Has fashion quietly dumped the plus-sized pioneers? Have again been sidelined by stick-thin models

It was just four years ago that Tess Holliday, the world’s leading ‘plus-size’ model, sent the fashion world into a frenzy when she took her 20st frame on to a New York catwalk in a daring, skin-tight dress.

Her all-white outfit, by US fashion brand Chromat, had flesh-baring cutaways and was emblazoned with the slogan ‘sample size’.

It was, she said, a ‘two-fingers up’ to a fashion industry obsessed with skinny models.

Yet judging by the slender figures who graced the catwalks at this month’s London, New York and Milan fashion weeks, those who are a size 12 or larger – known in the trade as ‘curve models’, but to the rest of us as normal – now appear to be so last season.

Holliday, who is a size 26, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Fashion people just aren’t interested in plus-size any more.’

ALL CHANGE: Tess Holliday walks for Chromat in 2019

ALL CHANGE: Tess Holliday walks for Chromat in 2019

A model walks the runway at the 16Arlington show during London Fashion Week in February

A model walks the runway at the 16Arlington show during London Fashion Week in February

Models and their agencies say that runway work has all but dried up. One London agency for plus-size models said catwalk jobs were so scarce, its girls were ‘better off stacking shelves’ in supermarkets than appearing at London Fashion Week.

Alex Haddad, owner of BMA Models, said: ‘They didn’t want the bigger girls and we decided that financially, it’s not worth it, especially with the cost-of-living crisis.’

According to activist Felicity Hayward, curve models made up less than three per cent of the 2,640 models booked at London Fashion Week.

The New York shows used just 31 curve models on its catwalk – down from 49 last season.

Several big-name design brands that had previously used plus-size models – including Fendi, Michael Kors and Roksanda, a London label once championed by Cefinn founder Samantha Cameron – reverted to type by casting ‘model-size’ figures, or smaller.

One model who watched the London Fashion Week shows but asked not to be named, said there has been ‘a return to a ‘skinny b****’ mentality’, with designers ‘playing it safe’ to sell clothes in a challenging economic climate – avoiding what has been termed ‘go woke, go broke’.

The British Fashion Council, which organises London Fashion Week, did not respond to requests for comment.

And to think it had all been going so well.

Ashley Graham walks the runway at the Dolce & Gabbana fashion show during the Milan Fashion Week

Ashley Graham walks the runway at the Dolce & Gabbana fashion show during the Milan Fashion Week

At Burberry's London show (pictured) earlier this month, out of the 55 looks, we had 32 black and Asian male and female models – and not a plus-size among them

At Burberry’s London show (pictured) earlier this month, out of the 55 looks, we had 32 black and Asian male and female models – and not a plus-size among them

Models walks the runway at the Burberry show during London Fashion Week February 2023

A model walks the runway at the Burberry show during London Fashion Week February 2023

Models walks the runway at the Burberry show during London Fashion Week February 2023

Thanks to the body positivity movement – which told the fashion world that big can be beautiful, and that there’s such a thing as ‘healthy at any size’ – women with normal bodies (anything larger than the obligatory catwalk size 6 to 8) were finally allowed to be seen.

‘Big’ girls like Ashley Graham – star of yesterday’s Dolce & Gabbana show in Milan – Paloma Elsesser and Precious Lee graced catwalks and magazine covers, joining superstars such as Beyonce and Jennifer Coolidge. When US singer Lizzo made the cover of British Vogue in 2019, we saw her entire body, not just her head – as had been the case with Adele’s first appearance.

Even brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch – which set a specific beauty standard by employing shirtless young men with six-packs as sales assistants – got the message and started to make bigger sizes: at last, you could buy their jeans in a size 26. Others followed suit.

The likes of Victoria’s Secret, whose models avoided water before a show to maintain their physiques, went into administration.

It felt like the tide had turned. But now, it seems, it’s turned back.

The alarming return of cadaverous models began in the autumn of 2021 and continued last year, notably at Prada and Versace, whose models looked in need of palliative care.

