Diversity on the runways and in fashion advertising continues to be a passionate rallying cry. But there’s one demographic that’s still left out of the conversation: full-figured women.

Most models who walk the designer runways, whatever their ethnicity, continue to be rail thin, and high-end designers rarely feature full-figured women in their ad campaigns, let alone make clothing for them. But Emme, who became the most successful plus-size model in the Nineties, is still fighting an uphill battle and wants more stores and designers to pay closer attention to the full-figured woman.

This story first appeared in the October 13, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

For starters, it makes business sense.

According to The NPD Group Inc., the women’s plus-size market accounted for $17.6 billion of the $116.2 billion women’s apparel market for the 12 months ended August 2014. About 68 percent of the U.S. female population is size 12 and above.

Emme is taking a grassroots approach. This fall, she returned to her alma mater, Syracuse University, to launch “Fashion Without Limits,” a design initiative that promotes a competition to create size-12-plus designs. The Syracuse contest requires students in their junior year to design an evening dress for Emme, with the winning design revealed at the conclusion of the spring semester. The winner will receive the 12+ Emme Award and $500, and Emme will wear the winning design to a red-carpet event. The university is also organizing a panel on the plus-size market’s potential, on Nov. 20, at the Fisher Center in New York.

Emme has since resumed her modeling career after a bout with cancer in 2007. A former Ford model, she recently signed with Muse Models for her return and is working with Graj + Gustavsen to develop a plus-size licensing program for various apparel and accessory categories. Her apparel deal with Kellwood ended in 2003, and her line for QVC ended in 2007.

Stepping back into the spotlight, Emme is featured in the Model Alliance 2015 calendar project — she’s the June model — and is modeling for Ulla Popken, a German clothing firm, and David’s Bridal in the U.S. She also travels around the country making appearances for Macy’s plus-size departments.

WWD sat down with Emme, 51, to discuss her return to fashion and the battle she’s waging.

WWD: What are some of the challenges of being a full-figured woman today?
Emme: The stigma, the negative belief within the marketplace, the lack within the clothing industry to satisfy diverse character — whether it’s preppy or grunge or sophisticated or chic or modern, the whole plethora of personality is not being tapped. Just because she’s a plus-size woman does not mean she is matronly.

WWD: Why do you think designers are not paying attention to the plus-size customer?
Emme: Some 68 percent of the U.S. female population is size 12 and above. (about 108 million women). If you take 10 percent of that, it’s a pretty big market share. There’s a contemporary market and a young junior market that’s very big and not being addressed outside of mass. There are designers paying attention to it, [but] they’re just not the ones we see on a regular basis in the magazines. They’re not yet being funded fully or in department stores or opening their own stores. Designers that are in place and in the fold in the fashion industry — outside of Michael Michael Kors, which has expanded its business to plus size and is doing very well in that — [include] Lauren Ralph Lauren, who’s doing well. Jessica Simpson is not a designer, but she’s expanded into plus-size juniors and is doing very well at Macy’s. Calvin Klein is killing it — these are their better lines. I’m doing appearances with Macy’s this fall, and they have beautiful things you wouldn’t have seen 10 to 15 years ago. It’s very much what women sizes zero to 12 have, with some adjustments — with armholes — not just sizing up but taking this customer and being a bit more body-conscious, not just boxy.

WWD: Are any designers addressing the plus-size market with their top lines?
Emme: Most just go up to 12 or 14. I don’t know why. There might be a stigma that is undeniably present. It’s really the unspoken truth. I see such an opportunity. Possibly, they don’t want to push away their current customer base. Possibly, that’s not the vision of their line, and they have every right to feel that way. There’s an opportunity for another designer who wants to address this customer….Marina Rinaldi is tried-and-true. She’s been doing bridge and designer for many years now. There used to be more. They’re in the underground….Right now, I’m wearing Tatyana. It’s a 1950s-inspired line, where curves are not something to hide, but it works with one’s curves.

WWD: Do you think the way women are portrayed in advertising, media and fashion is a detriment to full-figured women?

