In a display of designer-shaming last week, Tim Gunn wrote a lengthy piece for The Washington Post published just in time for New York Fashion Week in which he addresses the “puzzling conundrum” of why designers refuse to provide clothes to accommodate the 100 million plus-size women in America. He explains, “There is money to be made here (20.4 billion dollar, up 17 percent from 2013). But many designers -- dripping with disdain, lacking imagination or simply too cowardly to take a risk -- still refuse to make clothes for them.”
In his rant, Gunn positions himself as champion of fuller-figured females everywhere, villainizing those designers who don’t cave under the fall of his gavel as he presides over the court of popular opinion. It’s a win-win situation for him; a PR coup. But the above argument, which has economic gain not concern for a neglected customer at heart, supposes that if there’s money to be made, any designer worth his CFDA membership should be hurtling towards that plus-size pot to empty every cent out of it.
In Gunn’s criticism of the industry, he bemoans “the baffling way it has turned its back on plus-size women,” which implies it had once embraced them but they are not former BFFs. As the population grows proportionately larger, this significant customer base has been created and as it swells, the runway designers haven’t turned their backs, so much as they just haven’t shown up. Gunn suggests they should feel obligated to cater to this sector; that it is a duty. But if exclusivity is the key to many luxury brand’s caché, and real women have rarely figured in their marketing, why should that suddenly change regarding plus-size?
Design as art; model as muse
“Am I a fool when I dream of putting art in my dresses, a fool when I say dressmaking is an art?” asked Paul Poiret, one of the most fashionable designers of the early 1900s. That is still a question at stake almost a century later. Gunn, who proposes must-have items of a white button-up shirt, little black dress and chic trench, in his various books, TV and magazine appearances, might be said to eschew the more avant-garde side of fashion. But some designers consider themselves artists and as such, their muses come conjured from their fantasies like sirens whose songs drown out Gunn’s sensible words. You might argue that clothes are not paintings but increasingly designers’ work provides museums with their blockbuster sellout shows (Alexander McQueen, Giorgio Armani, Valentino, Dries Van Noten, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Hussein Chalayan...). We don’t flock to the Met to see white shirts and classic dress pants.
For some, the runway show is a fifteen-minute-long performance piece, a buzzed-about art “happening,” a complicated visual meditation on the zeitgeist; it can be about everything but real-life closets.
Runways aren’t real life
Gunn’s swipe is broad-ranging and unfocused. He calls out J.C. Penney and Nordstrom but his ire seems particularly targeted at high-end designers, those traditionally not known for reflecting anatomical reality in their work. None of us look like their catwalk imaginings. Even models, stripped of makeup, wearing jeans and tank tops and sitting in Starbucks do not appear to be mere mortals like the rest of us. But fashion is a 12 billion dollar industry because we all manage to assemble our versions of perfection far removed from what’s presented on those unreachable beauties, so tall, so thin, so different. No doubt we will continue to do so. Nothing has changed since Coco Chanel was plying her slimline jersey wares, and Karl Lagerfeld, despite also getting a dose of Gunn’s finger-wagging, surely won’t care to expand the Chanel collection beyond the willowy embodiment of its founder.
Gunn says that when he broaches the question of putting larger girls on the runway, designers respond with She won't look the way that I want her to look and that plus-size customers are complicated and difficult. Then why force a skinny peg into a round hole? As an industry insider, Gunn knows that introducing larger sizes to the offering is certainly more complicated and difficult than he would have The Washington Post reader believe, and yet even he seems unsure how to “make it work”...
An argument that stretches the seams
“Designs need to be reconceived, not just sized up,” he asserts but when he recommends that not only the textile of a garment must change, but every seam, what he is actually proposing is that every garment be redesigned at the larger sizes, adding a whole new tier to the design, sampling, and production processes as one blouse essentially separates into two. He lists design details such as “ruching, box pleats and shoulder pads...pastels and large-scale prints and crazy pattern-mixing” as no-nos for larger women, as they will “look infantile or like a float in a parade,” but in the next paragraph criticizes Lane Bryant’s plus-size offerings: “the items aren't fashion with a capital F.” But fashion with a capital F thrives on extraneous detail. The industry’s name of the moment, Alessandro Michele of Gucci, currently puts everything on Gunn’s list into the design of one dress.
As mentor on reality TV show Project Runway, Gunn was even quick to dismiss last season’s winner, Ashley Tipton, who created the show’s first plus-size collection. He said, “I've never seen such hideous clothes in my life... I wouldn't dream of letting any woman, whether she's a size 6 or a 16, wear them.” So even under his mentorship, designers can’t quite get it right.