At Burberry’s London show earlier this month, out of the 55 looks, we had 32 black and Asian male and female models – and not a plus-size among them.

At Prada’s Milan show last Thursday, out of 54 models 25 were black or Asian, but not one model was over a size 8. (No older models, either – another marketing trope that’s been shelved.) So diversity exists – but not for larger women.

What happened? It isn’t enough to say that, well, fashion is cyclical.

One possible reason is that, last May, Kim Kardashian – that unrealistic poster girl for bigger women – lost 16lb in three weeks to fit into Marilyn Monroe’s iconic ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’ dress for the Met Gala.

As plus-size influencer Marielle Elizabeth wrote on Vogue.com – under the headline ‘Is My Body About To Go Out of Style?’ – her weight loss ‘marked a shift in tone… ushering in the end of an era that at least claimed to celebrate curvy bodies’.

At Prada's Milan show (pictured) last Thursday, out of 54 models 25 were black or Asian, but not one model was over a size 8

At Prada’s Milan show (pictured) last Thursday, out of 54 models 25 were black or Asian, but not one model was over a size 8

Model on the runway at Prada's Milan Fashion Week show on Thursday

A model walks the runway at the Prada fashion show during the Milan Fashion Week

Models on the runway at Prada’s Milan Fashion Week show on Thursday

We also had the end of lockdown. Designers embraced the ‘fatwalk’ and went woke – but it meant many also went broke. Women unable to go to the gym, spa, park or hairdresser discovered they were also perfectly fine in soft bras and tracksuits, with no need for new shoes or handbags.

Lockdown was disastrous for business. Evans, that most famous plus-size brand of all, floundered.

Could it be designers started a ‘fat-wa’, to make us feel that we need to diet, to workout and to buy new things? Fair enough, perhaps – being morbidly obese isn’t healthy. But if a woman cannot find anything lovely in her size to make her feel good, she’s likely to think: ‘Sod it, I’ll stay in and eat doughnuts.’

And don’t think that the industry likes size-10 clothes because they use less fabric so are cheaper to make. These days, emerging designers have little training in pattern-cutting for anyone over a size 12. Put simply, fashion is no good at dressing real women.

When Grace Breuning, the stunning 23-year-old, size-18 catwalk star, made her Paris debut last year for Chanel, she was one of only three larger models in the show. (Significant: Chanel went from 2010 to 2020 without casting a single big girl.)

Bruening told US Vogue that when she arrives backstage, ‘I’m asked if I’m on the hair team’ – confirming her suspicion she’s only in fashion to fulfil a ‘curve quota’: ‘They cast girls who are curvy – but they don’t have clothes for them.’

Herein lies the crux of why fashion is shunning bigger women. Often, sales assistants aren’t trained to fit curves. Insane, given the UK’s average dress size is 16.

Too many brands stock bigger sizes only online. The clear message? We don’t want you in store. The truth, too, is that many bigger girls don’t want to see big models.

As a size-14 woman tells me: ‘Clothes look better on thin women. You know the dress on a thin model won’t look like that on you, but you still think it will look okay.

‘You have hope. On a bigger model, you see what it will actually look like on you – and you don’t buy it.’

Hence, numerous plus-size ranges have gone, such as Mango’s Violeta (though it still does larger sizes) and Evans’s Swan. The fact is that the kernel at the heart of fashion is fantasy. It’s not like buying a car. We think clothes will transform us.

However, they won’t. Fashion isn’t our friend, it’s a business. And as well as all the numbers I’ve quoted above, that remains the – ahem – bottom line. High fashion hates big women. Despite Victoria Beckham being quoted as saying ‘being thin is old-fashioned’, her designs only go up to a large 14. So many times I’ve been backstage at a catwalk show, and stylists have pushed and prodded even the teeniest girls.

I once heard the most famous male, gay designer in the world say to supermodel Angela Lindvall: ‘I doubt your hips will even fit down the runway.’

That’s how we’re really seen. We might love fashion but, believe me, the feeling isn’t mutual.

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