Imagine having an unlimited budget and a dream wardrobe in mind; for many of us, it would be easy to peruse countless retail options and curate those visual fantasies. If you happen to be plus-size, however, this is often not the case. “I feel like plus-size brands are always telling us what plus-size women wear, without ever offering us a chance to prove them wrong,” says Bethany Rutter, who recently took matters into her own hands when she designed a capsule collection for navabi, where she also works as social media editor. “There is a very fixed idea of the styles that plus-size women want, but how much market research have these brands actually done? So many of us feel underserved by brands; we exist, and we spend money on these clothes. Something is going badly wrong there.”
In response to this lack of choice, Rutter teamed up with navabi to create a 10-piece capsule collection rooted in bold colours, sharp tailoring and small, quirky details. From a powder-pink gingham blouse with a cute ruffled shoulder to emerald-green paper-bag trousers with an eye-catching bow tie, each piece is effortlessly stylish and designed to transition easily from weekday to weekend.
“The idea behind the collection for me was bold, wearable statement pieces, but ones that you can wear every day,” explains Rutter. “They’re eye-catching but not so wildly avant-garde that you feel self-conscious. I feel like there is a real gap in the market for serious, grown-up plus-size clothes that aren’t boring, because I don’t really differentiate between the clothes I wear to work and the clothes I wear to see my friends. I always want to be at this mid-level of attractive, put-together; not too much and not too little. I feel like that is what we designed.”
The collection is the first of three special ‘influencer collections’. Two more, designed by blogger Isabell Decker and model Aglaë Dreyer are coming soon, and each one promises to be completely singular in terms of aesthetic. “[Aglaë’s] collection is quite feminine and summery, whereas Isabell has quite a masculine, minimalist style. She’s so cool, and I think she does quite a challenging thing by developing this more masculine style while also being fat and wearing makeup.”
This is exactly how navabi is leading the crowd when it comes to plus-size clothing – by hiring people that are actually going to wear these clothes instead of trying to predict or, worse, dictate what customers want. “I do think brands actually dictate what plus-size women want, because they present such a narrow list of options which then lead to a narrow view of what you can wear,” argues Rutter. “How can you say, for example, that we want tops with sleeves if you never let us buy anything sleeveless? It’s this vicious circle and I talk about it all the time, but I really believe it. You buy what is out there and, for plus-size women, that’s often not a lot.”
Furthermore, the overwhelmingly positive response to the collection shows that things do genuinely improve when someone connected to the community is given that position of power: “I do feel like having someone like me, who is part of the clothes-buying plus-size community, working in a brand is useful to both the brand and the consumers. It’s not like I think all clothes should be designed for me, but I do think it’s wild that, in 2017, there are pieces I’ve always wanted to own but never been able to. That doesn’t happen to thin women.”
This conversation leads into the wider issue of the fashion industry often assuming that plus-size women want to be invisible. Trend reports encourage “flattering” cuts and hiding “problem areas”, yet slimmer women are presented with experimental options that can often enlarge or distort their figure. Fashion is, first and foremost, about self-expression, so why do we have different rules for different people? “Somehow that logic isn’t pushed on thin people in the same way,” sighs Rutter. “We’re just not interested in policing thin bodies.”
Despite few brands and publications actually being willing to step up and openly challenge the problems faced by plus-size customers in the fashion industry, body positivity has become an incredibly lucrative concept. Rutter has written in the past about the ways in which commercial interference has diluted the driving ethos of body positivity, arguing that things need to go further: “I’m very fond of being specific about things,” she explains, “and I think body positivity is not specific enough. We need to honour the oppressions that people face by naming them, so when you’re talking about body shaming, what are you talking about? Did it happen because they’re fat, or black, or disabled? Without that specificity, the conversation is left open to be co-opted by people who aren’t that affected by it in the first place. It becomes a fashionable statement to make.”
This argument rings particularly true when applied to companies using body positivity as a marketing tool – the plus-size models we see in campaigns are often conventionally attractive and equipped with an ‘ideal’ silhouette that just happens to be slightly larger than fashion’s punishing favoured measurements. “It’s a strange place for body positivity to be in, because it becomes something discussed by thin white women who otherwise look like models. It’s like no, this is a thing that some people actually need, and we would much prefer if we didn’t need it; if we didn’t have to be constantly reaffirming our right to exist. So when people come along and say, ‘Look, I’m still hot despite this extra pound of fat!’ Shut up,” she laughs.
Even in the world of journalism, Rutter’s voice is a rarity – although these stories and op-eds are often commissioned, the money rarely goes to writers with real experiences of fatphobia. “Publications are so committed to this lazy middle ground,” she replies when asked about the role of media in progressing the conversation. “Would it kill you to get actual fat women to write about this stuff? Plus-size women are out there, we exist – ask us any time, pay us your shitty fee and we’ll do it for you!”
This is precisely why Rutter’s influence as social media editor at navabi is so valuable; not only is she communicating with an audience that she can actually relate to, the intention is always genuine. She speaks of a close community within the company and describes being hired for the role over Twitter due to the stellar work published on her own blog Arched Eyebrow. Dan Barker, her now-boss, happened to see a tweet she sent out about hating her then-job at a pharmaceuticals news website, and reached out to ask if she would be interested in the role on a freelance basis at first. “After a few days, he said, ‘If you can come to Germany with me next week and meet everyone then we can get you started as soon as possible.’ It’s literally the best thing that ever happened to me; I thought when I started I would find out it was actually shit, but that hasn’t happened. I love where I work because it’s big enough to be making money but small enough that things can happen relatively quickly.”
Speaking of money, perhaps the most surprising takeaway from the conversation is that Rutter insisted that the price point be kept as low as possible without compromising on quality. “I wanted to make it affordable because I wanted as many people to be able to wear these clothes as possible,” she states. “That’s not because it would make me feel clever to see my designs worn by people, but because I think we deserve nice things. Work were just like ‘Okay, I guess we’ll just take the hit and see this more as a marketing endeavour than something to actually make money'.”
It’s this attitude that bleeds into everything Rutter does – from her blog and her online presence to her hit podcast Hello Friend and various guest panel appearances, everything is intended to genuinely benefit and speak to plus-size people of every gender, race, class and ability. For many, her social media presence is valuable, and she remarks in a grateful yet admirably nonchalant statement that she gets messages from people of all sizes saying she either helped them to love their own body or to treat the bodies of others with more kindness. “I would advise people to consume images of others that look like you,” she explains when I ask about others struggling with body issues. “Whatever it is about your appearance that you don’t like, follow people with that characteristic – it’s really affirming to see people that look like you. Some of my favourites are Twitter users @kiddotrue, @simonemariposa, @kivabay, @yrfatfriend and @fatactivist, whereas on Instagram I really recommend @tangledupinlace, @luhshawnay, @lvernon2000, @hausofmandymeow and @valflickan.”
Although many critics slate the idea of a safe space – ironically, usually those with no real need for one – Rutter advocates creating a bubble of like-minded people and positive thinkers. “You have to exist in the world, and that can be exhausting,” she exclaims. “Sometimes my bubble is so comprehensive that I can think I’m actually overstating the existence of fatphobia, but then I go into the real world and I’m like ‘Oh, no, this is bullshit – it does exist'. I just engineer my life to have as little of it as possible, and why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t you curate the people in your life and limit the number of experiences you have?” It’s a convincing argument, and one that could undoubtedly contribute towards reclaiming the true meaning of body positivity for those in need of positive influence. Not only is Rutter progressing conversations around fatphobia and creating interesting clothing for plus-size women, she’s becoming a valuable yet refreshingly relatable advocate for self-care and self-expression through style.