In recent years, the fashion industry — and society as a whole — has had to face up to its multilayered inclusion issues. The #MeToo movement, for one, highlighted gender disparities, while the Black Lives Matter and Trans Lives Matter movements that erupted amidst the pandemic raised important concerns about racial injustice and discrimination based on gender identity or expression.
And in the middle of it all, a different strand of the inclusion issue got pushed aside: body diversity.
Conversations have been centered around the lack of plus-size female models, but some insiders are also starting to highlight the broader lack of representation, with plus-size male models, people with disabilities or height diversity all noticeably absent from luxury runways.
“There’s size zero and plus size but what about height and disability? How can we look at representation from a 360 perspective?” said the creative director of Danish streetwear label Soulland, Silas Adler, who ripped up the rulebook with his last spring 2022 show and started doing his casting himself.
But, aside from some exceptions — including the likes of Soulland, Christian Siriano, Ester Manas and Versace — the last round of spring 2022 shows, which also marked the industry’s return to physical catwalks, fell short when it came to body representation.
“It was the least body diverse season in a long time. It was really disappointing,” said Ida Petersson, buying director at London retailer Browns, one of the first retailers to start a conversation about the industry’s — and its own — shortcomings when it comes to offering inclusive sizing this year. The company is also starting to extend its buy to larger sizes and measuring its progress, post-pandemic.
“It’s such an important subject and I felt that it was unfortunately one of those issues that got lost in the midst of COVID-19. There was a debate happening before the pandemic, but it got buried for a while,” Petersson added.
Conor Kennedy, owner of New York-based Muse Model Management, said New York Fashion Week led the pack in terms of size diversity for spring 2022, with designer Christian Siriano “miles ahead” of everyone else.
He also cited notable progress on some other runways, which featured more plus-size models in their castings — including Coperni, Mugler, Altuzarra, Chloé, Coach and Bottega Veneta — and plenty of room for improvement elsewhere.
“We would love to see some of the European houses embrace body diversity….My dream would be to see curvy models at Prada or Saint Laurent. It would be a game-changer,” Kennedy said in an interview. “Every brand has to make a decision about who they want to dress and who they want to reflect on the runway.”
Indeed, according to fashion data platform Tagwalk, the New York fashion scene was the only one to show signs of progress. Diverse body representation was up 366 percent at September’s New York Fashion Week, with 27 brands including curvy models at their presentations. “New York offered a real statement about inclusion and diversity. By contrast, in London, Paris and Milan there was almost no evolution compared to the previous season,” said Margaux Warin, head of fashion at Tagwalk.
“Over 90 percent of Paris and London Fashion Week designers did not include any body diverse models, neither did 80 percent of Milan designers. Even in New York, the amount of designers who didn’t show any diverse body shapes was 64 percent,” Warin said. “It shows that, even if there is an evolution, there is a lot to do in terms of making body positivity more visible on the runway.”
Kennedy, who started up Muse’s Curve division about 10 years ago, said there is no shortage of models up to size 20, nor any lack of willingness and openness on the part of casting directors to represent different kinds of beauty.
Yet there are “structural” impediments galore, headlined by the fact that most luxury houses and designers make runway samples in “standard” model sizes.
For Adler, brands could easily resolve such impediments — it’s just a case of wanting to go the extra mile.
“Quite simply, it’s about dedicating a lot more time to this. It’s a long process to make this work and we’ve been spending hours and hours finding the right people and developing partnerships with agencies that do things differently,” said Adler, who does all the casting himself, using Instagram or his ties to the skating community. “Here in Copenhagen, there’s a tendency to work with the same three big agencies and as a result all shows look the same.”
Before the casting process even begins, Adler ensures there are enough runway samples in wider size ranges.
“As soon as we finish designing a collection, we pick the items that will also be produced in bigger sizes. You might still not know which models you’re casting but this allows you to be flexible. And from an investment point of view, I don’t mind spending some extra money on that rather than a casting director or a big-name model. There’s always an evaluation of where and how you want to spend your resources,” the designer said.
