Short people are pretty low on the list of groups that need more representation in the fashion industry. It's a category, of course, that's not as historically disenfranchised or made to feel as inadequate as other groups that are perhaps more deserving of greater visibility. That said, petites are an underserved segment of consumers, especially given that the average height for women over 20 in the United States is just under 5'4" — which qualifies as petite — and only a few retailers cater to them with dedicated styles.
That list is growing, though: Last year, Reformation made petites a permanent category while Stitch Fix and Express also ventured into the category. A promising new retailer called Stature launched, selling indie designer goods for the vertically-challenged set. The year before, a direct-to-consumer brand called Petite Studio launched selling stylish wares for those of us under 5'5."
A few traditional retailers also sell petites, including J.Crew, ASOS, Topshop and Anthropologie. But most of them do not shoot their petite styles on petite models, either repurposing images for the straight-size version or making straight-size samples expressly for photo shoots, meaning you're seeing how the style looks on someone around 5'9," not someone with your proportions.
There are a couple of exceptions: Reformation shoots at least some of its "Don't call me cute" styles on petite models, while Stature and Petite Studio shoot exclusively on petites for their respective websites. It's not easy, though: Both of the brands have encountered challenges recruiting under-5'5" models, and the latter has embarked on a mission to do something about it with its first annual Petite Model Search. The winner, voted on by Petite Studio's ample social Instagram community, will become the face of Petite Studio's next season, receive a $1,000 cash prize and an entire Petite Studio wardrobe. The open call is this Saturday in NYC.
Until now, both Stature and Petite Studio have relied heavily on friends and word-of-mouth to find models; Stature's founders even pose themselves from time to time. The traditional agency route through which every other brand finds straight-size girls easily has been unreliable at best. "In a few instances, we were able to find models who had agency representation who were actually petite, but most of the time we've been super frustrated that most modeling agencies just couldn't offer us any real petites," says Jenny Wang Howell, co-founder and CEO of Petite Studio. "We kept getting candidates who were 5'6", 5'7" or 5'8" when we requested petite models, and it was driving us crazy."
Howell consulted casting agent Jym Benzing before starting this initiative. "He sat down with us and explained that even brands that do produce petite clothing usually only produce one sample set to use for photography, and those samples are produced in 'average' model sizes," says Howell. "So they rarely, if ever, have a need for petite models. He agreed that this was unfortunate and this discussion really set the foundation for the Petite Model Search."
Social media has allowed both Stature and Petite Studio to connect with a vast and passionate community of petite consumers in search of more stylish clothing options. "[Social media] is actually the place where we first realized that all these petite shoppers had the same frustration that the founders of Petite Studio did," says Howell. "Our Instagram followers give us a ton of inspiration." The brand has also worked with petite influencers like Alyssa Coscarelli. Similarly, Stature has found models through social media. "We love working with people we have a rapport with and hearing their stories (and feedback, as they're part of Stature's target audience)," says Stature Co-founder Avani Agarwal.
Thus, it made sense for Petite Studio to engage this community with an open call. "We ran an Instagram post last year where we voiced our frustration about lack of petite models and we were shocked at how many real, amazing petite girls contacted us and said they were frustrated at the same thing," says Howell. "We were also contacted by over 100 different petite girls who wanted a chance at modeling but had never been given a shot."
The initiative comes at a pivotal time for representation in modeling. Slowly but surely, we're starting to see sizes and races in fashion imagery and on runways that better reflect those in the real world. Increased representation of petites in modeling is one part of a path toward an industry rooted more in reality and what people actually look like. Again, the average woman is petite.
"Our hope is not that this is just a one-off campaign and then it's all over, but that it is the beginning of a bigger discussion that involves not just us but other brands as well," says Howell.
"Though it hasn't been easy to find petite models through traditional routes, we feel like there's a shift taking place," says Agarwal. "Now more than ever, the customer demands representation — through social media and reviewer/expert culture — and the world is beginning to recognize that petite and plus sizing is not fringe, but rather the norm."