By Hayley Greason
13-year-old Jaime Raines stepped out of the brightly lit dressing room at Lane Bryant with a pained look on her face. Dressed in a plain, button-down dress shirt and grey slacks that her mother had picked out for her, she hardly felt like herself. In typical teenage girl fashion, Raines told her mom she hated the outfit and stormed back into the stall, only to sit down on the floor and stare at the clothes hung up on the walls. She didn’t like anything else enough to even try it on.
This wasn’t just a normal teenage tantrum. At Raines’ local mall, Destiny USA in Syracuse, NY, Lane Bryant is the only store for women sizes 14 to 28. Unfortunately, their styles do not cater to her taste.
Since then, Raines has refused to let the industry dictate what she can and can’t wear. At age 15, she decided that she wanted to design her own clothing. “I wanted to make garments for myself that I actually wanted to wear. If I didn’t, I’d have to wear old granny clothing,” she said, “The clothes were too bland and the styles were too bland.” Today, she’s a senior fashion design student at Syracuse University, creating the first plus size senior fashion line the school has ever seen.
Raines’ emphasis in plus size is a part of a revolution in the fashion industry. Up until now, plus size has been an afterthought, or an extension, of fashion design. If a woman doesn’t fit into sizes 0 to 10, the fashion industry doesn’t pay attention to her. She’s an outsider, stigmatized to the point where she isn’t considered appropriate for fashionable clothing. Surprisingly, a majority of women in the United States fall into this category. According to a study done in April in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education, the average size of women in the US is 16.
Plus size model and body positivity advocate Emme, like Raines, also deals with and recognizes this problem. “Millions of women in our country are over a size 12 and they can’t find clothing options suitable to their personality or to their lifestyle. It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. At 26 years old, she became a plus size model. Describing herself as a “healthy, Amazonian-type woman”, she is roughly a size 14 and continues to struggle with finding clothes that fit her body. For example, she said that she would often walk into a department store to find that the only size 14 garments they had available were out of stock. “There’s simply no supply for the demand,” she said.
So, Emme decided to make an impact, starting with education. In 2014, she started “Fashion Without Limits” at Syracuse University, a program that added size 14–22 dress forms for fashion design students to learn with. Illustration, pattern making and draping classes are now taught for sizes 0–22, not just sizes 0–8.
Raines remembers being ecstatic when the program began her sophomore year. Almost immediately, she came up with the idea to do her senior fashion line all in plus size. She remembers hoping and praying that no one would take the idea before her. “Luckily I caught it before someone else,” she said. At first, she wanted to do her line in knit, because it easily fits to various body shapes. Instead, she decided that she really wanted to have her style embodied in her line. Raines loves interesting prints in textiles and is African American, so she decided to include African prints in her designs. “It’s harder for a garment to look more flattering on a plus size figure,” she said, “because of all the curves and other things that you want to enhance and hide.” Despite this, Raines is determined to use the skills she learned through “Fashion Without Limits” to design clothes that are stylish and flattering for plus size women. She’s happy that she is the first to take what she learned in Emme’s program and run with it.
Raines hopes to run even further and use what she’s done at SU to apply for jobs; however, when it comes to her future, she has reservations. “The fashion industry is extremely competitive,” she said, “and I’m not sure that I can find a job without any connections.” Her fallbacks are to either look for jobs in the textile industry, or freelance her own plus size lines and see if they gain any ground. She knows that the fashion industry isn’t completely accepting of plus size fashion design quite yet, but she still sticks with it. “I know I’m only one person but I try and push the idea,” she said.
Her doubts aren’t misplaced; the fashion industry has its reasons for avoiding plus size lines. Laura Zapata, a professional celebrity stylist and past stylist for clothing company Top Shop, deals with the challenges of styling plus size celebrities but understands the fashion industry’s pushback. Just recently, she styled Dascha Polanco, a celebrity actress, for the Emmy’s, who publically spoke out against designers’ reluctance to create a red carpet dress for her. Zapata knows that sometimes it can simply be a cost issue. Trendy, mainstream fashionable clothing companies only have one or two sample sizes on hand for celebrities to try on, and they don’t want to spend the money to make more unless they know that it will be bought. She knows it also simply costs more to use more fabric in the making of a larger garment.
When Zapata worked as a stylist for Top Shop, she participated in the expansion from England to the United States. She recalls a conversation about the addition of plus size to the line and how it was ultimately turned down. “It’s all about personal branding,” she said, “once a company starts a plus size line, the branding and marketing changes. Most companies don’t want that.” Zapata describes Top Shop’s clothing as “off-duty model staples”. “Fashion is aspirational, and it’s a sad reality that the aspired lifestyle is to be thin. So I think when these fashion brands are trying to establish themselves they want to attain to the highest fashion level, and that means catering to women who are thin,” she said.
She has faith that the industry is slowly but surely changing. In the beginning of her career, Zapata remembers getting shipments in from Lane Bryant for clients and being shocked. “The plus size clothing that used to come in was so disgusting. I refused to use it for any of my clients.” Now, she has an array of brands to choose from, all of which have their own styles and cater to women of various sizes.
These small, young start-ups rely on the social media community that actively fights against the negative associations with being plus size. A strong social media movement allows there to be a conversation about empowering all sizes of women.
The invisible majority or plus size women are fighting for body inclusivity. Hayley Herms, a plus size model, posts pictures on Instagram in trendy outfits at photo shoots and just in everyday life. “When social media became a thing, I started getting messages from women whether they were skinny, fat, curvy, thin, whatever. And they would message me and say things like ‘your confidence inspires me’. I’d even have guys contact me saying ‘I wore a tank top because you gave me confidence with a shirt you wore once’ and I was like oh my gosh, I think I’ve found my calling,” she said. One of Herms’ favorite places to shop for outifts is “boohoo”, an online brand that has fashion-forward affordable clothing for plus size women. On Instagram, “boohoo” has one and a half million followers, and posts women of all shapes and sizes wearing their clothing. This community has fostered an acceptance of larger women and positive body image.
Growing up, Raines never considered herself “fat”, she just saw herself as big chested. Herms doesn’t have a problem with using the word fat, and can’t wait to see ideas like Raines’ come to fruition in the mainstream fashion industry. “Girl you know, the plus size industry, we are taking over,” she said, “Fat is the new black, honey.”
Raines is in the midst of completing her final sketches for her senior fashion line. “I’m really excited to do this and take on this challenge. This is a field that the fashion industry just doesn’t understand and I’d love to change that,” she said. At the end of the day after Jamie’s gone home, bright lights illuminate the open floor of the warehouse where the Syracuse University School of Fashion Design is housed. Raines’ large desk is cluttered with scraps of brightly patterned fabric, notebooks, water bottles and eraser shavings. Off to the right, a clean, size 14 dress form stamped “Emme Style” stands tall over her workspace.