Adler’s spring 2022 show featured a memorable cast ranging from professional models to friends of the brand, who varied in ages, genders, professions, racial backgrounds and body types. But for Adler, there’s still a lot of work to do until brands, Soulland included, can truly embody a body-inclusive image.
“When it comes to plus-size male models, in particular, it’s just not a priority for the agencies. We tried really hard to find plus-size male models for spring 2022, but we couldn’t succeed at this stage,” Adler said.
The same kind of limitations — finding agents who will cast plus-size male models or getting hold of larger samples — then trickle down to editorial sets, before ending up on the shop floor.
Kennedy said many stylists are frustrated when they do a single-model editorial and can’t find clothes to fit curvy figures. By contrast, advertising campaigns — including those from the likes of Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen — boast better representation of size diversity.
Yet the runway, especially with the advent of livestreaming, remains the most potent spotlight for models and the most powerful springboard for modeling careers.
Kennedy, who has worked as a model manager for 25 years, was long frustrated and “depressed” by the lack of opportunities for curvy models and vowed to right that wrong when he founded Muse 14 years ago. Today, he has four managers working in the Curve division and scouting worldwide.
“We felt that we had to get ahead of where the industry was, to give [brands] more choices and to inspire them,” he said.
Vick Mihaci, president of Elite Management Worldwide, maintained a more positive outlook: “We have seen real changes and a significant increase in the diversity of models this season, notably a mix in terms of gender, or models in their 50s and 60s, or with different skin colors and different sizes.”
He cited “a nice mix in the sense that the big four fashion capitals have similar perspectives. Paris appears to be more committed today with more diverse and inclusive podiums.”
Mihaci gave shoutouts to Mugler for “showing that anyone could embody the brand and their clothes”; to Chanel, which, for the second time in its spring 2022 show, included a curvy model, or one who was, as Mihaci noted, “the size most worn by French women.” He also credited Balmain for generational diversity and a cast that included Naomi Campbell, Carla Bruni and Natalia Vodianova.
“You could feel that the clothes this fashion week are meant to be worn on different body types, and consequently speak directly to each and every woman,” he enthused. According to Mihaci, the responsibility to improve the portrayal of human size rests with brands.
“They make the clothes, they define the new standards,” he said. “My main suggestion would be to encourage the brands to make their clothes on a more common body type and be able to adapt it to models they see and like.”
Mihaci said clients are willing to see different types of models, “but the question remains as to whether they are all given the same chances.
“The risk with the fast-evolving market and the growing demand for diverse modes is that one should be careful that there is no discrimination to anyone and every model is given the same opportunities,” he added.
Brussels-based fashion label Ester Manas, gaining acclaim for its one-size-fits-all adjustable clothes, staged its first runway show in Paris last September, calling it the “first truly inclusive show” in the French capital.
As a result, the cofounders Manas and Balthazar Delepierre scrutinized the shows as soon as they started in New York and were “quite seduced” by the representation seen at Mugler, Ganni, Ottolinger, Eckhaus Latta and L’Oréal Paris.
They also applauded the rise of models including Paloma Elsesser, Ashley Graham, Precious Lee, Jill Kortleve, Barbie Ferreira, Denise Bidot and Alva Claire.
“They illuminate catwalks, cover stories and are a breath of fresh air without precedent,” Delepierre said. “They reflect, like the supermodels of the ‘90s, a very strong feeling of desire, a fantasy, an obvious representation of the young women of today. And most of all, they send to oblivion a narrow and obsolete version of what is the norm.”
According to Manas, inclusivity “should not be a concept, a trend or an inspiration” but must become “viral, obvious, intuitive, mainstream.”
“It’s all nice to hire two models amongst 50 to embody the change, but it is very necessary that the same dress with the same sizing can be found in stores. Otherwise, where’s the invitation?” she argued. “No one can be exemplary, we can always do better. Inclusiveness, its definition and its representation in fashion tends to change over time because society changes, bodies evolve — standards, too.”
The duo skirted a question about designers that could do better.
“We prefer to encourage brands, which, even timidly or sometime awkwardly, are trying to be more fair,” Delepierre reasoned.
Retailers, too, are trying to be more equitable and broaden their size ranges.
