What Does Ashley Graham’s Fame Mean For “Plus-Size” Fashion?
08.09.17

Supermodel Ashley Graham is the cover star of New York Magazine’s September fashion issue. She is photographed crouching, sphinx-like, in a leopard-print coat, leopard-print bustier, leopard-print pillbox hat and black high-waist underwear. An iconic style moment in the making.

A few days after the cover was revealed, Business of Fashion broke the news that, as of next month, luxury e-commerce platform 11 Honoré will be selling designer ready-to-wear pieces in sizes 10 to 20 by designers such as Prabal Gurung, Monique Lhuillier, Brandon Maxwell, Christian Siriano, Michael Kors, Tome and Zac Posen.

These back-to-back developments are noteworthy in that they check frequently-ignored boxes in the fashion industry: 1) a non-sample size model appearing on the September cover of a major publication in a shoot that actually shows off her body, and 2) a luxury retailer actually providing size 10-20 women with the same fashion options available to the straight-size set. It makes me wonder: Is plus-size fashion — a category in consumer culture used to cater to shoppers above the size range of 0-12, but which ought to just be defined as fashion — finally, finally, finally becoming more mainstream?

I asked a few women in the industry to weigh in.

Plus-size fashion is becoming more ‘mainstream’ in that more of it actually exists,” says Kellie Brown of And I Get Dressed, which she describes as, “A plus-size fashion blog for women of all sizes.” “Ashley Graham is stunning, but she’s also a unicorn. A firm and fit supermodel body is only one example of a plus-size body. In addition to increased visibility around different body types, size-inclusivity across different brands is equally important. I want to buy the same clothes my friends are buying at Zara. It seems simple, but it’s not. I feel like I’m lodging the same complaint over and over again: Don’t dumb down my fashion, whether accessible or luxury — because I’m super smart.”

Cover photo by Maurizio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari

Fellow style blogger Katie Sturino of The 12ish Style, has similar praise for Graham’s cover story; however, she finds certain aspects of media reporting around these topics problematic. Having recently launched Megababe, a collection of anti-chafing products, she’s experienced this firsthand.

“I think the people who are writing these stories in the media, and the people who are heading up these brands or retailers that are starting to offer plus-size apparel, are rarely plus-size themselves, so they don’t personally speak the language. We actually had someone write an article about Megababe’s anti-chafe stick, and it was very clear that she had never experienced thigh-chafing herself, so she didn’t totally understand what any of the products do, and that’s kind of a metaphor for what’s happening overall. It’s great that brands are finally taking advantage of the size-inclusive market and publishers are reporting on it, but women with first-hand experience still need to be informing some of those decisions, not to mention shaping the narrative.”

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I mentioned how I found it telling that, even though Graham’s profile was beautifully-written and photographed, the focus of the story was still her otherness. The text below Graham’s bold name on the cover reads, “AHEAD OF THE CURVES.” It’s couched in the same language and the same narrative framework so often used to tell the story of a “nonconforming body.” “Yes,” agreed Katie. “Even though ‘plus-size’ is the norm in terms of the actual average body, it’s still a novelty in the fashion industry, which is why that same narrative keeps getting retold.”

I tapped brand strategist and creative consultant Nicolette Mason, who recently teamed up with blogger Gabi Gregg to launch Premme, a brand that tailors to sizes 12 through 30. Without diminishing the worthwhileness of Graham’s success, Mason pointed out that the wheels of her career trajectory are greased by virtue of the fact that she is on the smaller end of what the industry defines as “plus.”

Photo by Maurizio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari

“I love seeing Ashley celebrated and acknowledged by the industry, but I often wonder what it would look like to have a multitude of sizes representing all categories in fashion. Especially in the plus-size segment, we rarely see models larger than a size 12 or 14, and that is something that needs to change. I also think the conversation right now is overwhelmingly focused on fashion but rarely addresses issues of intersectionality or discrimination. By that I mean that the models who are centered in this conversation are almost all white or light skinned, ‘well-proportioned,’ cis, able-bodied… What would it look like to add more diversity to that representation?”

The issue of representation is important to Graham, too, and she is careful to recognize her advantages. “I know I’m on this pedestal because of white privilege,” she tells New York Magazine. “To not see black or Latina women as famous in my industry is crazy! I have to talk about it. I want to give those women kudos because they are the ones who paved the way for me.”

Like most complex issues tied up in consumerist agendas, shifting social norms and actual human beings, with bodies and voices that have historically been put down or even erased, the push for more visibility around women of all shapes and sizes in the fashion industry is a slow-moving battle, albeit a critical one. Progress should be celebrated, including New York Magazine’s cover and 11 Honoré’s expansion in size offering, but not without acknowledging the work that has already been done — both by those who are granted visibility and those who are not — or the work that remains unfinished.

Photos by Maurizio Cattelan & Pierpaolo Ferrari for New York Magazine.

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