Why Aren't Fashion Schools Cultivating More Plus-Size Designers?

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For many women who aren’t sample-sized, myself included, we’ve been robbed of the chance to feel badass about our fashion choices, because it's a struggle to find trendy clothing in our sizes. Finally, some retailers and designers are committed to designing for curvy figures, and, thus, are beginning to cater to fashion demands of the 67% of American women that are a size 14 or above. When Melissa McCarthy debuted her own size-inclusive line, she stressed the importance of tailoring and of making clothes that actually fit women size 12 and up instead of drowning their shapes (while also calling out the dismal real estate that plus-size sections tend to take up in department stores). Lane Bryant continues to offer fresh, on-trend plus-fashion by collaborating with designers like Isabel Toledo, Lela Rose, and Christian Siriano. The latter has taken an inclusive approach to design for his eponymous line since launching, on both the red carpet and the runway, where he’s featuring increasingly larger proportions of plus-size models on the catwalk with recent subsequent seasons. The most diverse options for fuller figures continue to be found on the websites of online plus-fashion retailers like Eloquii and SimplyBe, the former of which extended up to a size 28 two years ago in response to customer feedback.
Aside from current retail offerings, the training grounds for tomorrow’s crop of designers — a.k.a. fashion schools — should also be catering to an array of silhouettes. That could mean having classrooms stocked with mannequins bearing larger dimensions, or creating courses that specifically cater to plus-size design. As a plus-size consumer and former MA Fashion Studies student at Parsons School of Design, I've wondered: How are fashion schools encouraging, much less addressing, body positivity?
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Yes, the fashion industry is slowly coming around to embracing a wider spectrum of body types. But what we don’t often get to hear about is the discourses being had in the sewing rooms and classrooms where future talents are learning the ropes. How can we expect retailers to stop relegating the majority of women to poorly-stocked, dim department store corners labeled “Plus,” unless designers-in-training are being taught to celebrate the diverse figures of potential clients (and also their own bodies)?
Last spring, Parsons design student Nayyara Chue successfully petitioned for more plus-size mannequins (up to size 26) in classrooms. "It is preposterous that several students can't execute their plus-sized specialties at the school, even more so when the resources aren't readily available to us," reads the petition, which was addressed to the school’s executive dean, Joel Towers. According to Josephine Parr, senior director of communications for The New School (which houses Parsons), as of fall 2016, the school had 11 plus- size mannequins in sizes 14 through 26, compared to the four to five plus-size forms in use in the design studios prior to the petition.
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Despite this small win, it seems like Parsons, like many fashion schools, needs to do better. “We aren't taught how to drape on a [range of] human forms, only on size 6 mannequins,” Ellory Camejo, a sophomore fashion design student at Parsons, told Refinery29. “ It took me a year and a half to find a mannequin that was my size; I’ve only seen two plus-size mannequins since being here and they were only sizes 10 and 12.”
Camejo is a member of the Body Positivity Collective at The New School, a student group lead by Rachel Knopf-Shey and Tamara Oyola-Santiago, assistant directors of the Wellness and Health Promotion program at Student Health Services. Started in 2010 by health counselors and students, the collective consists of a team of graduate and undergraduate students who are trained as peer health advocates to plan and execute initiatives such as a yearly body-positive art exhibit that features student work.
“Body positivity is instrumental to the work we do at The New School; we define it as an integrated and integrative movement that highlights multiple aspects of our identities as critically important,” said Oyola-Santiago. She also underscores that the body positivity movement extends far beyond merely one’s physical size and shape: “It goes from the individual person to social constructs of size, abilities, race and ethnicity, communication, ways of being and of movement, language, expression, gender diversity and sexualities, documentation, migration, food and housing security,” she said.
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Knopf-Shey, the Body Positivity Collective’s co-director and a registered nutritionist, approaches body positive initiatives from a Health At Every Size framework, which stems from the belief that “when you feel good about your body and yourself you are more inclined to treat it well and to listen to the innate wisdom of the body,” Knopf-Shey explained. The collective certainly serves as a valuable resource, but how else can a school like Parsons help ensure that students are being truly designing with body positivity and inclusivity in mind?
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Rachel Lifter, assistant professor of fashion studies and fashion theorist, believes that body positivity is “having the energy to step into and engage with the world in one’s body, whatever shape or size it is.” Even as a lean, six-foot tall woman — specs that are in the ballpark of the models that populate runways and ad campaigns — she notes she, too, has struggled to find garments that truly fit. As for adjusting the school’s fashion studies curriculum to encourage body positivity, she plans to overhaul one of her own courses,”Fashion and The Body,” to focus on recent research on models’ bodies, and the ways in which health plays a role in aesthetic labor.
But how should fashion design students navigate the lack of proper resources in order to learn how to truly create for every body? Well, being enterprising, apparently. “Everybody has to negotiate their own way,” Lifter said. “Sometimes it’s up to the students to learn these tools outside of the classroom; sometimes it means draping on a friend.” That might work in the interim until fashion curricula can better address size diversity. But it’s certainly reasonable to expect sufficient time, attention, and money devoted to teaching design techniques for all sorts of shapes.
Lifter also encourages more dialogue between non-technical fashion studies programs and the fashion industry, in regards to the kinds of clothing and sizes that are deemed worthy of academic study. Parsons’ MA Fashion Studies students have the chance to work with archival fashion pieces donated to the school by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and that equates to sizing within a narrow spectrum: “The range of sizes in the Parsons archive comes from a particular New York set, from wealthy women donating to the Met, and then to us,” Lifter explained.
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But if students are expected to take matters into their own hands, literally, when it comes to feeling equipped to design for a multitude of body types, is there still merit to a formal fashion education? Designer Gahee Lim, a Parsons MFA Fashion design alumna, says the program was “well-rounded,” but thinks fashion schools in general need to introduce plus-size design into their courses. “I think high fashion is so heavily involved with a smaller body type,” Lim said. “And Parsons is more known for teaching conceptual design associated with high fashion. So students are often just used to [creating for a] smaller body shape; there is psychological uncomfortableness when comes to bigger body types.”
At a school that’s been touted as the third best fashion school in the world (or fifth-best, depending on whose rankings you go off of), it’s about time for these conversations to both enter, and hopefully evolve, the classroom. Parsons isn’t the only school addressing body diversity. In 2013, two apparel design students at Cornell created a full plus-sized collection which required the creation of their own size-24 mannequin. Syracuse University, which introduced full-figured model drawing into its fashion illustration courses in 2014, has been infusing its curriculum with body positivity, thanks, in part to one of its famous alums: Emme, often billed as the world’s first plus-size supermodel.
The push for size diversity has also been happening internationally. To wit: in 2011, Edinburgh College of Art became the first school in the U.K. to include plus-size mannequins up to size 20 in its fashion department, while London College of Fashion has been using street-casting real people for its BA fashion show for six years in an effort to showcase a wider range of beauty.
Ultimately, a more size-inclusive fashion industry will demand far more than just teaching courses for plus-size fashion, or studying plus-size fashion designers. Changing the status quo in terms of the relationship between style and size must start within the walls of the places responsible for churning out the next wave of designers and industry professionals. When it comes to fully embracing body positivity, fashion schools seem to be on the right track, but they aren’t there yet.