. 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 had so many great pre-casts this season, every casting agent approached. We had so many fabulous new faces turn up at these castings, and we were thrilled to receive suitable confirmations. And then all of a sudden, you end up seeing the same faces on the track that you saw last season.”

She adds, “If there are 53 to 63 views, why can’t there be 10 to 15 models above a size 0?”

Sarka attributes the polarizing difference between pre-pandemic representation and now to how drastically COVID has changed the fashion landscape. In the “old days,” as many have deemed it, a magnifying glass was placed on brands to determine who prioritized inclusivity over those who did not. In the years following the divisive 2016 election, the buzzword in fashion and the media became “representation.” Everyone had a different definition of the term, but no one wanted to skip over the cancellation risk conversation.

One statistic in particular made the rounds in those days and caught the eye of many: a report that put the value of the plus-size fashion market at $24 billion. The potential for growth was massive and many designers and brands attracted interest. Whether they were hoping to capitalize on it through a size expansion, or simply to get in the good graces of body positivity social media people who have become increasingly vocal, the public’s pivot to size inclusion was a good one. – documented.

“I think COVID has a lot to do with it [the shift backward]to be honest,” says Sarka, explaining that when the financial turmoil hit, many brands stuck to what they felt safe. Regardless of the market’s potential, diving into plus size is still an economic risk, and one that requires a heavy initial and long-term investment (from fabric to custom designs to marketing and more). So many designers chose to focus on the clientele they had already developed, rather than trying to expand to a new demographic—and in their eyes, more dangerous.”[Designers] we weren’t thinking outside the box,” continues Sarka. “So it’s going back to the way we thought a few seasons ago, where it’s like, ‘I could use one or two [curve girls]but that’s it, because who knows what the economy will do'”.

The luxury buyer is not as determined as the mass market consumer. 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 only for the weak and the elite, closing plus-size eyes and minds to the small possibility that they too can participate in the rarified world of high fashion.

This isn’t just a problem for Americans, as many European fashion weeks have prioritized slim figures in the past. However, Copenhagen Fashion Week surprised many this season with its strong display of body diversity at shows like Aeron and A. Roege Hove. But with the fashion month of September still in full swing, there’s no telling how London, Milan and Paris will perform.

Culturally, the conversation seems to be shifting backwards as well. Celebrities who once rose to prominence as plus-size leaders, like Rebel Wilson and Adele, have made headlines for their massive weight losses. Y2K fashion grew, along with the era’s punitive beauty standards for extremely thin bodies. And with nearly everyone gaining weight during the pandemic (the American Psychological Association reports that 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 track. Even some designers who used a girl with a symbolic curve did so without a size extension. Take Collina Strada, which sent model Alva Claire down the catwalk — as documented on Chiwaya’s Instagram — and yet, according to the brand’s website, it doesn’t sell above a size 10. As it became clear, the problem extends far beyond what’s on display at the fashion week; moments like these signal engagement but aren’t actionable for buyers.

“It still feels a bit symbolic, with one or two [curve girls] and then everyone else is the same size,” says Adam Hughes of JAG Models. “There is nothing even between 0 and 14 [showcased]; it is only that daily sample size of 0 and then [the token plus-size model].”

Model Michaela McGrady even questions whether designers can now count on getting the bad press or social media attention required by a lack of inclusion to benefit their bottom line.

“We live in a capitalist society, so that attention and eye will equate to money,” she explains. “Anything we’re clicking on, reading, posting — I’ve even thought twice [calling out this problem on Instagram] this week. Because I pay more attention to these [problematic] Brand? Do they deserve your brand attention?”

A report published in February 2022 by In style found that 20% of shows listed on the CFDA’s official calendar offered a size 20 or above. And 70% of designers offered a size 12 or above, although most of them stopped at 14/16. To pull off a size expansion—not just putting a curve model on the runway, but really offering more sizes—requires a deep investment from designers, many of whom still don’t see the immediate value. they want their clothes to be worn from a wide garment. size range, or lack the ability to do so, given that size-inclusive design is not taught in the country’s top fashion institutions.

The slow shift away from representation in recent 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. Instead of fighting a losing battle, they’ve turned to support from like-minded industry members from brands like Berriez by Emma Zack, who presented a collection in Brooklyn last weekend in a wide range 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.

“Aimlessly shouting about the lack of body diversity without lifting up fat models who are ready and willing to book will produce zero change,” Underwood wrote in praise of Berriez after walking in the brand’s show on the track. “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 that said, there were some big-name designers on the official CFDA calendar who showed a commitment to body diversity, and that moment should be celebrated. Christian Siriano, of course, is reliable. And Tommy Hilfiger made an exciting splash by not only featuring hot 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 a general problem with inclusive casting, but plus-size men are definitely one of the most underrepresented groups,” says influencer and editor Bella Gerard. “Many curvy male models walked Tommy’s runway and their looks were deliberately styled. They could have played it cool and put these men in oversized jumpsuits and chunky knits—as many designers tend to do when they include curvy models just for optics—but instead, they wore pants and gorgeous coats, tailored to perfection. It was certainly a bright spot in what has been a decidedly non-inclusive New York Fashion Week.”

Many who shared their thoughts on the piece noted that it seems designers are moving away from body diversity as plus-size consumers are not their target audience. Representation is always good, of course, but at the end of the day, fashion is a money-making machine. However, how can plus-size shoppers leave 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 refuse to follow?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But one thing is clear is that a new method of altering must enter the fashion landscape if we want to have body diversity on the runways in a meaningful way. And most likely, this change must come from within. Not from within the plus-size community, where speaking up is now a daily activity. But for those who have the power to use their voice, regardless of body type, and bring value back to 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, “when it’s a conversation we don’t have to shout about.”

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