Since she was in the sixth grade, Lillian Bustle had always been a size 18 or over. She wore jeans and loose-fitting t-shirts to conceal her body from judgmental eyes, and she felt alienated by the stereotypical size zero figures she saw in ads and magazines.
“I sort of felt like the fashion world was not for me at all,” Bustle said. “It’s only been recently that I felt that I could find things that made me feel good all the time and look good at the same time.”
Now Bustle has never been more comfortable with her clothes, as designers are slowly beginning to cater to plus-size women. Wearing ombre cat-eye frames the same shade as her leopard print dress, she was one of more than a hundred guests crammed on the third floor of a 14th Street building last Friday for designer Mallorie Dunn’s fashion show, SmartGlamour, an inclusive clothing brand that employs plus-size models on its runways.
“It’s so inspiring to see a representation of so many people that you don’t normally see on the runway, and it made my heart really big,” said Bustle, a burlesque performer.
A day after the official end of New York Fashion Week, Dunn released her latest collection online with items from sizes XXS to 6X. Last month, her online campaign, #ImFlattered, went viral, presenting plus-size women in tummy-baring tops and skin-tight dresses – clothes that are typically deemed unfit for full-figured women to wear.
“We do campaigns in between our collections to just help further along the message that we’re trying to get across,” Dunn said. “Instead of it being about, ‘Oh, this makes my body look a certain way,’ it is about, ‘I feel good in this,’ and that’s the only thing that matters.”
The movement toward body positivity, no matter one’s size, has grown markedly within the last year. Ten-year-old designer Ify Ufele created Chubii Line, a plus-size label featured in an exclusive event during fashion week. Singer Beth Ditto launched her 11-piece plus-size clothing collection less than two weeks ago. And Ashley Graham became the first plus-size model to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in 52 years.
“Yea, one for the curvy team!” SmartGlamour model Jenna Rusnak, who is also plus size, said about Graham’s spread. “I think that we’re slowly making our mark, and I think it’s time; we’re here to stay.”
It’s not as if fashion retailers recently discovered selling clothing for plus-size women. Companies such as ModCloth, Lane Bryant and Ashley Stewart have been stocking blouses, pants and dresses up to size 26 for years.
But the market remains a missed opportunity. A ModCloth study last year revealed that 77 percent of plus-size women said they have trouble finding clothes that fit them and 81 percent said they would spend more on clothes if they had more options in their size. According to research company NPD Group, the plus-size industry from sizes 18 and up was worth $17.5 billion in 2014, yet many retailers avoid the demographic for fear that profits won’t equal the investment.
Despite Dunn and others like her, the Fashion Spot’s biannual runway diversity report revealed that plus-size women represented only 0.1 percent – 14 in number – of model appearances during New York Fashion Week. The lack of body diversity on catwalks and widespread photographs of skinny models underpin the idea that thinness is parallel to beauty.
Some designers have started using at least one plus-size model in their runway shows, making headlines that have contributed to the movement. For his latest line, Marc Jacobs, for example, invited Ditto to walk the runway of his spring 2016 show alongside supermodels Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner.
Dunn, the designer, said that this strategy, however, does not help plus-size women because it merely parades them and doesn’t provide clothing alternatives. At SmartGlamour’s show, women of all shapes and sizes – from petite to amputee – shared the catwalk, and Dunn allowed the models to keep the clothes they wore that night.
“I don’t think that it’s necessarily just plus-size models that need to be recognized. It’s all body types,” Dunn said. “I think that the media and fashion shows and every ad should represent what we see every day because that’s real life and that’s beautiful.”