You need a plus-sized passion
Therefore excoriating established designers with solid client bases who demonstrate little or no interest in creating for this market, doesn’t seem to me any great step forward for womankind, although across social media females of all sizes have been hoisting Gunn on their shoulders and chanting his name. A designer who reluctantly––or opportunistically––designs for larger women will provide only a disservice to that woman. Instead Gunn, as an educator and mentor, should engage in a less self-serving campaign to identify and nurture designers who have an affinity for that market, in the same way one does for those interested in childrenswear, petites, or maternity, categories in which the principals of sizing demands a level of technical expertise but also respect for the design process. Gunn can’t be unaware that Parsons School of Design, where he taught for 20+ years, has just responded to a successful petition by a student designer requesting the school provide more than the one plus-size mannequin to be shared by all plus-size designers on the program. That is where real change happens, when a young designer’s vision and an authentic responsibility and connection to the plus-size market intersect.
Which brings us to Gunn’s praise of Christian Siriano, the young designer who stepped forward to dress actress Leslie Jones for the “Ghostbusters” premiere when no other designer was willing. Siriano custom-created the head-turning red gown that glorified every curve of the actress’s body; it was not off-the-rack. Red carpet magic was made when the designer reached out to her on social media and offered his services.
A meeting of brilliant minds
“It shouldn’t be exceptional to work with brilliant people just because they’re not sample size,” Siriano tweeted afterwards. “Congrats aren’t in order, a change is.” That’s how it’s done, without coercion or riling up sturm and drang via national newspapers but through intimate, organic collaborations. That’s artistry at work. It’s very old school; might even make Paul Poiret proud.
In an interesting development also in The Post, Robin Givhan, reviewing Siriano’s runway show, observes: “here the situation is somewhat flipped: Siriano understands how to work in larger sizes. And his collection is especially adept at showing plus-size women at their best. But his smaller models often look cowed by their clothes.”
Designers who focus on the strengths of their own business and don’t try to sweep the board should be applauded. The passion needed to keep going and not fall prey to every BOGO, brand placement opportunity, celebrity link-up or high street partnership in an effort to be all things to all people, represents the height of imagination and bravery, rather than evidence of “disdain” or being “too cowardly.”
“Making it work”
Gunn’s catchphrase of “Make it work,” which he delivers in an off-hand way as he exits the Project Runway workroom seems to be at the crux of his article. But real innovative change requires more than a pithy soundbite. His click-bait piece for The Post undermines the reality that many new labels are already making it work by demonstrating a genuine commitment to designing for this growing customer base. Emerging plus-size brands are not only popping up all over, but one-stop boutiques like Navabi, whose cute fashion illustrations demonstrating the range of body types––Rectangle, Strawberry, Pear, Hourglass, Oval––direct customers to the perfect fit, and recently-launched Coverstory, the multibrand e-commerce site which offers fashionable contemporary clothes in sizes 12 to 28.
If it’s not happening fast enough for Mr Gunn, he might even consider creating his own collection so that he can draw from the vast experience with plus-size clients that he describes and test his judgment of what looks good and what doesn’t with the customer herself, thereby putting his money where his keyboard is. Or maybe a backer will step forward on the heels of The Post article and we will all have been witness to a perfect example of matchmaking.
Live the dream and let the dream live
“Fashion is about dreaming and making other people dream,” says Donatella Versace. No doubt many women saw Leslie Jones and were wowed by her appearance, then mentally noted Siriano’s name and the location of his nearest stockist for when they are next seeking that dream dress (he just launched his second collaboration with Lane Bryant.)
But let the designer live the dream too, Mr Gunn. Working 12-hour days, striving to source ethical production, practicing sustainability at a price that customers will accept, working to return manufacture to the U.S., staying solvent, addressing the See-Now-Buy-Now confusion, building meaningful personal relationships and striking a Life/Work balance while remembering exactly why you got into this often-thankless business in the first place are a designer’s daily challenges. Even if the dream revolves round outfitting pin-thin rock goddesses from a bygone era who would never own a classic trench, that is the designer’s dream, and you have no claim to it. Because in today’s climate, reality is always biting at the dream. Don’t you bare your teeth too.
By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Photos from Tim Gunn’s Facebook page; Christiansiriano.com; Projectrunway.com; Coverstorynyc.com