Fashion week's Spring 2023 shows saw a decrease in plus-size representation since 2020. Industry experts weigh in on why.
After launching the vintage storefront Berriez in 2018, Emma Zack held the brand's first runway show ever during New York Fashion Week in September. As founder, CEO and creative director, the one-woman team presented her "Vices" collection at Brooklyn's Ace Hotel, in collaboration with other independent designers, with models ranging from sizes XL to 5XL.
"From the jump, Berriez has been focused on plus sizes, so there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted not only for the majority of the models to be plus-sized, but to make a variety of body types the core foundation of the presentation," Zack tells Fashionista.
With comedian Madelynn Poulson emceeing the show, Zack ultimately wanted to add a more light-hearted energy to fashion week and the conversation surrounding inclusivity.
"Sometimes, fashion can just be so boring and serious," she says. "I wanted [the show] to focus on the models, the mood and obviously the clothing."
Right before the Covid-19 pandemic, plus-size representation at fashion week was beginning to see a drastic decrease. As The Fashion Spot reported, the preceding season had a record-setting 86 plus-size model appearances across New York, London, Milan and Paris — but it went down to 46. However, as writer and author Gianluca Russo argued on this very site, that number doesn't always make for the strongest, most accurate metric, as it can easily be inflated when "a brand like 11 Honoré hosts a show with an all-curve number or deflated when a certain in-demand model is, say, taking a season off." Still, it's one of the few ways we talk about size inclusivity at fashion week — and it's certainly the most visible.
The Spring 2023 shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris were some of the most jam-packed, celebrity-filled we've seen since the pandemic, and many were looking forward to picking up where things left off — not only when it came to decked-out collections, but to truly see if brands finally got the memo on diversity. Alas, the results were massively disappointing.
A recent report by InStyle surveyed every brand on the Spring 2023 schedule — a total of 327 designers — and looked into the sizes they sell. Tess Garcia found that "London represents the smallest size range overall, with just 1% of designers offering a size 20 or above and 27% reaching a 14." Next came Paris, then Milan, with New York ranking at the top, with "19% of designers producing a size 20 or above."
Fashion week is often seen as an indicator of what's "hot" versus "not." Many online have been sounding the alarm on the rise of early aughts aesthetics, like Y2K and indie sleaze, and how they're also resurfacing harmful societal notions associated with those eras, such as "heroin chic" and thigh-gapping thinness. Early aughts clothing trends were featured heavily on the Spring 2023 runways, and — much like during their initial moment in the limelight — they were rarely displayed in any iteration other than a sample size.
The lack of diverse sizing on the runway came as a disappointing realization for onlookers and industry insiders alike early on in the fashion month circuit, leading to a series of viral videos that gained more than 2.7 million views on TikTok alone. The discourse questioned whether brands are communicating to customers that their bodies are just not "on trend" this season.
"Sometimes it feels like we're going two steps forward then one step back," says Conor Kennedy, founder of New York-based agency Muse Models. "The runway will always be a part of the industry that's so symbolic because we're naturally going to look to it to see what's happening. I think many of us are still disappointed to see how many brands haven't chosen to expand their size diversity."
Kennedy started Muse's curve division a decade ago, after noticing how people weren't pushing for size diversity in his previous roles. While there has been some improvement over the years, runway representation hasn't changed to the extent many had hoped.
"There was a lot of performance art happening in 2020 — that's all I have to say about that," says Kelly Augustine, a stylist known for her work in inclusive dressing. "I guarantee you the demand hasn't changed on our end. In fact, I think we're craving exciting design more than ever. The fun options and interesting brands seem to have disappeared, and lots of the brands that offer plus sizes very much treat the sector like an afterthought."
Part of the issue is rooted in a brand's creative direction for the season. Many lack or won't develop samples that fit a range of bodies — so, when a model and their agent come into the equation near the end of the process, right before a collection makes its debut on the runway, it's a non-starter. The process varies from city to city and from brand to brand, but as Kennedy explains: "We can have every model of all sizes meet with every casting director, but that doesn't mean that there are the clothes for them to wear on a runway show. A lot of this really comes down to the clothes, and that's a decision made months ahead of time."
"Up until 2020, the only shows I had ever been cast in were commercial shows — never high fashion, fashion week shows," Lauren Frederick, a London-based model, tells Fashionista. "My first high-end show in Paris I didn't actually cast for — I was directly booked. Ultimately, I think it's down to the brand's creative director, and a lot of brands are still massively under-representing a diverse range of models. Mostly, if the brands are casting above sample size at all, they'll have the same four or five models for all shows, sometimes giving the one plus model two looks, which is interesting."
Over the years, we've seen brands play it safe when it comes to size-diverse casting by booking familiar faces for just about every show — Ashley Graham, Paloma Elsesser and Precious Lee, all three industry pioneers — leaving out a chunk of other, often newer talent who are struggling to find their way onto the runways. For Spring 2023, Graham walked at Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss, Matty Bovan and Balmain; Elsesser at Altuzarra, Eckhaus Latta, Marni, Gabriela Hearst, Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Michael Kors, Nguyen Inc., Nensi Dojaka, 16 Arlington, Andrea Adamo, Miaou and Chloé; and Lee at Fendi and Versace.
