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The Untold Tales of Fashion's Invaluable Fit Models: Dale Noelle

In our new series, we'll share the stories of fit models, past and present, who will divulge the fascinating minutiae of this little-known but very integral (and well-paid) line of work.

Working very much behind-the-scenes and without cameras documenting the process, fit modeling is an invisible but invaluable segment of the fashion industry. Each Friday in the coming weeks, we'll share the stories of eight fit models, past and present, who will divulge the fascinating minutiae of this little-known but very integral (and well-paid) line of work. Next up: Dale Noelle, who was a fit model with Ford Models for two decades before launching her own fit model agency, True Model Management, in 2012. You can read the rest of the models' testimonials here

Photo: @dalenoelle_true/Instagram

Photo: @dalenoelle_true/Instagram

Past clients include: Calvin Klein, Pepe Jeans, The Gap, J.Crew, and Victoria’s Secret. 

"My dad owned factories manufacturing clothing when I was growing up, and he'd bring things home and ask me to wear them for an hour and tell him how it felt. I didn't realize I was playing the role of the fit model already. I was just happy to get the clothing! I got into fit modeling through sales for a women's sportswear brand. I would go to trade shows, to sell to department stores and boutiques. Everywhere I went, I was asked, 'Oh, are you the model? Can you try this on?' Buyers and clients would tell me I should get into fit modeling. I didn't have any interest; I knew what fit modeling was, but I didn't think it was a career. The designer at the women's sportswear brand I worked for gave me a whole package of information about all the people to contact, who potential clients could be, what's expected, and I filed it away for a year because I wasn't interested. I left fashion to try commercial real estate, and then I ran into friends from the industry who asked if I'd ever followed up pursuing fit modeling. I thought, I'm still young — maybe I will.

I called three top fit model agencies at the time; only one of the agencies was willing to meet me in person. I got a contract on the spot. I wasn't quite ready for something to happen that quickly. They told me not to quit my day job, which was fine because real estate has flexible hours. The first day, I went to Calvin Klein, Pepe Jeans, The Gap, J.Crew and Victoria’s Secret — and I got jobs with all of them! People can have nothing for a year as they're developing and meeting people, but I kind of just jumped in. I thought I'd do it for a year or two, make some money. Here I am, 20 years later.

I've always found fit modeling fascinating. I felt like I was part of a team. When you're first starting out, designers and companies might not want much feedback, but as they get to know you and how you fall in line with the customer demographics, you can give really beneficial comments about what will sell. For some clients, fit models rule and dictate how a fitting goes. That's not the norm, but it happens if a fit model has a very long, proven history of sell-throughs and comments on how to fix things. Fit modeling can really affect the bottom line.

For some companies I was a size 6, and for other companies I was a size 8. I worked with the designers, not just the tech person: I used to do fit modeling with Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Oleg Cassini, Ralph Rucci. I worked with Michael Kors in the mid '90s on several lines, including ICB and his own line, and traveled to Japan and Italy with him. He always had such great stories; he asked all the right questions during fittings. I spent a lot of time with Calvin Klein, too. I fitted with him from start to finish of his time at his brand.

Sizing is very confusing for customers, because there's no standardization. Plus sizing gets more skewed. I'm a size 6, but I can wear a size 2 to a size 10, depending on the brand and the garment. Historically, brands fit on 5'7" or 5'8" model who's a size 8, but 20 years ago, every measurement was at least an inch smaller. The waist has increased the most — one major mass brand increased the waist fit model measure by 3 inches. Throughout my career, I did have to lift weights and gain some weight to stay with the changes in fit modeling from the early '90s to 2010, when I stopped fitting. I had to get bigger just to stay the "same size."

Ten to 15 years ago, most fit models were a size 8. Now, brands might want to fit on a size 2, a 6, an 8, a 14 ... we have every size fit model today. Brands do wear tests or size sets, so they'll produce pieces graded across sizes, and then bring fit models in to make sure the sizing has graded properly. You'll have a size 00 to a size 24, all standing in a line, to see if each size gives the same visual. Is the pocket properly scaled, does it look similarly positioned on the waist? There's just so much that goes into making clothes, and so many things that can go wrong.

Photo: @dalenoelle_true/Instagram

Photo: @dalenoelle_true/Instagram

I ended up starting my own agency because I was always scouting for friends and models who were close to me in size so they could be my substitutes. When other agencies would try to lure me over from Ford, I never left; I was loyal. So I'd offer them my friends who would sub for me, and those other agencies would then hire them, and people were always telling me I should be an agent. Almost every fitting I'd go to, I'd leave with a resume from a pattern maker or designer, looking for a new role. I was like the HR or recruiter for everyone.

