The skinny on a full-fig­ured trend

for the woman who is com­fort­able in her own skin, cou­ture op­tions are grow­ing

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & STYLE - By Robin Givhan

N EW YORK — In the chaos of yel­low cabs and black Town Cars that clog the street in front of the Ho­tel Penn­syl­va­nia, a young woman, belted into a black jersey skirt and tu­nic, emerges from a dou­ble-parked ve­hi­cle. As she cuts her way through a thicket of con­fused tourists, three facts are ev­i­dent.

One: She moves with grace and con­fi­dence. The self-as­sured woman is a model named Rosie Mer­cado, which leads to fact two: She is stun­ning — head-swivel­ing stun­ning, a ge­netic mash-up of Jen­nifer Lopez and Ni­cole Scherzinger.

And fi­nally: Mer­cado is large. She is a su­per-size woman whose size-20-some­thing hips are al­most as wide as the door frame through which they pass.

This last bit is not a judg­ment but a fact. And if Amer­i­can cul­ture made that dis­tinc­tion, Mer­cado and other plus-size women say, ev­ery­one would be bet­ter off.

Mer­cado was the face of the sec­ond Full Fig­ured Fashion Week, a late-June con­ver­gence of de­sign­ers, re­tail­ers, blog­gers and ac­tivists who gath­ered to dis­cuss the fashion de­sires of women who are plus-size, curvy, thick, volup­tuous or fat — all ad­jec­tives the par­tic­i­pants em­brace.

For those who live and work within the plus-size com­mu­nity, FFFW served as a safe space for both de­fi­ant anger and group ju­bi­la­tion. Pretty clothes, and who gets to wear them, func­tioned as the lin­gua franca for a mul­ti­lay­ered con­ver­sa­tion about self-es­teem, health, pol­i­tics and power.

Con­tin­ued from D

In the past two years, a vig­or­ous storm has been kicked up among plus-size women and their ad­vo­cates. It has been fu­eled by a fashion in­dus­try that con­tin­ues to dis­crim­i­nate, an am­biva­lent pop­u­lar cul­ture and a weight­con­scious, fit­ness-fo­cused White House that to­gether have de­liv­ered a sin­gu­larly mixed mes­sage to the obese: Be happy and proud of who you are. Who you are is not good.

“It shouldn’t be about obe­sity, but it al­ways comes back to that,” says Michele We­ston, found­ing fashion di­rec­tor of the ground­break­ing Mode mag­a­zine. “That’s what peo­ple see.”

The In­ter­net is pul­sat­ing with blogs giv­ing voice to frus­tra­tions, as well as of­fer­ing pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment, health ad­vice and style in­for­ma­tion. Some read like mini-sem­i­nars in women’s stud­ies. Some are filled with hu­mor. Still oth­ers are per­sonal boast pages in which the cre­ators pub­licly declare them­selves fat and fab­u­lous — and await reader af­fir­ma­tion. They do not have to wait long.

The women have lit­tle de­sire to be slen­der. They are un­in­ter­ested in pre­ven­ta­tive weight loss to stave off di­a­betes, high blood pres­sure or any other dis­ease linked to obe­sity. Some are even un­con­vinced that their weight pre­dis­poses them to such con­di­tions.

They do not want clothes that make them look thin­ner. They want fashion. Fun, fast and dis­pos­able or lux­u­ri­ous, glam­orous and sexy. If a trendy sil­hou­ette makes them look big­ger, so what?

“Peo­ple think ev­ery plus-size woman is yearn­ing to lose weight. We have body im­per­fec­tions the same way other women do, but we feel great about our­selves,” New York-based de­signer Monif Clarke says. “Peo­ple are will­ing to call them­selves fat.”

Ac­cept them or not. Just don’t block their hus­tle.

This is not a tip­ping point in the long strug­gle to change how the broader cul­ture views plus­size women. There hasn’t been a seis­mic shift to­ward ac­cep­tance. In­stead, this is an an­gry moment — a mad-as-hell, stop-telling-me-tolose-weight moment. It’s the rise of the “fat­shion­ista.” It’s hard to pin­point the moment a wind be­gins to blow, but the fashion un­rest be­came ob­vi­ous in 2009, when ap­ple-shaped singer Beth Ditto posed naked on the cover of the Bri­tish pop cul­ture mag­a­zine Love and was de­clared a style icon by both the main­stream fashion in­dus­try and the plus-size com­mu­nity. That same year, Glam­our was li­on­ized for pub­lish­ing a mod­est im­age of a nude model with a belly roll.

This year, ro­tund, Os­car-nom­i­nated ac­tress Austin de­signer Anslee Con­nell mod­els a dress she calls ‘Pu­u­u­u­ud­din’ ’ from her RetroCurves col­lec­tion. The dress is made with vin­tage ’70s fab­ric and has a sweet­heart neck­line, wide-set hal­ter straps and a cir­cle skirt bot­tom with pock­ets, and it is ac­com­pa­nied by a red taffeta sash. Gabourey Sidibe’s tal­ent, self-con­fi­dence and ef­fer­ves­cence pro­pelled her into edgy fashion mag­a­zines — though not the Van­ity Fair star­let edi­tion. De­signer Mark Fast hired curvy man­nequins for his London cat­walk pre­sen­ta­tion and, un­like the last time he did so, no one had a hissy fit about work­ing with plus-size mod­els.

