The skinny on a full-figured trend
for the woman who is comfortable in her own skin, couture options are growing
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.
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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 OneStopPlus.com, 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.”
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.
Rosie Mercado works as a model for fullfigured fashion.