Emme: In one way, it’s gotten better. You see more beautiful size 12s and 14s on the covers of Vogue Italia. Models are starting to come onto the covers of these women’s mainstream magazines. That’s not what was going on in my day. Mode magazine was where we all had the cover, and you could see top-tier full-figured models in better to bridge and rocking it and looking incredible in size 12, 14 and 16. Today, the client base has shrunk because the industry had a rough time after 2008.…I heard a couple of shows had plus-size models. There were more girls. Top-tier plus-size models…are size 12, 14 and some 16 — not [sizes] 18, 20 and 24. The girls who work all the time and book day after day are 12, 14 and 16.…I was the first [full-figured model to land a spokeswoman contract with a cosmetics company]. When Revlon shot me, they were, like, OK, [but] when you put me with women who are 5-9 or 5-10 and size 2, there’s a very big difference. If I’m representing the average woman’s body size, when you put us with straight-size models, you see how unusual it is, and a lot of people don’t like that.

WWD: Do you think the plus-size woman stopped shopping?

Emme: I think she started getting things made for herself. There’s a huge cottage industry going on in America, and the government knows about it. It’s a full push with Made in USA. It’s women starting to sew for other women who want to have beautiful clothes. It’s made-to-measure. The game is online for full-figured women. Major department stores are now playing that [online] game. Also, Asos does it incredibly well. There’s no dividing line between things for the straight-size customer and those for the plus-size customer. They [plus-size women] are not even thinking about anything negative about their bodies. The younger generations are so inclusive. What they see in magazines and what they see on TV, fashion-wise, they want to go online and buy that pencil skirt or that animal print or that shimmer top.…It goes higher than size 24.

WWD: Are European companies portraying full-figured women better than U.S. companies?
It’s always been this way. With age and beauty, it’s much less under a microscope in Europe. They don’t Photoshop as intensely as we do in the U.S. I never noticed it was that bad, [but] you…start to travel and you look at the imagery over there. You’ll see fine lines, and you’ll see teeth not being overly white. You’ll see the natural essence of that woman coming out. You’ll see a little bit of age, and you’ll see women who are not size zero. You don’t see a lot of size-zero imagery in Europe.…How about size triple zero? J. Crew came out with triple zero to cater to their Asian customer. Then you have the vanity sizing, so no one exactly knows what they are when they go shopping. You can be a size 6, you can be a size 8, or you can be a size 4, depending on who wants to have your money the most. It’s very confusing to consumers. It’s a lot of education — [for example] as you go higher in price, the sizes go smaller.

WWD: As a cancer survivor, tell me about some of your wellness initiatives.
Emme: I’m doing Emme Cruise, which is a cruise to Bermuda. It’s about the mind-body-spirit connection. We talk about how to eat well and nourish our souls and physically take care of our bodies. [With a variety of speakers in the health-and-wellness field] it is open to women of all sizes and sails from May 17 to May 24.

WWD: How did your collaboration with Syracuse come about?
Emme: We wanted to go and educate the new designers and teach them how to drape on a large-size body, whether she’s a little older or a more youthful junior. Syracuse came to me. I was doing a Kickstarter program, and they told me to pull it off Kickstarter. [The school said] “We want to take this on and be the first design school to implement — really, truly — through curriculum and draping and a whole program to integrate how to create for a full figure. Every year, everyone will learn how to drape, how to create.” Wolf Form stepped up and donated 12 forms in my measurements. I’m very proportioned. I’m a plus-size model, but I’m very much in between straight size and plus size. Designers who graduate from here use a size 4, 6 or 8 form. Now, they get to have the 2, 4, 6 and the size 16 form, [and] we added an 18 and a 20.

WWD: How hard is it for you to shop for clothing?

You can’t imagine how hard it is for me. I can’t go into most of the stores. I once took a camera crew with “20/20,” and [the shopkeepers] said, “You can go over to the basement of Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s at Herald Square.” They told me, point-blank, “No, we don’t have it here.” Even at the top of my career, I had designers making me one-offs. I just saw there was such a need. I want to build a business, a whole licensing program. It will be the whole world of Emme. I’m going to get into activewear. Lululemon stops at size 12. If you want to get people healthy, you’re going to need clothes to do it. We’re looking for licensees in swimwear, activewear, sportswear, knits and footwear.

WWD: Have things improved over the years or gotten worse for full-figured women?
I think things have improved. The more we have social media, the better it’s going to be. The bloggers are so vocal. They’ve got hundreds of thousands of followers because they are so vocal. I did a speaking engagement in Atlanta, and they had 13 [plus-size] bloggers there. They were burning up the social media. They haven’t been included in the fashion quotient.