In New York, many brands — like Christian Siriano, Collina Strada, Eckhaus Latta, Tommy Hilfiger, Selkie — have made it a point to incorporate size-diverse casting into their presentations, but their European counterparts still lag far behind. Valentino, for example, was one of the few luxury houses to include a range of sizing for its Spring 2022 Haute Couture collection but opted not to showcase that vision at all this past season. What gives?
"There certainly seems to have been less of a splash when it comes to plus-size model appearances at fashion month," says Lauren Chan, a New York-based model (and former editor) who's been working on and off for the past decade and has her own fashion brand, Henning. "I think it was more sensational a few years ago and in my opinion, that's because those appearances were made up of top models — like Ashley Graham, Candice Huffine, Precious Lee, Paloma Elsesser — and those shows were for top designers, like Christian Siriano, Prabal Gurung, Versace and more. The press is more likely to cover Graham hitting the runway again at Balmain than it is to cover the largely diverse casting at Ester Manas, which had about 20 models above sample size."
When they co-founded JAG Models (which represents both Frederick and Chan) in 2013, Gary Dakin and Jaclyn Sarka created a space to represent the underrepresented. The duo went into the most recent fashion month with positivity and excitement, and while many of their models went to castings all over, the season ended up not being as prolific as they hoped.
"I think a lot of people are still scared because of Covid that they didn't want to think outside the box and put in more than one to two people over size 10," Sarka says. "We always tell our models to put their best foot forward and that they deserve to be at the table." Dakin adds: "But we also remind them that unfortunately, what happens after you leave that room is not up to you."
Mina White, a director for IMG Models in New York, oversees the careers of several of the agency's top talent and focuses on growing the company's leadership in size diversity, having worked with models like Graham, Elsseser, Tara Lynn and more. Since 2020, she argues, the industry has consistently been on a backslide.
"The industry has had such great momentum, visibility and conversation that's really being well-heard — and to be completely candid, I think that a lot of it now feels performative," White says, "like brands were looking to utilize the 'fat woman's dollar' by showing some size diversity and getting some new eyes into their stores, but not making everlasting change."
As a curvy woman herself, White was frustrated to see far less size diversity on the runway this season and that the designers who did cast more diversely relied mainly on the same few faces show after show.
"I really urge all designers to take this necessity for size diversity very seriously and to embrace these consumers, because many plus-size folks are still going out and buying accessories and their ancillary products like perfumes and cosmetics from luxury brands," White says. "I feel frustrated because they think that it's okay to take our money for products but not when it means that they have to dress them. The narrative needs to change and the understanding that bigger women have great taste and they like to look good, too."
In an industry worth more than $24 billion dollars, brands are capping their consumers after a certain size, but there's no excuse for these luxury houses to ignore such a huge market while their net worth tops millions every year.
Going forward, there's hope that conversations surrounding size inclusion will become a part of the everyday experience rather than plus-size bodies being sensationalized in headlines every fashion week.
"We should remember that the latter was always the goal, and we ask not to be a sensation, but instead to just feel like a natural part of the experience," Chan says.
"For the catwalk specifically, we're constantly demanding to see more, and we're being fed the same handful of models — they're all beautiful and great at their jobs, but there are so many plus models now," Augustine says. "I've seen the boards, I know the agents. They exist. Many of these models are insanely talented, but they're being overlooked or not considered at all, and it's truly an injustice. The industry has no problem mixing it up with the smaller models and insists on using the same handful for the runway. I can count on one hand how many shows I've seen in the past few years that had more than one plus model, if any."
"What frustrates me," Zack says, "is that there are a lot of brands that are getting so much recognition, but fake doing the work by not actually doing their research to actually fix the issue with sizing. But more than anything, it's tough when you put your whole heart and soul into something and you're not getting seen for what you're doing."
Despite this, many in the industry are optimistic that we're heading in the right direction, with these expectations for not only more size representation on the catwalks, but also in brand sizing in stores.
"Since we've opened this company, we've seen so much change, especially with agencies going from not representing anything over a size zero to huge agencies now having multiple plus size models," says Dakin. "We're thrilled that other agencies are finally doing the real work, the right work and just seeing all of these wins."
"In order to reflect the diversity of the world, we all can be agents of change," Kennedy says. "We can all do it in our personal and professional capacity all in different ways. Together, that push is so powerful. I have seen the modeling industry change in ways — and sometimes faster — than I ever thought it could so I know it is possible. We just have to work together and not forget when we're highlighting some of the systemic reasons why change might be difficult, that change is still possible."
He continues: "I want to see more opportunities for models of all sizes. But even greater than that, I want to see a world that's reflected in our industry, and we have so much power and so much reach, not just in America, but globally. That can have a huge impact on all types of people's self-image and self-esteem. I never looked for the runway to be an exact, life-like mirror — it's more about the space to dream and experiment — [but] everyone who's involved in this medium has an obligation to keep working to highlight different types of people."