Fashion: Full Figured Fashion Week draws plus-size crowd

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; C01

NEW YORK -- In the chaos of yellow cabs and black Town Cars that clog the street in front of the Hotel Pennsylvania, a young woman, belted into a black jersey skirt and tunic, emerges from a double-parked vehicle. As she cuts her way through a thicket of confused tourists, three facts are evident.

One: She moves with grace and confidence. The self-assured woman, it turns out, is a model named Rosie Mercado, which leads to fact two: She is stunning -- head-swiveling stunning, a genetic mash-up of Jennifer Lopez and Nicole Scherzinger.

And finally: Mercado is large. She is a super-size woman whose size-20-something hips are almost as wide as the door frame through which they pass.

This last bit is not a judgment, but a fact. And if American culture made that distinction, Mercado and other plus-size women say, everyone would be better off.

Mercado was the face of the second Full Figured Fashion Week, a late June convergence of designers, retailers, bloggers and activists who descended on this earth-tone hotel abutting Penn Station to discuss the fashion desires of women who are plus-size, curvy, thick, voluptuous or fat -- all adjectives the participants embrace.

For those who live and work within the plus-size community, FFFW served as a safe space for both defiant anger and group jubilation. Pretty clothes, and who gets to wear them, functioned as the lingua franca for a multi-layered conversation about self-esteem, health, politics and power.

In the past two years, a vigorous storm has been kicked up among plus-size women and their advocates. It has been fueled by a fashion industry that continues to discriminate, an ambivalent popular culture and a weight-conscious, fitness-focused White House that together have delivered a singularly mixed message to the obese: Be happy and proud of who you are. Who you are is not good.

"It shouldn't be about obesity, but it always comes back to that," says Michele Weston, a plus-size fashion consultant and founding fashion director of the groundbreaking Mode magazine. "That's what people see."

The Internet is pulsating with blogs giving voice to frustrations, as well as offering positive reinforcement, health advice and style information. Some read like mini-seminars in women's studies. Some are filled with humor. Still others are personal boast pages in which the creators publicly declare themselves fat and fabulous -- and await reader affirmation. They do not have to wait long.

The women have little desire to be slender. They are uninterested in preventative weight loss to stave off diabetes, high blood pressure or any other disease linked to obesity. Some are even unconvinced that their weight predisposes them to such conditions.

They do not want clothes that make them look thinner. If another designer offers up a slimming wrap dress or some swimsuit that promises to make them look 10 pounds lighter, the situation could turn ugly. They want Fashion. Fun, fast and disposable or luxurious, glamorous and sexy. If a trendy silhouette makes them look bigger, so what? As they see it, big isn't bad. Besides, they are big.

"People think every plus-size woman is yearning to lose weight. We have body imperfections the same way other women do, but we feel great about ourselves," says New York-based designer Monif Clarke, who showed her sportswear collection in the week's finale runway presentation. "People are willing to call themselves fat. I was talking and I said to my boyfriend, 'Fat girls like me . . . .' I might be fat, I still want to look great."

Accept them or not. Just don't block their hustle.

This is not a tipping point in the long struggle to change how the broader culture views plus-size women. There hasn't been a seismic shift toward acceptance. Instead, this is an angry moment -- a mad-as-hell, give-me-my-jeggings-and-stop-telling-me-to-lose-weight moment.

It's the rise of the "fatshionista."

The big breakthrough

How did it all begin? It's hard to pinpoint the moment a wind begins to blow, but the fashion unrest became obvious in 2009, when apple-shaped singer Beth Ditto posed naked on the cover of the British pop culture magazine Love and was declared a style icon by both the mainstream fashion industry and the plus-size community. That same year, Glamour was lionized for publishing a modest image of a nude model with a belly roll.

This year, rotund, Oscar-nominated actress Gabourey Sidibe's talent, self-confidence and effervescence propelled her into edgy fashion magazines -- her absence from the Vanity Fair starlet edition notwithstanding. Designer Mark Fast hired curvy mannequins for his London catwalk presentation, and unlike the last time he did so, no one had a hissy fit about working with plus-size models. The voluptuous Crystal Renn has seen her stock rise as the fashion industry reassesses its use of emaciated models.