“We’re really encouraging this conversation with the brands we work with, with many being open to extending their size offering. If brands have a broad range of sizes available, we’ll ensure that it’s mirrored in our buy as much as possible,” said Lea Cranfield, Net’s chief buying and merchandizing officer, commending the likes of Alexander McQueen, AZ Factory, Balmain, Gucci, Stella McCartney, Valentino, Erdem and Nanushka as some of the labels leading the way.
Brands, she added, whether young or established, shouldn’t be deterred by any logistical challenges because producing in a wider array of sizes also presents an appealing commercial opportunity to grow an audience.
“The bigger brands are more equipped, but the emerging ones are in a better position to adapt and define their ethos and values,” Cranfield added.
Browns is also looking to start talking louder about the issue as of this year and has set itself some pretty ambitious goals.
“We wanted to talk about it, because we weren’t as good as we could have been in the past and we have to hold ourselves accountable,” Petersson said.
As of this fall 2022 season, Browns is starting to measure its progress and ensuring that up to 30 percent of its options are size-inclusive. In the longer term, the goal is for every brand the retailer has “a decent investment in” to include inclusive sizing, or at the very least a made-to-order program.
In order to get there, different players in the industry need to work together. Yes, retailers do have a big responsibility to buy into wider sizes ranges, according to Petersson, but there’s still a lot of work for brands to do both on the catwalk and in the showrooms.
At the moment, many brands are quietly making wider size ranges available in their showrooms but not going much further than that.
“It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, isn’t it? If you have a brand that’s not inclusive, then people are not going to buy from you just because you silently added a size 16 in the showrooms — which can still be considered very large in those crowds,” said Petersson, explaining that sales teams need to become more vocal about their size offerings. “In a lot of showrooms, you still have to ask how far some pieces go up. They don’t want to make a big fanfare about it.”
But in order to get customers, who have previously been made to feel excluded, to come back into luxury stores and feel comfortable to try things on and shop, there needs to be consistent messaging from the part of the brands on the runways, on billboards and social media.
“Wider sizes are already in the showrooms but in order for this to be a real revolution, it needs to be more visible. It needs to start with your campaigns, how you communicate with your customers and how customers are welcome into the stores. Inclusion needs to be a visible part of your manifesto and it needs to feel authentic,” Petersson added. “Brands need to make it loud and clear that they want to change their ways and re-educate customers. Because if you’ve already been excluded once, why go back?”
On the subject of authenticity, Tagwalk’s Warin said brands that stay consistent to this messaging in seasons to come and marry any body positive statements on the catwalk with “the reality of sales and size availability” will be the real winners. “It should also not be a statement for one collection, with one model but a new vision of diverse casting that should be perpetuated season after season,” Warin said.
It’s why Versace sales are “on fire” at Browns, because for the past few seasons, the Italian mega brand has been presenting its clothes on a wider range of women, from Paloma Elesser and Jill Kortleve to Dua Lipa and Emily Ratajkowski — and all look equally great.
“You can see women of all shapes and sizes, looking absolutely incredible on it. So you feel you can be a part of it, too,” added Petersson, also commending the likes of Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Ganni, Reformation and Good American, Khloé Kardashian’s denim line which will soon launch at Browns.
She added that there’s a lot of willingness from young independent labels like Simone Rocha, Erdem, Ashish and Molly Goddard to work with the retailer and offer more size-inclusive ranges. “When you open a conversation with them they’re opening to trying it out. While for the bigger brands, with some exceptions, there has to be a bigger force that pushes them to think about it.”
Customer demand and smaller players’ progressive visions might end up being those forces.
Soulland’s Adler said the brand has also been working on creating a document where pre-show models can inform the brand of different requirements that they have, from how covered they want to be to needing a prayer space backstage — because it’s not enough to cast diverse sets of models, but also to make them feel welcome.
“Agencies are usually surprised. Some are happy and agree with us that this should be standard practice, but others get annoyed, they’re stuck in the old ways of seeing models as mannequins and they can’t be bothered to do the back and forth,” Adler said. “For us, it’s not rocket science, it’s just about making people feel good and reflecting the society we live in. Showing diversity, whether in terms of skin color or body type, is a way of showing respect.”