the frustrated fashion students taking size inclusivity into their own hands
We speak to students from the world’s top fashion schools about learning to design beyond sample size
image Silvia Draz
words Sophie Lou Wilson
Only 0.6% of models were plus-size at the AW23 shows in February this year. That figure rose to just 3.8% for mid-size models (UK sizes 10-16, where most of the population sit.) The rest, therefore, were UK sizes 4 to 8, otherwise known as fashion’s traditional sample size. This was a decrease in size diversity from previous seasons. Prior to these stats, many had already noted a worrying return to thinness in fashion and culture at large. Sure, it never really went away, but if the era of body positivity in fashion felt like real progress, it’s clear now that for some, it was just a trend.
With heritage fashion houses seemingly stuck in their ways and resistant to change, we can't expect a major transformation to come from the top. Instead, the power to shift the industry towards greater size inclusivity comes from the next generation of designers. Disruptive casting from the likes of Sinead O’Dwyer, Karoline Vitto, Di Petsa and Michaela Stark shows that segments of the fashion industry are still moving forwards, even if the mainstream has taken a step back.
Designing for plus-size and curve models means breaking the mould, but it’s a mould that young designers are increasingly willing to break. The question is, does fashion school give them the tools they need to do so? While sustainable design has been woven through the fashion school curriculum, when it comes to size inclusivity, students are often left to figure it out by themselves. While projects focused on different body types are not actively discouraged, the models and mannequins provided by colleges are nearly always sample size, meaning that students who want to make clothes for other sizes have to find models and mannequins themselves. This isn’t always a bad thing. It gives them useful industry skills and enriches their projects, but it does mean students who want to work with body shapes outside of the industry norm come up against some hurdles.
“At the beginning of my course, I asked my course leader about the possibility of doing this project on plus-size menswear, but he thought it would be difficult because the fittings in college were only with regular size models,” says recent London College of Fashion graduate Luting Chen who studied MA Fashion Design Technology (Menswear). Her work focuses on sleek tailored suiting for plus-size men, rooted in the belief that everyone should have access to beautiful, tailored clothes. Pursuing this vision at university meant coming up against certain practical obstacles. Firstly, Chen had to find the models herself rather than relying on the sample size models the university usually works with. She collaborated with model James Corbin who walked in her graduate show. Then there was the pattern cutting. Creating plus-size garments that fit well requires a tailored approach. You can’t simply grade the patterns up because every body is different. “There are a lot of differences between the pattern cutting of regular size and plus-size," says Chen, "like the curve of the trousers, the waist band, the collar and things like that.”
For womenswear, the process can be even more complex as designers must take into account varying bust and hip sizes that can radically change the fit of a garment. Bing Xiong, who did her BA at Central Saint Martins before pursuing an MA at the Royal College of Art, used her own body for fittings because the models her uni invited from an agency didn’t fit her clothes. Doing so gave her a deeper understanding of working with body types outside of the fashion norm. “I'm quite confident with my body so I think it's a good example to encourage others to be proud of themselves," she says. "Working with bigger sizes is a different process because our bodies are all different. I have big hips, for example, and other girls have big boobs. We can’t just grade up standard sizing."
Many students choose to fit garments on their own bodies. It’s often a practical consideration. After all, you can be available for yourself at all times and might be willing to do things for your work that others wouldn’t. David Hopwood, Course Leader of BA(Hons) Fashion Design and Development at London College of Fashion, says this really took off during the pandemic when students had to spend more time working from the confines of their own homes. Most designers aren’t models so by using their own figures, whatever size they are, they learn the nuances of tailoring beyond the standard sample size.
Szonja Czutor, a fashion student at London College of Fashion, creates adaptable designs with the average body type in mind – the real average, not the fashion industry model average. After gaining 15 pounds over the course of the pandemic, she grew passionate about creating clothes that will last through fluctuations in weight. “There could be a bit more space given to teaching us about how to design for life,” she says. “Most people’s bodies change every other year or so, especially women with hormone cycles that change how our body behaves. You need to consider these human experiences – how clothes fit if you move, if you sit down, if you eat a big bowl of pasta.”
As with most creative degrees, fashion students are given a large amount of independence within given briefs to explore their personal interests. The student designers creating clothes for diverse body types are doing so because they feel a strong connection to the subject. They're acutely aware of tokenism and wary of being perceived as participating in it. Second year London College of Fashion student Amelia Meads suggests that unis might not know how to correctly integrate size inclusivity without seeming tokenistic. “It shouldn’t feel like boxes that need to be ticked," she says. "It should be a genuine thing. For me, using models that aren't necessarily the stereotypical model size has become natural to me because of what I'm surrounded by, what I choose to expose myself to on social media and who I'm around.”
“I honestly think my tutors aren't bothered,” says Joe Richman, a first year BA Fashion Menswear student at Central Saint Martins. “Not in a bad way, but because the course is so independent it's up to the student to want to work on a range of bodies. I don't think a course would hurt but there's a danger of trivialising the subject. I don't think another project would do it justice, if it's something a student cares about they'll adapt and learn and the tutors are there to answer questions.”
While the independent nature of each course allows students to explore plus-size fashion if they so choose, the infrastructure to facilitate this choice is rarely there. Most universities have predominantly sample size mannequins that only go up to a UK size 12. They work with models from traditional modelling agencies and teach pattern cutting for sample size. It’s not impossible for students to work with different models, but it’s not made easy for them. “On four floors, there’s only one plus-size mannequin,” says Daisy Royle, a fashion student at London College of Fashion focused on plus-size and curve design. “I’ve spoken to my course leader to request more plus-size mannequins. You can pad a mannequin to make it a certain size, but again that’s more work. It’s making things more inconvenient for those who want to be more inclusive.”
Tutors suggest that universities are starting to change both to keep up with the cultural zeitgeist and specific requests from students. Fashion degrees encourage problem solving and thinking outside the box so creating garments for groups of people who have traditionally been excluded from the fashion industry makes a compelling area of study. “As a fashion educator, I see it as a big responsibility to allow the students the space to explore this,” says David Hopwood, Course Leader of BA(Hons) Fashion Design and Development at London College of Fashion. “It gives them the opportunity to create work that they could take to industry to prove why it's important. We're doing a lot of work to adapt and get more different sizes of mannequins to allow students to design for different types of bodies and to be more diverse in their work.”
The change that students hope to see in their universities isn’t going to happen overnight. Equally, they each stress that their uni specifically isn’t at fault. The onus shouldn’t be on students and fashion schools alone to transform an entire industry. The cultural beauty standards that fashion perpetuates are deeply entrenched in the way we think about our bodies. But the next generation of designers are approaching fashion from a human perspective, one that acknowledges that every body is different and our bodies change over time. Runway fashion might have taken a step backwards this season, but students are working to create a more inclusive future. Fashion models no longer all look the same. It’s time for fashion education to truly reflect that.
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