The Power of Fashion's Current Plus-Size Moment Extends Far Beyond the Runway

Models Paloma Elsesser, Tess McMillan, Precious Lee and Jill Kortleve spoke at 'Vogue Forces of Fashion' to discuss what the past few seasons have meant for them.
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precious lee versace spring 2021

The plus-size movement in fashion, which has steadily been building up over the past decade, hit some major milestones in recent seasons: Back in February, major European houses like Fendi, Alexander McQueen and Chanel all put plus models on the runway, and then Versace made headlines when it cast Precious Lee, Jill Kortleve and Alva Clare for its Spring 2021 socially-distanced show.

The latter was the moment Vogue Forces of Fashion moderator, stylist Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, called out as a big turning point during Monday morning's panel, "Whose Positivity?" And while, as she pointed out, three out of 79 models doesn't seem like a lot, it still made a huge difference in a world where designers are often happy to throw one token plus-size model on the runway — if any at all.

"It's hard for me to connect backstage with other models, so being backstage with women who know what you're going through or what it's like being an 'outsider' in the high fashion industry was just amazing," panelist Kortleve said. 

"I never want to feel stifled or confined by any labels, and for me, what that moment meant at Versace [and in the codes of Versace] — the colors, the Medusa head, the shapes — I personally felt at home. It was like an exhale, almost," panelist Lee added. "I always knew I was capable, and it felt really rewarding to have Donatella agree with me."

The panel, which also featured Tess McMillan and Paloma Elsesser, had plenty to say on the subject of labels — namely, the usefulness or the harm of the term "plus-size." Lee recalled shopping for clothes as a child and having to be isolated in a children's plus size section, making her feel ostracized. She doesn't feel the term is in step with the fact that women who look like her represent the majority of the population. "For me, the term started to strike me as divisive and profound exclusion, so to speak," she said. "Instead of focusing on the terminology, it's important to focus on why we have the term in the first place."

"The reason at the beginning I didn't want to be a curve model, I felt that curve models do jobs that sell to the masses — it's fast fashion, because that's the only clothes made for people above a size 10," McMillan added. "I want to think of my work as art, and I was afraid in defining myself as a curve model in the beginning, that art would be taken from me and I would be defined as a body that sells clothes instead of a person who creates art alongside other creatives. I know how much I can bring to my job regardless of the body that I'm in."

Being a plus-size model at a time of growth and emphasis on representation has meant more opportunity for these women, but it also comes with its downsides. Elsesser pointed out that, even when she's on a shoot with other straight size models, she's the one most often asked to do the extra video content, to do an interview, to do a solo shoot in just lingerie with a jacket over it; and, of course, social media comes with trolls. But Elsesser says she tries not to take it personally, elaborating that both the fatphobia from the trolls and the urge to ignore all the positive feedback for one negative comment are rooted in systemic oppression.

"It's not the specific person, it's the systems; we're under this deluge of fatphobia, whether it be from capitalism or anti-blackness," Elsesser says. "If I can itemize the language I feel comfortable using for myself, that's what it is. But trolls will always be there."

And while there's undoubtedly plenty of work to do within the fashion industry, Elsesser emphasizes the importance of taking the time to celebrate these wins, too. She recalled her very first trip to Paris years ago with Pat McGrath, who took her backstage at Lanvin under then-creative director Alber Elbaz. The models, she remembered, looked so much different than they do even now, and she shared that she got emotional because the environment made her feel so alone. That moment came full circle for Elsesser when she got to be the first plus-size model in a Lanvin show for the Spring 2021 season.

"It isn't just a moment, it's a real thing that we're doing so that people can see that it's a real thing, so they continue to make the clothes," Elsesser said. "Things are happening, and I want to stay centered in the optimism and the joy as well as the critique."

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