For Fashion To Be Truly Inclusive, There Needs To Be Plus-Size Education
While it’s being addressed more within school curriculums, most institutions are leaving it as an alternative choice of study.
As plus-size fashion continues to grow exponentially — the market is estimated to be worth $24 billion by the end of 2020 — the demand for clothing above a size 16 is more apparent than ever. But as the coronavirus pandemic continues to challenge designers and the current fashion landscape, many are beginning to realize just how valuable this market and community are.
While retailers have been seemingly more receptive to size inclusivity in the last few years, luxury designers have only scratched the surface on the topic: A report published by InStyle in February revealed that only 22% of designers that showed at New York Fashion Week produced up to a size 20 or above. (That number is largely influenced by brands like Chromat and Tadashi Shoji, who have long led the charge for size inclusivity in luxury, too, rather than the collective industry.) But the key to a size-inclusive future is not only through demanding change from pre-existing brands. Rather, it is through preparing the next generation of game-changers to be inclusive from the start, while they are still in school. That requires an increase in size-inclusive education, a topic that is still heavily lacking at many fashion colleges.
“The conversation around plus-size or fat fashion has been seen purely as a social justice issue and an activist issue,” says Ben Barry, chair of fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, which offers a fashion study program centered on inclusivity of size, gender, and race. "This is a business imperative for the fashion industry.”
While plus-size fashion is being addressed more within school curriculums, most institutions are leaving it as an alternative choice of study, should a student want to focus their final project on it, rather than stressing the importance of plus fashion and the vital role it plays in the future landscape of the industry. This continues to fuel the separation between straight and plus-sizes, while sending the message that plus is a separate and lesser entity.
Meanwhile, according to every educator interviewed for this piece, students crave inclusivity more than ever.
“I feel like creativity and following what you are passionate about was encouraged at my school, but not so much size inclusivity,” says Ian Harris, a former apparel design major at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, who graduated last year. “Nothing was ever strictly covered in regards to plus-size fashion… but if we wanted to make something in plus-sizes, they would help us work through those potential fit problems.”
He adds, “It’s annoying that if I wanted to make plus-size womenswear, and I needed to drape something or get an accurate fit without a model, I couldn’t really get that.” Cesar Cummings, an L.A.-based designer, had even less help when attending a smaller fashion school in California. In fact, after getting the dean’s approval to design plus-size in his courses, Cummings got pushback from a professor, who told him to just “manufacture clothing” during one of his classes. (Cummings fought back and eventually got to design the plus-size clothing he wanted.)
Many schools — including the Moore College of Art & Design and Kent State University — allow students to focus on plus fashion in their design classes or final projects if they have the desire to do so, and offer assistance in various ways should the student request it. But this fails to make inclusive fashion a core element of the curriculum. Only offering support if a student expresses interest in plus makes straight-size designing the default, and many young designers still learning the ropes of the industry will likely cling to the more standard option of a size 6/8 dress mold.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for plus-size curriculums more apparent. As many schools — including the Fashion Institute of Technology — switch to a fully remote or online-first education system for the fall 2020 semester, students have less of an opportunity to explore the market unless it’s worked into classes. While plus-size mannequins may be available in-person at selected institutions, students may have a hard time finding one to have at home, making it even more difficult to pursue plus-size designing.
On the other hand, virtual schooling can lend itself to a more inclusive education. Virtual seminars and panels can allow students to connect with plus-size fashion experts that they may not have been able to in-person. 3-D technology allows students to design for a wide array of body types, rather than just a size 6 or 14 mold.
All to say: While there’s no lack of opportunity available, it’ll require forward-thinkers to prioritize body diversity in a way that hasn’t been done before.
So, what would a truly inclusive curriculum look like in practice? Best intentions aside, no one has quite cracked the code on how to normalize size inclusivity into their curriculum. While designating instructors to assist those who want to design for above a size 14, as many schools do, can be the first step, more needs to be instituted to show the important role that size inclusivity plays in the future success of this industry.
Jennifer Minniti, the chair of Pratt University’s fashion department, tells Refinery29 that the school is currently rethinking and redesigning its entire curriculum around size inclusivity, sustainability, and gender identity. She says she sees more value in injecting size inclusivity into the program rather than offering plus-specific courses. “We're trying to find a way to provide critical study in the core curriculum, so where it should really underpin the core curriculum,” Minniti says. “So our students can become agents of change and make serious change in the industry.”
In 2018, the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles brought on Nick Verreos — former contestant and current producer on Project Runway — to be co-chair of its Fashion Design program, hoping he would shake things up and diversify the curriculum. Though much is still in the works at FIDM, Verreos says that students are first taught the foundation of design and then how to translate that on different body types, stressing the difference between a size 18 body and a size 6. “We’re really considering offering [plus-size specific design] electives,” Verreos says. “And we do hear from a lot of manufacturers and companies where a lot of times the young entry-level assistants have come into those kinds of companies [not knowing how to design for plus].”