And now, on Day 3 of FFFW, dozens of large-size women are gathered for a conversation about everything from the gaps in the plus-size lacy lingerie market to the need for more large-size club clothes that are short, tight and deliciously inappropriate.

"We are sexy, sexual beings, and so often designers are only creating work clothes," says comedian Erica Watson, whose show is called "Fat Bitch!"

Of the half-dozen women leading the discussions, all were large-size except one: designer Yuliya Raquel. The owner of Igigi, a San Francisco-based clothing company, is of medium height and build.

But in many ways, she was the hero in the room because she has brought the rare combination of a custom-dressmaker's technical skill and a fashion aficionado's creativity to a line of clothing that ranges from size 12 to 32. The strapless wedding gown she presented in the finale show was an elegant mix of fairy-tale embroidery and sophisticated sex appeal. Raquel founded her company 10 years ago, she says, after a shopping trip with her plus-size mother left her stunned and depressed by the limited options.

Since then, she has learned that it's more expensive to design for plus-size customers -- and not merely because a size 22 requires more fabric than a size 4. The process is more labor-intensive. Larger women all carry their extra weight differently -- in the hips, in the bustline, in the belly. That must be accounted for in the designs. And the patterns can't be systematically graded upward.

"When you create a garment for size 6 or 8, the ratio of shoulders to bust and hip are fairly constant," Raquel says. "If you take that pattern and try to grade it up for a plus-size woman, you have a shoulder fitting a football player. A woman doesn't grow that way. The shoulders stay the same."

Since Raquel launched her collection, the overall offerings have improved dramatically. Still, the selection of fashion-forward merchandise isn't keeping up with demand. Consider that almost half of black women are obese, as are about one-third of white women and Hispanic women. The average American woman wears a 14.

Yet Lane Bryant, the Goliath retailer offering sizes 14-28, believes its customer is most concerned with comfort, then fit and finally style. "She's not there on the cutting edge of fashion," says President Brian Woolf. "She might be a year behind."

Don't let the fatshionistas hear you say that, buddy.

"The plus-size customer is not like everyone; she is everyone," counters Stephanie Sobel, president of, a virtual mall for plus-size customers and a division of the same French conglomerate that owns Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga. "Sometimes she wants investment clothes; sometimes she wants the hottest fad."

They want rock star mini-dresses, bohemian maxi-dresses and, yes, jeggings -- the Dr. Frankenstein splicing of jeans and leggings.

To answer that call, the plus-size market is beginning to adopt more of a fun, fashion-first attitude. Ditto created a line -- heavy on '80s glamour -- for the British plus-size retailer Evans. And companies such as Forever 21, famous for its cheap takes on designer style, have expanded their size ranges. Trend hunters for the plus-size market scour Europe for ideas.

Clarke, who launched her Monif C. collection five years ago, has been the go-to designer for plus-size women looking for figure-hugging, sexy clothes. She works out of a 300-square-foot, white-walled space on the 10th floor of one of the many nondescript towers in Manhattan's Garment District. Mounted on the wall just above a long rack of clothes is a row of magazine covers: Glamour, InStyle, Essence. They have all featured Clarke's work, which makes her a rarity. Clarke has broken through the size divide.

On a steamy Friday afternoon, she's wearing one of her distinctive looks for spring: a body-conscious jersey maxi-dress in a lava-lamp print with navy insets at the bodice and a hey-baby neckline. One of her signatures this season is a convertible dress made of heavy jersey that highlights every curve and gives a woman no place to hide any insecurities about being called fat.

Only the self-confident need cross her threshold. And there is a line. At the head of it is Heather Sells, a tall, tanned brunette from Nashville with a voluptuous Christina Hendricks figure. She is given a lesson in stylish swaddling by Clarke's right-hand man, Brandon Coates. Sells chooses a floor-length version in pumpkin orange and declares it perfect for a football game.

