1% of plus size models walked the catwalk during the latest spring-summer 2024 collections. Four specialists take stock of the ‘body positive’ trend.
But what happened in 2023? Five years ago, clothing houses assessed their castings and opened the way to more diversity. Women’s magazines showed lingerie campaigns worn by women with gray hair or generous hips, revealing wrinkles and stretch marks. And then suddenly: nothing.
To present their autumn-winter 2023 and spring-summer 2024 collections, the brands opted for slim, even slender bodies. Protruding collarbones at Gucci, hollow cheeks at Ann Demeulemeester, ultra-thin legs at Celine, the tone has been set: skinny bodies are back on the catwalks.
“No brand at LVMH has included a plus-size model in its casting and at Kering only two brands have done so: Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga,” said Albane Desazars de Montgailhard, fashion insights analyst at Tagwalk.
A few turns and off they go
Between 2007 and 2015, several French laws banned fashion organizations from hiring models with a body mass index lower than 18.5. In 2017, rival groups LVMH and Kering agreed for the first time to design a charter dedicated to the well-being and health of male and female models. According to Franceinfo, the hashtag #Bodypositive became one of the most popular on social networks in 2018, with 6 million occurrences on Instagram.
From then on, the fashion shows saw the appearance of models with more generous curves such as Paloma Elsesser, Precious Lee, Jill Kortleve (despite her small 40), or Ashley Graham, who walked with their silhouettes on the catwalks of Jacquemus, Michael Kors, Alexander. McQueen, Mugler, Balmain, Fendi.
For its May 2018 issue, Vogue UK magazine published a cover story illustrating heterogeneous models from diverse ethnic backgrounds. More selective than its English cousin, American Vogue waits two years before putting singer Lizzo on the cover for the first time, in September 2020.
“It’s dramatic. We’ve been through two and a half years of awareness of inclusivity in fashion. The awareness was really very minimal. At least on the catwalks it wasn’t a revolution, but we saw plus size models like Paloma Elsesser and Precious Lee, who paraded much more than other women. And in this spring-summer 2024 season, these women have disappeared from the catwalks,” explains Dinah Sultan, stylist and trend forecaster at Peclers, Paris.
After fashion shows and campaigns full of hope, the sector is being defined and making way for the heroin-chic aesthetic. A trend that became popular between the 1990s and 2000, of which model Kate Moss was the figurehead because of her petite silhouette (which earned her the name twig) but also her addiction problems.
Sleekness, the winning recipe for luxury
Today, luxury ready-to-wear is returning to its conservative codes. This is evident from the Quiet Luxury and Y2K trends, the first inviting discreet luxury and the second reviving the fashion of the 2000s. An era when designers preferred slim bodies to showcase their low-cut jeans and cropped tops.
“I think fashion and luxury have a habit of not questioning themselves. In any case, the reference of fashion and the model in fashion is thinness and that will always remain thinness. As long as there is no global paradigm shift, fashion will always return to what comforts it, namely thin bodies wearing clothes,” adds Dinah Sultan.
In short, the luxury industry has everything to gain by choosing exclusivity over inclusivity in its fashion shows. By making bodies that are far removed from reality wear clothes, fashion adds an added value to its creations: that of inaccessibility.
“It has always been this tension that makes luxury work. Also for this reason, the accessory categories (shoes and leather goods) are very important parts of luxury, because for once there is inclusivity, because anyone can buy a bag, regardless of its morphotype. The same goes for beauty products. Customers excluded by clothing will therefore return to luxury through other entry points,” continued Dinah Sultan.
“Fashion parades for show, for the press, for brand image […]. It really doesn’t reflect reality,” explains Louis-Michel Deck, managing director of Siegel & Stockman, a manufacturer of busts for sewing studios since 1867.
