Plus-sized models are still underrepresented at fashion’s most important event

Model Ashley Graham walks the runway during the Addition Elle Spring/Summer 2018 presentation at NYFW
Model Ashley Graham walks the runway during the Addition Elle Spring/Summer 2018 presentation at NYFW
Image: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
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Twice a year, in September and February, New York Fashion Week (NYFW) draws thousands of people from all over the world who are all there for the same reason: to be ahead of the next year’s trends. Models in expensive pieces from exclusive designers strut in front of an audience of celebrities, style moguls, and media professionals. Though other fashion weeks have sprung up around the world, NYFW is arguably the most important, and it’s the most competitive for models to get cast for. That’s especially true if you’re a curve or plus-size model—someone who wears a size bigger than the standard 0 to 4.

Representation for larger women—in fashion, but also in general—is important because it allows women who don’t look like the textbook definition of a model to feel seen. “Everything starts with high fashion and trickles down. The reason curve models aren’t staying around in shows is the lack of representation on high-fashion runways,” curve model Allison Owens told Refinery29 in 2018. “Until all fashion houses recognize the art and beauty in a curvy woman, we won’t see the change we need.”

Just six years ago, a plus-size model strutting the runway at NYFW was unheard of. But since then, the shows have gradually started incorporating more of them. NYFW’s fall 2019 shows featured 94 curve and non-sample-size looks. Designers like Chromat (13), Christian Siriano, (12) and Savage x Fenty (14) showcased the most curve models for non-exclusive plus-size brands, according to Refinery 29. Mara Hoffman (3), Michael Kors (2), Sies Marjan (2), and Cushnie (3) were among brands that added plus-size models to their lineup for the first time.

That may sound like progress, but it’s been a slow process to get there. The NYFW 2019 fall shows actually featured fewer curve models than did those for the spring 2018 season, but more than the two seasons of shows in between. The industry hit those modest numbers in spite of the fact that stakeholders have increasingly expressed the desire to see more curve models at NYFW. On January 28, 2019, just a couple weeks before the NYFW fall show, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) published an open letter to call for designers to be inclusive in casting. “As you cast your New York Fashion Week shows, please remember to promote diversity and inclusion, on and off the runway,” wrote Steven Kolb, president and CEO of CFDA. “American fashion can lead the path.” In the end, curve models made up just 1.7% of models in NYFW’s fall 2019 shows.

For curve models, opportunities to be featured at NYFW continue to be scarce. Alexis Henry, a signed curve model, attended six castings this season and did not receive a callback for any of them. She booked one show, only because the designer specifically requested it. “All of the castings that I attended never mention weight or size requirements,” Henry tells Quartz. “For instance, Marc Jacobs didn’t mention a size requirement, but you just kind of knew which models would book the show. Sometimes it’s a silent understanding because plus-size models aren’t necessarily always seen as editorial or runway material, but I know models like myself and my friends don’t really care. We show up anyways.” Last season Henry attended around 15 castings, and only booked three shows.

Khyrstyana, a small-plus model (she wears sizes 8-12), struggles to book NYFW shows despite her history of booking big print jobs featured in Lucy’s Magazine, Paper, and Harper’s Bazaar. “The shows I book are usually with people who are actually very familiar with my work or with the designers I made friends with over time. I have yet to book something massive,” she tells Quartz.

Curve model Tori Jones believes having a large social media following can help book shows. “Most casting and submission processes require you to link to your social media accounts and ask for your direct follower count,” on Instagram in particular, Jones explains. “Even being signed to an agency may not make you as bookable as having a large social media following. I only have a little over 3,000 followers and I’m constantly aiming to grow it so I can have those same opportunities, but I don’t feel like it’s fair.” So far, Jones has attended 40 castings for NYFW this season and has yet to secure one. This is a lower booking rate than straight models at comparable levels.

Though many more brands are paying attention to the plus size market—plus-size women’s clothing was a $21 billion industry in 2018—that hasn’t yet translated to luxury fashion in general. Some high-end designers don’t make clothing for plus-size women because they don’t think that’s the clientele that will help them sell more clothes. According to Racked, in 2018, of the 300 brands at NYFW, only 32 of them sold clothes that create styles up to a size 16.

And so, catering to larger women has been slow to hit the runway, the domain of high-end brands, at NYFW or beyond. According to The Fashion Spot’s diversity report, FS 2019 did not see much improvement around the world. Paris Fashion Week featured nine plus-size models, London had four, and Milan cast none.

Looking ahead at the NYFW spring shows, which kick off today (Sept. 6), it’s safe to assume you’ll see some curve models strutting the runways—a sign of gradual progress. But don’t expect record-breaking numbers for plus-size and curve appearances.