The women come, as requested, wrapped in black spandex. As each one enters, she is waved into a hallway where she takes a seat and waits to be called.
By day, one is a lab technician. Another does background checks for a government contractor. There’s a recent graduate of Oberlin College and a hairdresser from Woodbridge.
But they all share one ambition: to be a plus-size model.
And by plus-size, they mean the average size of an American woman: a size 14, not a size 8, which the fashion industry counts as plus-size for its models.
The event was a model call at the Cleveland Park Library in the District organized by the Ivie Rose online boutique for plus-size women.
Jene Pheney, 33, is the first to arrive. She takes a seat against the far wall, near her cousin, who had urged her to come. Pheney is a mom of two teenagers and handles park and recreation permits for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. She wears almost no makeup and a denim vest that shows off her tattoo-adorned upper arms. She says shyly that she has never done anything like this before.
The two other early contenders, who arrive fully made up, armed with professional photos, look like daunting competition.
One of the women with the photos, Paris Allen, 27, has been to modeling school and walked runways for local designers. Ditto for Tyree Word, 29, who has worked D.C. Fashion Week.
They sound like weary veterans.
“It’s all about hard work,” Word says. “You have to practice your craft. It’s not just about being pretty. It’s about your posture, your personality, your attitude.”
But the real test for the six participants — 50 or so other women participated in the model call online — comes as each stands alone in front of the long table in the center of the room.
Behind the table sits Tiffany Brown of Herndon, a co-owner with her sister, Sherra, of the trendy Ivie Rose. Brown is flanked by her two intern-stylists, Cherrelle Alexander and Yinka Bello, known simply as Bella.
What followed was familiar to anyone who has watched an episode of “America’s Next Top Model.”
“We’re going to have you walk for us,” Brown says.
Alexander cues up “Tom Ford” by Jay Z on her phone at top volume, as Bella holds up three fingers then counts down.
As each woman struts toward the table, Bella grades her on a scale of one to five and scribbles comments, such as “nice body” and “walk needs work.”
After the walk comes the talk.
All of the women appear aware that they are part of a trend. Plus-size fashion is one of the fastest-growing segments of the apparel industry. In the past four years, trendy labels such as Forever 21 and American Apparel have expanded into plus sizes. Women spent $17 billion last year on plus-size clothing, according to market research firm NPD Group. And plus-size models have turned up on the cover of Vogue and in ad campaigns for Ralph Lauren.
One of the reasons that plus-size fashion is becoming more mainstream is that the models can be easier to relate to. And the women who were vying for a spot on Team Thick, as the Ivie Rose models call themselves, have had their share of life experiences.
“Tell us about yourself” elicits life stories from the participants. Pheney talks about surviving an abusive relationship. Allen says she moved to Washington to help her mother deal with cancer. Several of them are single moms.
There are two standard responses to “Who is your fashion icon?”
“Beyoncé, of course,” or “Rihanna.” There was a slightly embarrassed reference to Nicki Minaj.
Pheney would have been glad to know that she emerged as a favorite. Bella bestows on her that ultimate fashionista compliment: “She’s edgy.”
But some things in fashion never change.Brown decides that the most promising model is a 23-year-old who came in five-inch heels. “The rest of them,” she says, “are too old.”