Impression of elegance and fluidity
For designers too, the dominance of slim silhouettes makes their creations easier to read, as Asia, booking manager, and Sandy, PR manager at Square Models Agency in Lausanne, explain: “It is true that the fashion industry has long associated fashion brings to models with slim silhouettes, it appears that the height and dimensions of models play an essential role in the presentation of fashion creations. Models are often seen as a universal canvas. They optimally accentuate the lines and textures of clothing. Their slim bodies allow designers to present their designs without distortion, creating an impression of elegance and fluidity. It may not represent universal physics, but we’re in!’
To find bodies you can identify with, you have to go to the mass market, which now prefers to include plus sizes in their range rather than offering a specific range.
“For example, H&M removed its Plus Size brand, just as Mango did with its Violetta brand,” recalls Dinah Sultan. In fact, they’ve done something that, to me, is much smarter: integrating the larger size into their current collections. It doesn’t necessarily affect all clothes, but nowadays, and even at Zara, there are double XL, triple XL […]. I think the promise is reasonably fulfilled in what we expect from the mass market today.”
On the luxury side, the road to inclusivity is still long, even though we see designers like Ester Manas making plus sizes a signature.
“We see a positive development with certain brands, but especially with emerging designers such as Karoline Vitto, whose casting consisted of 100% plus-size models. […].
In summary, significant progress has been made regarding the inclusion of plus-size models in the industry. However, work still needs to be done for this to become a general standard,” concludes Albane Desazars de Montgailhard.
Was it better in the past?
Like the top models of the 90s, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, despite their subtle curves, embodied a certain image of the healthy girl – at least on the catwalks. Their spectacular appearance, which overshadowed the stylists’ clothes, was soon replaced by slimmer and, above all, anonymous models.
Where does the cult of thinness come from?
Thin bodies appeared in fashion at the beginning of the 20th century. A period coinciding with the sale of finished clothing produced by department stores (which appeared in the 19th century). In 1920, the arrival of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel changed the aesthetic codes of the female body. So much so that her clients will try to be as ‘skinny’ as the designer, which Dinah Sultan confirms: ‘The shapeless body was really deployed in those years and was even further explored when ready-to-wear came along in the 1950s. ”
For the first time, fashion designer Christian Dior presents his ready-to-wear collection in the United States with the promise of dressing his customers without having to go through the tailoring process.
“To create this ready-to-wear clothing, there was a need to standardize the sizes and gradations of clothing, and therefore also the making of patterns. It happened more, I would say, because of a need for industrialization than because of a specific designer,” continues Dinah Sultan.
In the same spirit as these predecessors, Yves Saint Laurent also imposes a slim silhouette to present his collections. “And we cannot ignore the most important opinion leaders of the time, often actresses or singers, who really helped establish this physical standard in the eyes of all women,” adds Dinah Sultan. The influence of the women’s press developed from the 1970s onwards.
“Of course there was Vogue, but we could see, for example, Biba appearing, which I think reinforced this idea that all women’s bodies have to respond to commands, which are all the same,” concludes Dinah Sultan.
The model recruitment scandal in a refugee camp in Kenya
In October 2023, the Sunday times highlighted the shocking actions of an international modeling agency called Select. The latter went to the refugee camp of Kakuma, a town in Turkana province in Kenya, to select new faces intended to parade during fashion weeks.
The problem? After a few months without securing a promising contract, a large number of these hopefuls were forcibly repatriated to their countries of origin without explanation. As a result, debts owed to the agency are almost impossible to repay, which also prevents them from signing new contracts that will allow them to earn an income.
Offensive behavior exposed by Achol Malual Jau, a 23-year-old South Sudanese model, from whom the agency is demanding almost €3,000 to cover the costs of her trip to Europe. This experience mirrors the journey of Mari Malek, another South Sudanese model and former refugee.
Now based in New York, the young woman founded the organization Runways To Freedom. With the slogan ‘We are not a trend’, the association defends and supports vulnerable models who fall prey to the injustices of the profession.
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