In Austin, de­signer Anslee Con­nell says she’s found a great re­cep­tion to her clothes for plus­sized women in the past year. She says she started de­sign­ing be­cause she too was tired of not find­ing any­thing she liked. Her “curvy cou­ture” cre­ations, which will be fea­tured next month as part of Austin Fashion Week, trend to­ward a vin­tage look, “any­thing with a waist,” she says. “Most full-sized clothes are par­tic­u­larly ill-fit­ting in that area and it all goes down­hill from there.”

Back in New York, on Day 3 of FFFW, dozens of large-size women are gath­ered for a con­ver­sa­tion about ev­ery­thing from the gaps in the plus-size lacy lin­gerie mar­ket to the need for more large-size club clothes that are short, tight and de­li­ciously in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

All the women lead­ing the dis­cus­sions were large-size ex­cept for de­signer Yuliya Raquel, who has brought the rare com­bi­na­tion of a cus­tom-dress­maker’s tech­ni­cal skill and a fashion afi­cionado’s cre­ativ­ity to a line of cloth­ing that ranges from size 12 to 32.

Ten years ago, Raquel founded her San Fran­cisco-based com­pany, Igigi, af­ter a shop­ping trip with her plus-size mother left her stunned and de­pressed by the limited op­tions, she said. She has since learned that it’s more ex­pen­sive to de­sign for plus-size cus­tomers, in part be­cause the process is more la­bor-in­ten­sive. Larger women all carry their ex­tra weight dif­fer­ently, and the pat­terns can’t be sys­tem­at­i­cally graded up­ward.

“When you cre­ate a gar­ment for size 6 or 8, the ra­tio of shoul­ders to bust and hip are fairly con­stant,” Raquel says. “If you take that pat­tern and try to grade it up for a plus-size woman, you have a shoul­der fit­ting a foot­ball player.”

Since Raquel launched her col­lec­tion, the over­all of­fer­ings have im­proved dra­mat­i­cally but haven’t kept up with de­mand. Al­most half of black women are obese, as are about onethird of white women and His­panic women. The av­er­age Amer­i­can woman wears a 14.

Lane Bryant, the re­tailer of­fer­ing sizes 1428, be­lieves its cus­tomers are most concerned with com­fort, then fit and fi­nally style. “She’s not there on the cut­ting edge of fashion,” Pres­i­dent Brian Woolf said. “She might be a year be­hind.”

Don’t let the fat­shion­istas hear you say that, buddy.

“The plus-size cus­tomer is not like ev­ery­one; she is ev­ery­one,” coun­ters Stephanie So­bel, pres­i­dent of On­eStop­, a vir­tual mall for plus-size cus­tomers and a di­vi­sion of the same French con­glom­er­ate that owns Gucci, Yves Saint Lau­rent and Ba­len­ci­aga. “Some­times she wants in­vest­ment clothes; some­times she wants the hottest fad.”

Af­ter 13 years of spe­cial­iz­ing in large-size fashion events and be­ing a frus­trated shop­per, Gwen DeVoe, a tall, zaftig African Amer­i­can for­mer model, cre­ated FFFW.

“Af­ter at­tend­ing a lot of dif­fer­ent events, it be­came painfully ob­vi­ous that two huge things were missing: I was look­ing at clothes that didn’t fit me, and on mod­els who didn’t look like me,” DeVoe says. “What I’m try­ing to do is bridge the gap be­tween con­sumers and de­sign­ers. To let them know that they have other choices be­yond what’s on the In­ter­net and in cat­a­logs.”

What some cur­rently see as the most dis­tress­ing as­sault on their dig­nity is first lady Michelle Obama with her fight against child­hood obe­sity.

“I’m re­ally ap­palled at the first lady’s cam­paign. I think it will do more harm than good,” says Linda Ba­con, author of “Health at Ev­ery Size: The Sur­pris­ing Truth About Your Weight.” “I ap­plaud her for some of the spe­cific pro­grams, but when it’s done in the name of obe­sity, it’s go­ing to back­fire on her.”

Ba­con was one of about a dozen re­searchers and au­thors who signed a let­ter to Obama voic­ing con­cern that her em­pha­sis on weight was stig­ma­tiz­ing a pop­u­la­tion rather than deal­ing with the broader health is­sues.

“I think it’s great for kids to have a bet­ter con­nec­tion to their food,” Ba­con says. But by fo­cus­ing on weight, “you’re teach­ing kids that they did some­thing wrong to get the body they have.”

The women do not dis­miss decades of sci­en­tific re­search on obe­sity, but they dis­trust the con­clu­sions and the method­ol­ogy. They know they ex­er­cise; they feel healthy. Mostly, how­ever, they ar­gue that ev­ery­one should eat bet­ter and move more — not just the over­weight. So why point a fin­ger at fat peo­ple?

So stop telling them to lose weight. And start ship­ping this fall’s min­i­mal­ist coats, sexy pantsuits and belted Prada-style dresses in size 14 and up­ward. They don’t want your con­dem­na­tion, but they don’t need your ap­proval. As one size-24 woman with a cas­cade of dark hair and Hollywood sun­glasses shouted out to her plus­size com­rades, “I have al­ways been fab­u­lous.”

Helayne Sei­d­man

Ear­lier this sum­mer, mod­els took the run­way in styles by Jewel Shan­non Cou­ture and oth­ers at Full Fig­ured Fashion Week in New York. ‘We have body im­per­fec­tions the same way other women do, but we feel great about our­selves,’ says de­signer Monif Clarke.

Michaela Dalzell

Rosie Mer­cado works as a model for full­fig­ured fashion.

Caleb Bryant Miller

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