Certain fit models have been in the business for a really long time and have commanded higher rates for years; now, they may even ask for higher rates. If a model has a proven sales history with the garments they fit, and can affect a company's bottom line in a positive way, their rates stay high — around $400 an hour. In general, fit models can get $250 or $260 per hour. Brands will sometimes push back and negotiate more on rates, and some are using fit models in other countries, wherever production is, because it's cheaper.

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The busy fit models always get busier, but there's only so much time in the day. Clients will call for the same eight fit models over and over, so we'll have alternative fit models that have very similar measurements. Sometimes, the client isn't happy, even if it's very close. It's so hard to find the same body types, and usually clients are so particular. We scout everywhere, all the time.

A good fit model can save a client millions of dollars by catching a mistake. Now, more print models want to know how they can become fit models, because they're going on many different castings and usually investing more financially to develop themselves and have a book. A print model is constantly going on castings, and the percentage they get is usually low. With fit modeling, one casting could get you work for 20 years.

Fit models have average, or better than average, bodies that are very symmetrical, with a very natural stance, posture-wise. Fluctuations are not good. We're very straightforward. We have the models practice measuring themselves in front of us, so they can self-report correctly. Those are the physical attributes, but personality is also huge. The ones that book the most work (and that clients love) are very optimistic, gregarious and very professional. A great fit model needs to have a cheerful personality that brightens a room, because it can get really tense. People work very hard, long hours in fashion; often things are behind schedule, and the best fit models think quickly on their feet and change clothes quickly. They connect well with clients, and can read what people in the room want and need to know.  

The same body can be fit so many different ways. The industry is becoming more and more specialized: Some companies want a fit model that can fit for every category so it's consistent, but other brands might want the best denim model, the best bra model, a fit model who's great for panties and swim. Bra fit models are very specialized and specific with their feedback — they can notice an eighth of an inch difference. When we start working with a new fit model, we'll ask who their dream clients are, and which brands fit them the best, as a starting point of where to book them.

I never heard of a fit model getting fired because of a fitting. But if the clothes don't sell through, or a model's measurements change, she won't be called back. Things can not sell for so many reasons, but a lot of times the technical designer or factory could've screwed up. And yet, it does circle back to the fit model. Let's say a brand has sold a certain pant style for years and suddenly they're getting a lot of returns or it's not selling well, so they change their fit model and create a new 'block,' which is a standard pattern they use over and over again, and it grades well across sizes.

Photo: @dalenoelle_true/Instagram

Photo: @dalenoelle_true/Instagram

When you're shopping, don't just stand there looking at yourself in the mirror; look at all angles. Step out of the fitting room, walk a few steps, bend your knees like you're walking upstairs to see if the garment stays in place, sit down and then get back up to see what happens when you move around, which is what you'll be doing in your regular life. Check whether the stitching irritates you; wear the bra and thong you would actually be wearing with that outfit.

I think people don't realize fit modeling is hard work! It's not just the glamour of trying on all these garments. You're standing in one spot for hours and hours; you might faint. It takes a toll on the body. You have to deal with temperature extremes: It might be summer and you're fitting winter clothes. Many clients want female fit models in very high heels during fittings. My feet are ruined for life from fit modeling; I was in so much pain, I had an acupuncturist, podiatrist, chiropractor and massage therapist on call to take care of my feet. Many models' backs go out from standing so much. On average, fit models work more hours in total over a year than print or runway models.

So many companies are working on body scanning technology that can take measurements in two seconds. I think technology, between robotics and body scanners, might do away with a lot of fit models' fitting time. But fashion as an industry can be slow to adopt technology, so I think it'll take some time. I'm all for something that will make a better product for people, but I think there's still longevity in the life of fit models because they haven't come out with something that can feel and sense like a model would.

The standard size range has traditionally gone up to 14 or 16, and brands that add or start a new size range — which has very different grading and shape — used a fit model that's a size 18. But for print modeling, a size 8 or 10 is considered plus. They were calling all these girls who were just a size or two bigger than me 'plus,' when really, most of them are fit models. The industry now lumps it all together: curve, plus. It's very confusing. I think people shouldn't have labels, only garments should. But I do think you need something to distinguish fit models. Or maybe you just do away with categories altogether. We've been toying with the idea of that, of just sorting by each models' sizes. I want for brands to just have all of the sizing together, from a 0 to a 20, instead of having a separate plus section. I'm for inclusivity and positivity. Everyone's beautiful."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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