Is Plus-Size Luxury Fashion Finally Becoming Mainstream?

Ashley Graham, Paloma Elsesser, and more plus-size models set runway milestones at Versace and Fendi's Spring/Summer 2021 shows this fashion month, pointing towards a size-inclusive space in luxury fashion.
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The Spring/Summer 2021 runways set milestones for the plus-size community in luxury fashion. The Versace show included three plus-size models–Alva Claire, Jill Kortleve, and Precious Lee–on the runway, a first for the brand; Salvatore Ferragamo tapped Paloma Elsesser to be the label’s first curve model; Fendi featured plus-size models for the second season in a row; and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty cast a male plus-size model to promote the men’s line. But does this mean that the fight for curve representation in high fashion has been won?

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Paloma Elsesser for Salvatore Ferragamo Spring/Summer 2021.

Typically, plus-size can be defined as sizes 12 and up, though according to a 2016 study, the average American woman is between a size 16 and 18. While contemporary labels like Michael Michael Kors or Lauren Ralph Lauren offer sizing up to a 3X, their luxury counterparts may not be as inclusive. Despite the plus-size fashion industry being estimated at $21 billion, most high fashion brands are hesitant to carry above a size 12. For accessible lines, its important for labels to offer clothes for a diverse clientele to maximize profit. However, on the runways, designers continue to be selective in who gets to wear the luxury fashion. While the recent choice of including plus-size models would suggest that designers are pivoting to a more size-inclusive line, for some, it may be more of a trend.

Versace only carries up to a large or Italian size 46 on its website, which is the equivalent to a U.S. 10 according to a sizing chart provided by the brand. The site does offer limited pieces (mostly t-shirts and leggings) up to XXL, and robes up to 5XL. Fendi’s online retailer carries up to a size 16, while Ferragamo goes up to XL. The most inclusive brand of the four is Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty, which carries up to 3X. However, the range of sizes does not account for inconsistencies in sizing between brands.

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Alva Claire and Jill Kortleve for Versace Spring/Summer 2021.

Despite not including plus-size models in their runway shows, other brands have extended their size options. Dolce & Gabbana and Max Mara currently sell up to a U.S. 18, but neither have cast plus-size models in their most recent ad campaigns or catwalks. Other designer labels offer up to size 14/16, but this marginalizes members of the plus-size community who wear larger sizes. Nevertheless, this reflects a substantial change from the status quo, especially considering that two years ago, Dolce & Gabbana only carried up to a size 12. 

With the rise of the body positivity movement, plus-size models have garnered significant support in the past few years. Dutch model Jill Kortleve had an impressive breakout season for Spring/Summer 2019, making her debut at Alexander McQueen and going on to become the first curve model to walk a Chanel show in 10 years (however, at both shows she was the only plus-size representation). Meanwhile, curve model Ashley Graham has walked for designers like Tommy Hilfiger, Prabal Gurung, and Fendi. In 2016, she also became the first size 16 model to cover the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. However, the next year, British Vogue Editor-in-Chief Alexandra Shulman shared that several companies would not dress Graham for her January 2017 cover shoot with the publication because of her size. This points to the fault of the fashion system at large to celebrate diverse body types. There are gatekeepers at each step–from casting runway shows, to featuring models in publications, to dressing models for publicity or events–and without the support of all of these different facets, there will never be complete inclusion.

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Ashley Graham for Fendi Spring/Summer 2021.

While the needle towards plus-size representation has definitely moved forward, the reality is that many brands continue to dismiss curve consumers by not carrying above a size 12. Other brands, like Versace and Max Mara, demonstrate a lack of whole-hearted sincerity in their plus-size inclusion, whether that’s using curve models but not offering curve sizes, or vice versa. 

Plus-size representation means not only offering people size 12 and up an opportunity to own and wear luxury fashion, but also allowing them to see bodies like their own in ad campaigns and runway shows. While plus-size fashion is definitely having a moment, for it to be truly mainstream, all fashion houses must be a part of this change. Representation comes with a sense of validation–when luxury labels cast curve models, the industry itself is telling them that they are worthy of being fashionable. With that kind of widespread acceptance, not only can plus-size men and women occupy a space in the fashion industry to use their voices, but they can feel like they belong there, too.

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