Over the last few years, a handful of fashion tastemakers and shot-callers have done their part to drive inclusiveness in runways, editorials and retail. Symposiums have been held and hashtags have been promoted, all culminating in some change, but more recently, a sense of moribund progress.
For all the rah-rah rallies, the fourth annual The Curvy Con conference (and the second to be timed to coincide with New York Fashion Week) took place over the weekend. As in previous years, the programming was dedicated to both promoting all things plus size and dispelling the extremely harmful, yet still extremely common industry notion that curvy women don't care about fashion. Still, it seemed like it might be promotional at best, and dubious at worst.
But during an evening panel discussing the current state of plus-size fashion, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Dia&Co, a plus-size e-commerce site and personal styling service (and a sponsor of The Curvy Con), announced a joint education initiative in which CFDA will provide funding for classes to teach tomorrow's designers how to design for bodies beyond sample size.
"We believe strongly that the most important milestones will have the ability to affect lasting, broad-based change, and design education is at the top of that list," said Nadia Boujarwah, co-founder and chief executive of Dia&Co.
The venture, titled the #TeeUpChange campaign, will provide funding to major fashion education programs across the country — think: Parsons School of Design, Fashion Institute of Technology, etc. — that will support new courses dedicated to fashion design specifically for plus sizes.
Funding will come from both the CFDA and from the sales of a series of limited-edition graphic T-shirts ($35), designed by the likes of rapper and body positivity advocate Lizzo, designer Marissa Petteruti, designer and CFDA board member Tracy Reese, designer Christian Siriano and tennis superstar Venus Williams. (Williams also has a dedicated plus-size line of activewear, called EleVen.)
The announcement comes at a time when, despite increased visibility, plus-size fashion is barely represented in the retail market. Last year, research firm Edited found that 99.9 percent of luxury designers don't size inventory for the plus market, a finding that Fashionista confirmed in a comprehensive look at the market in May.
New York-based designers like Siriano, Prabal Gurung and Carly Cushnie, among others, have included a range of curve models on their runways, but those castings still represent the exception to the rule. According to The Fashion Spot's most recent seasonal Runway Report, which organizes data to reflect how many diverse models are represented in a given season, last season's Fall 2018 figures, no pun intended, revealed a regression in plus-size castings, the first since Fall 2016.
During FIT's Fashion and Physique symposium in February — which explored the marginalization of plus size in fashion — one audience member asked Becca McCharen Tran, creative head of swim and activewear brand Chromat (which also regularly features a diverse runway cast), what advice she had for a new designer trying to learn how to produce clothing for plus sizes. The question itself was telling: There are no plus-size fashion education programs of note at any of the major schools in the U.S., which points to a larger, systemic reason for why new designers do not typically create looks above sample sizes.
Remembering her own early days as a designer, Reese noted that the average sample size has dwindled from, roughly, a size eight to a size two at most. She recalled being in school, while at Parsons, and being instructed to sketch on "11 heads," an elongated version of the human physique where the height would measure that of 11 stacked heads, when the average person is about seven "heads" tall.
"Lately, we've been focusing a lot on inclusivity, but we have to re-educate our membership," said Reese. "Let's start drawing on realistic bodies as designers, so we have a real impression of what clothes look like. From proper fitting to the rest of the technical side, that has to become part of [designers'] education."
Williams, who also participated in the panel, perhaps summed up the fight for inclusivity most effectively. "You do get exhausted fighting for equality, even in my industry," said the tennis champion. "You wonder, 'When can we just be human?' But you have to keep fighting for that."