Lisa Hayes, the Fashion Design program director at Drexel University in Philadelphia, tells Refinery29 that they have been incorporating size inclusivity into their program for about the past decade, bringing in plus speakers and educators to show their students the possibilities available to them. Hayes credits much of this to the smaller size of the program, allowing them to jump on different initiatives early such as plus fashion or adaptive clothing for those with disabilities.
At FIT in New York City, the need for plus-size fashion education became apparent when the school put on a forum titled “The Business of Curves” in 2017 whose associate producers were plus supermodels Emme and Catherine Schuller. The event also featured Fern Mallis, creator of New York Fashion Week, as the special guest moderator. With 500 students in attendance — and over 16K watching virtually — the desire for more education on the topic was evident, and so Steven Frumkin, Dean of the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology, put together a handful of courses in their technical design area to satisfy those students. Pre-pandemic, FIT had continued to host inclusive events and hired a Chief Diversity Officer to push the conversation forward. The program has also incorporated 3-D design into its courses, as have other schools like the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, that allow students to dress for more body types and sizes.
Prior to helping change the narrative at FIT, Emme launched Fashion Without Limits in 2013, an initiative co-founded with Syracuse University’s School of Design professors Jeffrey Mayer and Todd Conover, to teach inclusive design. Fashion Without Limits has since expanded greatly, becoming a four-year program offered by Syracuse. “Every time innovation and newness and change happens within a design program to be more inclusive, everyone wins,” Emme tells Refinery29. “It's scary being first, but you have to take a stand.”
Former Ford Model Angela O’Riley has created a similar program for high schoolers called The Curvy Lab. Conducted at The High School of Fashion Industries in NYC in 2018, it serves to teach young hopefuls about inclusive designing before they even entered college. “When you're a designer, you have to be able to make something that's beautiful for whoever your customer is,” O’Riley explains. “So we're retraining the eyes of these kids to find what's beautiful in whoever is in front of us or whoever our customers are, and we're starting with the size 18 curvy mannequin, because that's where the industry is, but that we're not limiting ourselves to that.”
The success of Fashion Without Limits and The Curvy Lab raises a question: Would offering plus-specific design courses and programs, rather than incorporating them into the existing curriculum, in fashion colleges be the most beneficial route? While a majority of the educators interviewed said no, Susan Moses — author of the book The Art of Dressing Curves and the executive producer of FIT’s “The Business of Curves" — thinks otherwise. “There are so many aspects of designing for plus that are different,” Moses says.
Moses makes a valid point: Fit is essential when designing for plus bodies, and too often, brands grade up from a size 8 or 10 without taking this into account. Weight can be added to the body in many different ways making one size 18 woman’s shape different from another’s. If young designers are unaware of the rigors and intense amount of training and experience needed to properly fit fat bodies, they could be set for failure.
A better question may be this: Why not normalize size inclusivity in technical classes while also offering plus-specific ones for students who want to expand in that market? “Incorporating size inclusion and plus-size fashion into the curriculum isn't about a one-off effort, but about lasting systemic change,” says Barry. “It's about transforming an entire educational system, not just offering it off for your elective.”
Before students at Ryerson even get to design, they are taught — through readings, documentaries, guest speakers, and coursework — about fat activism, as well as other topics like Black liberation and marginalization. They are taught about stereotypes regarding marginalized bodies in the industry, teaching them the significance and importance of inclusive fashion.
“[Before the pandemic], we were building our own dress forms in our Creative Technology Lab, where we were engaging a diverse group of local fat-identifying people in Toronto that identify as men, women, non-binary, and trans, working with them to actually scan their body and build our own dress form in plus-sizes in order to ensure that we have a variety of different shapes and sizes represented,” Barry says.
He adds, “If we're going to transform fashion education, we need to invite bodies around the table that bring in life experiences that have been marginalized and erased from fashion because that will help us to really illuminate whose stories and whose bodies haven't been told, who doesn't feel welcome in our classroom right now, and what we can do to challenge that.”
While there’s no singular way to satisfy the demand for plus fashion, preparing students for the inclusive future of the industry is likely the best way to do so. The logistics of doing so, as shown, are not easy. Funding, of course, plays a big issue, as does student access to these institutions for those who can’t afford to attend. Now, the pandemic adds another level of challenges to address.
But if inclusivity is not made a core value at these fashion institutions, then there cannot be an expectation that fashion will ever progress to truly represent consumers. The future of fashion is now, and that future is inclusive. As designers struggle to stay afloat amidst the pandemic, young hopefuls would be wise to learn how to design for every body type now, before entering the industry. Diversity is always beneficial to your bottom line, and as the industry landscape faces one of its hardest challenges yet, fashion schools will have no choice but to evolve.