Plus-size politics

For decades, a community of rebels has lobbied society for fat acceptance. They've taken Seventh Avenue and Madison Avenue to task for adopting such narrow definitions of beauty that they barely allow size 12s into high fashion's glossy inner sanctum. These folks claimed a modest victory in 1997, when Mode launched. Until its demise in 2001, it was the aspirational style manual for which so many large-size ladies had longed. Nothing comparable has replaced it.

After 13 years of specializing in large-size fashion events and being a frustrated shopper, Gwen DeVoe, a tall, zaftig African American former model, created FFFW.

"After attending a lot of different events, it became painfully obvious that two huge things were missing: I was looking at clothes that didn't fit me, and on models who didn't look like me," DeVoe says. "What I'm trying to do is bridge the gap between consumers and designers. To let them know that they have other choices beyond what's on the Internet and in catalogues."

During FFFW, models dashed around the city for last-minute fittings; designers obsessed about finding the right accessories; and catwalks were prepped. But buyers from Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue weren't nestled shoulder-to-shoulder in the front rows looking for the next great thing. The dominant fashion glossies didn't dispatch teams of editors. If there was any medium that was courted, it was the bloggers. FFFW was operating on its own terms.

Lane Bryant, one of the week's sponsors, brought in two dozen bloggers "to talk to us about the plus-size customer and whether she has been discriminated against," Woolf says. Many had been especially outraged when Lane Bryant recently ran into roadblocks trying to buy airtime on Fox and ABC for a lingerie commercial. What did the network suits have against plus-size cleavage? Eventually, the company settled on a time slot with Fox but not with ABC.

The company, however, is in a quandary over whether it should step into the current cultural contretemps. "We are a retailer, a business. It's not in our DNA to lead a cause. But it's a topic of conversation: Should we be doing more?" Woolf says.

Making more fashion, perhaps. A generation of plus-size women does not want to wait until it loses weight to get the clothes it covets. For most of these women, weight loss isn't on their agenda. In fact, when comedian Watson admits to having signed on with celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels, gasps of dismay whoosh across the FFFW audience.

Michaels' s bullying ways on "The Biggest Loser" have led more than one blogger to accuse her of fat hatred. Golda Poretsky posted an entire confessional on her blog from a former contestant who described her experience on the show as emotionally demeaning and physically damaging. Poretsky is a plus-size woman who has called a personal moratorium on weight loss and has become a body acceptance evangelist: "The concept of health at every size, connecting with your hunger, [loving] your body, those types of behaviors are healthier for people than the dieting paradigm we're in."

Television has given rise to a whole genre of reality shows that some characterize as fat porn: "The Biggest Loser," "Dance Your Ass Off," "Ruby" and a host of TLC mini-documentaries about the morbidly obese. "You're shaming fat people on television," Clarke says. "This is not okay.

"Sure, they sign up for it, and I don't want to make it sound like I'm being negative about their choices, but if you've been made to feel ashamed about yourself for so long . . . they feel like their lives don't start until they lose this weight," Clarke says. "The only perspective represented is: Fat is bad."

What some currently see as the most distressing assault on their dignity is first lady Michelle Obama with her fight against childhood obesity.

"I'm really appalled at the first lady's campaign. I think it will do more harm than good," says Linda Bacon, author of "Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight." "I applaud her for some of the specific programs, but when it's done in the name of obesity, it's going to backfire on her."

Bacon was one of about a dozen researchers and authors who signed a letter to Obama voicing concern that her emphasis on weight was stigmatizing a population rather than dealing with the broader health issues. "I think it's great for kids to have a better connection to their food," Bacon says. But by focusing on weight, "you're teaching kids that they did something wrong to get the body they have."

The women do not dismiss decades of scientific research on obesity, but they are distrustful of the conclusions as well as the methodology. They know they exercise; they feel healthy. One young woman shared that she was a vegan and has always been a big girl. Mostly, however, they argue that everyone should eat better and move more -- not just the overweight. So why point a finger at fat people?

So stop telling them to lose weight. And start shipping this fall's minimalist coats, sexy pantsuits and belted Prada-style dresses in size 14 and upward. They don't want your condemnation, but they don't need your approval. As one size-24 woman with a cascade of dark hair and Hollywood sunglasses shouted out to her plus-size comrades, "I have always been fabulous."

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