On the Plus Side: Men’s Fashion Gets Extra

·7-min read
James Corbin is changing the face (and body) of men’s fashion | Benjamin Hampson (James Corbin is changing the face (and body) of men’s fashion | Benjamin Hampson)
James Corbin is changing the face (and body) of men’s fashion | Benjamin Hampson (James Corbin is changing the face (and body) of men’s fashion | Benjamin Hampson)

Oh, James Corbin. The 23-year-old boy from Brixton, a rising star in men’s modelling with a disarmingly cherubic mien and the kind of big, beautiful eyes that strike you like deep pools of joy and wisdom, is without doubt the most beautiful person I’ve ever met in real life — even if I found myself singing his name to the Jeremy Corbyn x Seven Nation Army mash-up. Perhaps it is all that revolutionary zeal: at 6ft 1in, with a pout that could launch an Ancient Greek armada, young Corbin is making waves as one of the few — indeed, only — plus-size male models in the luxury fashion game. ‘I genuinely want change,’ says Corbin, sitting at home in Kensal Rise. ‘I just want to have the full experience that a normal model would get and I feel like I deserve that. Plus-size people deserve that and we don’t deserve to feel that we’ve been robbed of those experiences. I really want to enjoy what I do because I love it.’ It’s about damn time.

Where are all the plus-size male models? Ashley Graham, the first ‘curve’ female supermodel, can earn $5.5m (£4.75m) in a year, making her a trailblazer for fellow plus-size supes Tess Holliday, Yumi Nu and Precious Lee. Yet the body-positivity movement has hardly moved a whisker in the menswear world. True, there’s hirsute New Yorker Zach Miko, 32, the face of IMG Models’ ‘Brawn’ division, who burst on to the scene in 2016 at 6ft 6in with a 40in waist, regularly scooping the likes of glossy Dolce & Gabbana shoots. There’s agency Bridge’s Raul Samuel, 6ft with a 49in chest and 44in waist, whom you may remember being plastered all over the Tube in BoohooMAN campaigns.

But compared to the women, ‘it’s like Sunday league football versus the Barclays Premier League,’ says Ben James, 30. He is among ‘the busiest models in the industry from a commercial point of view’, having worked with Burton, Ted Baker and Asos. But it is an exhausting grind. In a good year, he says, ‘you’ll do between £30k and £60k, if you’re lucky’, otherwise ‘you’ll pick up scraps’ — feast or famine. That’s about the average salary for men in the industry — although James says he had to work furiously to compete with standard-size models by working all over Denmark, France, Germany, Norway — ‘commercial, ecomm, that kind of stuff’. If you look at a main-range male model, he says, ‘they would probably pick that up without even leaving the M62 corridor’.

As for luxury, pickings are even slimmer: just seven out of 77 brands across last year’s autumn/winter collections featured plus-size male models, according to analysis by Vogue. And, let’s face it, it is nice to be seen. Flabby boys like me packing too much gut and butt may long to dress in this season’s hottest lewks, but have a hard time mentally squeezing ourselves into what waifs like Timothée Chalamet are sashaying down the runway. That’s where Corbin comes in. Scouting him for Supa Model Management, which now has six plus-size male models on its books, two years ago, Corbin’s agent Charlie Clark-Perry immediately ‘thought he was the most beautiful human I had ever seen’, insisting Corbin’s influence will be on a par with that of Pat Cleveland or Alek Wek.

Corbin was spotted by a fashion photographer on Instagram ‘by chance’, who encouraged him to send headshots into agencies such as Supa. It has been a whirlwind: shooting for Valentino, Charles Jeffrey, Tim Walker, a campaign for Levi’s and his first cover for Katie Grand’s Perfect magazine, then walking the runway for Tommy Hilfiger in 2021 alongside Winnie Harlow and Erin O’Connor. Naomi Campbell is a fan, dropping by his Instagram account to leave words of encouragement (they met at the Tommy show). ‘I was always motivated with a desire to have a diverse range of talent,’ says Clark-Perry (his books include men in their 70s, trans and non-binary superstars like Casil and Aries Moross, and plus-size trailblazers such as Corbin). But ‘seeing yourself as beautiful is not in the culture of men’, he says. That makes scouting plus-sizes difficult. ‘It’s much harder for them to get their head around it.’

Often, the argument from fashion execs runs that plus-size apparel simply doesn’t present the same opportunities in menswear as it does in women’s, which, frankly, rings untrue to everyone I speak to. And some cranks argue that plus-size modelling glorifies obesity, but Corbin, who works out six times a week and runs marathons to boot, calls this out. ‘We assume health when we think thinner, but you’ve got to wonder what those parameters for health are.’ If you look at athletes like heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, he’s one of the fittest men in boxing with one of ‘the worst dad bods’. Or ‘look at bouts between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. You have a muscle-bound god who looks like he’s been made by a sculpture from Ancient Athens, then you have a chubby little Mexican guy who looks like he’s just here for a good time. And he cleaned him out within seven rounds.’

Times, however, are now changing. In 2020, Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty cast plus-size model Steven G (Green) for a men’s lingerie launch campaign. The collection sold out in 12 hours. It was Green’s first modelling job. Since then, he has worked with Nike, Adidas and Lululemon, as well as tools brand Haimer, which collaborated with Polo Ralph Lauren. Corbin, who struggled with body confidence, tells me he decided only to try modelling after reading about Zach Miko — same build, same weight. He’d had a ‘couple of bottles of wine’, googled ‘how to become a model, took a few digitals [photos] in my bedroom upstairs, uploaded them using [Miko’s] hashtags and got three agency offers the next day’.

Clark-Perry wants to see Corbin walk at Fendi or Versace. ‘They’re the ones that need to step up now. They’re the ones that need to really start actually showing that they can do something different and that they can tailor these clothes and make them look beautiful on different bodies, that they’re not just one-trick ponies just putting stuff on skinny kids.’ He recalls a call from an undisclosed major luxury brand following a fitting with Corbin, asking for another plus-size model because the ‘clothes were too tight’. He replied, ‘If the sample is too tight, you’re not making plus-size clothes.’ Clark-Perry now won’t send a model to a casting or fitting without assurances that the clothes are suitable.

Such oversights stick in the craw. ‘The reason brands aren’t seeing much success in the plus-size range is that they’re not marketing it in a way that is aspirational or sexy,’ says Corbin. As for the luxury top end? ‘It’s a class thing. We associate class with being thin and that kind of stuff. And that’s the last market we’ll ever see any movement in.’ He says he had terrible body confidence until he began modelling. As a child, he internalised a lot of criticism from family. ‘If somebody called me fat, I felt I deserved to be silenced. I used to say really negative things to myself. And I’d avoid mirrors. I’d wear a lot of black.’ He just wanted to feel ‘like, you know, attractive to other people, handsome. I was tired of comments. Over time, it’s something I’ve had to unlearn.’

Now, he can recognise his beauty. ‘I realised what I do can change people’s lives,’ says Corbin. ‘If people are able to walk into stores and see clothes in their size on the rack, it makes such a big difference to the way people see and accept themselves. Moving forward as a society, my image is meant to open the door for many young people to walk behind me once I’ve got there. They’ll be able to see somebody who looks like me, represented like that in full glory and confidence.’ There is, he says, some way to go. ‘I would say the door is cracked open and it needs to be kicked open. And that’s what we’re working on, kicking that door open.’