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Brooke Schlyer, Fall 2013

Plus-sized women share the runway in the fashion design industry

Curve model Tammie Star at a photo shoot in historic Balboa Park.

Curve model Tammie Star at a photo shoot in historic Balboa Park.

Flipping through the glossy pages of popular fashion magazines, readers are bombarded with images of thin women wearing the latest clothing trends. From the usual A-list actress or singer on the front page to the models in the ads, these women portray an image that is far from the typical American woman.

The average woman, according to the Centers for Disease Control:

– is five feet three inches tall

– weighs 166 pounds

– and has a 37.5 inch-waist

In clothing terms, this translates to a size 12 to 14, which is where clothing starts to be labeled as plus size.

The problem many women are facing is that most stores do not carry women’s plus-sized clothing. Erica Howard, 27, wears a size 12 and works at a plus-sized clothing store that caters to teens and young adults in San Diego. Howard says she understands the challenges women face when shopping.

“I haven’t been this size my whole life,” Howard said. “I’ve been smaller, I’ve been bigger. It’s (shopping) complicated sometimes, a little frustrating.”

She continued to add that finding plus-sized clothing is not only difficult, but can also be more expensive since some items such as bras must be specially made and a lot of plus sizes can only be purchased online.

For example, comparing intimate apparel at the young adult stores Forever 21 and Torrid, a plus-sized store, bras at Forever 21 are nearly $30 less expensive than at Torrid.

On average, Forever 21 and Victoria Secret offer cheaper intimates than plus-sized stores Torrid and Lane Bryant.

On average, Forever 21 and Victoria Secret offer less expensive intimates than plus-sized stores Torrid and Lane Bryant.

It’s not just Howard who is feeling this frustration. Retailer ModCloth surveyed more than 5,000 American women from the ages 15 to 65 and found that plus-sized women are twice as likely to shop online daily.

The skinny on designers and thin models

If there is a huge consumer demand for plus-sized fashion why aren’t more designers tapping into it?

Curve model Summer Nicole models an A'doreus dress.

Curve model Summer Nicole models an A’doreus dress.

Rosemary Tyrrell, a general instructor who teaches fashion history at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in downtown San Diego, says designers create clothes to go along with society’s “standard of beauty,” which is currently to be thin.

This standard of beauty started in the 1960s when designers started using taller and thinner models, according to Tyrrell. Twiggy is a well-known example of the ideal model to emerge out of the ’60s thin model culture that continues today.

“The designers thought that the more voluptuous women were too beautiful and that people were not paying enough attention to the clothes, so a lot of them said we just want hangers (thin models) for the clothes,” Tyrrell said. 

The fashion industry is beginning to make some changes by incorporating plus-sized and curve models. Eighteen-year-old Summer Nicole from San Diego, who calls herself a curve model, is familiar with the fashion industry’s small size expectations for models. Designers in Southern California are looking and paying for a certain look, which is typically thin models with blonde hair and blue eyes, Nicole says.

This past year, Nicole did a photo shoot for Seventeen magazine’s prom edition and was the only curve model. While Nicole embraces her full figure, she says it can be difficult to be working with “straight models,” or models who are not plus size.

“There is such a difference from a size zero to a size 14, and it just looks kinda odd,” Nicole said. “But I just have to remember that they picked me for a reason.”

Tammie Starr is another women in the fashion industry who has found success as plus-sized model. Since first starting to model as a teen, Starr has graced the cover of Big Beautiful Women magazine and walked the runway for several plus-sized designers.

SLIDESHOW: Tammie Starr models dresses at a photo shoot in Balboa Park while discussing her career as a curve model in the fashion industry.

Most designers, however, still focus on making clothes for thinner women. For instance, Guess, a brand known for its jeans, only has waist sizes 26 to 31 inches available in their denim.

“Designers don’t want their clothes made in plus sizes because they don’t think that the design looks right on a plus-sized person,” Tyrrell, general instructor at FIDM, said. “They don’t want plus-sized women walking around in their clothes making them look bad, basically.”

Plus-sized clothing: fashion forecast

Some online plus-sized designers, such as San Diego-based A’doreus, are starting to get attention from the fashion industry. A’doreus owner and designer Sharlene Borromeo was invited back to San Diego Fashion Week for the second year in a row as the only plus-sized line.

In 2012, Borremeo was the only plus-sized designer out of the 11 designers who participated. This year, the competition was even higher with 26 designers featured in Fashion Week and more than 125 applicants.

VIDEO: A’doreus designer Sharlene Borromeo turns her home into a fashion design studio to create pieces to showcase at San Diego Fashion Week. 

Borromeo graduated with a degree in Business Technology from Fashion Careers college in 2007. At that time, her goal was to be a representative for a plus-sized designer but stumbled upon a problem.

“Back then no one wanted to do plus size, so the day after I graduated I decided to go back to school and be the designer,” Borromeo said.

Borromeo wouldn’t describe herself as the typical designer looking to fashion magazines or paying attention to the fashion industry for design inspirations, instead she finds inspiration from “girl talk.” Women come up to her and describe the clothing that they want but cannot find in plus-sizes.

“I just love to empower women, especially women who have curves because it is so difficult for them to find clothing,” Borromeo said. “So I just go by what they need or want.”

While Borromeo thinks that it will take time for the fashion industry to fully accept plus sizes, she believes New York Fashion Week made progress this year by inviting a plus-sized designer, Eden Miller, to participate for the first time in the 70 years of the iconic event’s history.

“When I saw that I just kinda felt like I was in the right direction,” Borromeo said. “Someone broke the rules. Someone allowed plus-sized models to walk the runway, so I think people’s perceptions just need to change and they just need to embrace beauty in all forms.”


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