The women's clothing business is finally stretching out to serve real women, with more styles and higher fashion offered in sizes 14 and larger. And much in demand are models who can fill out so-called plus sizes, as apparel makers, catalogs and retailers trade fantasy -- a size-16 dress draped on a size-eight model -- for reality.
The shift might seem to require an entirely new crew of models, but that hasn't been necessary. "I stopped exercising and gained 50 pounds, and now I'm working a lot more than I ever worked in my life," says Chyna McGarity, at 34 years old an experienced model who now wears sized 16 to 18. "It was a career ,ove, but I'm not recommending it for other people." For catalog work, models say, the pay is generally comparable in either weight class.
Fashion models, thought to be fixated on skinniness, have proven remarkably adaptable to the industry's embrace of the double-digit dress sizes. In the process, the modeling business has become a little more like real life: women gain and lose weight, and manage to keep working.
Of course, size bias isn't altogether dead. Barbara Brickner, 5 feet 9 inches tall and a size 14, says she was recently dumped as a model by Nordstrom -- because she was too thin. "You want to show the clothes on a model that truly represents a plus-size woman," says Amy Jones, a Nordstrom, Inc. spokeswoman. The Seattle retailer wants models sizes 18 to 22 for its plus-size clothes.
The industry is responding to years of complaints from women that it was impossible to determine how a garment might actually look on their bodies becasue it was modeled by someone half their size. "Their legs are about as big as my arms," Penni Waltz, a 30-year-old social worker, and size 22, from Traverse City, Mich., says of traditional models.
Ms. Griffin works for Wilhelmina Inc., the big New York modeling agency, and appears on its Web-site lists for both regular size models and for its Ten-20 plus-size division. Still, Ms. Griffin says, "A lot of my straight-size clients don't know I model full-size and vice versa." She says she is nervous about losing work.
"I told her she needs to make a decision," Says Angellika Morton, and acquaintance and strictly plus-size model. Ms. Morton, 31, also began as a smaller-size model, but didn't get much beyond ads for Kmart clothing and Hanes hosiery. "As a straight size, I wasn't all that successful," she says. But as a size 14, with sultry hazel eyes, she's a hit, and was inducted last month into the Modeling Association of America International Inc.'s Model Hall of Fame, as its first plus-size member. but she says she has noticed a pay differential. "I know I've worked with straight-size girls where they're getting $2,500 for the day and I'm getting $1,500."
The decision to go plus-size can be difficult for other reasons. Kayla Laurene, 27 and 5-feet-11, started modeling at age 18, as a size eight, just barely making the cut for regular modeling work. "I lost a lot of clients because size eight wasn't small enough," she says. Eventually, the blue-eyed blonde gave up the struggle to stay thin and quit the modeling business. She went back to school and started bartending part-time.
Two years ago, when Ms. Laurene was a size 10, an agent suggested she come back as a plus-size. But Ms. Laurene hesitated, thinking her boyfriend, a Miami chef, would be embarrassed to date a plus-size model. Instead, he cheered her on and she went for it, gaining 15 pounds. As size 12, though, she still has to pad up about 40% of the time, she says.
Natalie Laughlin, known at Wilhelmina as "the Cindy Crawford of plus size," also first tried regular modeling, but was told to lose 20 pounds. She even got a job at a health club so she could always be in an atmosphere that focused on weight loss. "My quest in life was to be as thin as possible," she says. Like some other models, she says she developed an eating disorder but has overcome it and grown comfortable with her body type. Now, many people in the industry say the brown-eyed, 5-foot-9 model, size 12 to 14 is at the top of her game.
"My weight has always been an issue. Now this very thing I thought would keep me from being successful is what has allowed me to be," she says.
Some holdouts against reality remain. Brylane Inc., which publishes Lane Bryant and Roaman's catalogs, as well as plus-size books for Sears, Roebuck & Co., says focus groups have shown that catalog orders are about 25% better when thinner models are featured. Most Brylane catalogs offer sizes from 14 to 60, but its models are size 8 to 10. "Advertising is really partial fantasy," says Peter Calzone, chief executive officer.
And some true plus-size models say the use of thin models in big clothes remains more widespread than clothing companies admit. Steve Marks, CEO of Hanover Direct Inc.'s Silhouettes catalog, says the catalog used size 10 to 12 models. But model Karen Axmaker doubts that. "Obviously none of these women is a size 12 or up because the clothes just hand off them. They look ridiculous," she says.
Ms. Axmaker has the distinction of being the fashion industry's rarest breed, a so-called petite plus-size, at 5-feet-four and size 16, a common size for American women. (To qualify as petite, a model needs to be 5 feet 4 inches tall or shorter.)
Next to be conquered: the built-in bias of sizing language. Today, it's plus and regular -- though, for most women, there's nothing regular about a size four or six. Many plus-size models call themselves regular and refer to thinner models as "straight size" -- is in straight up and down.
Says Emme, a blue-eyed blonde who is one of the most famous plus-size models at size 14 and host of "Fashion Emergency," her own E! Network television series: "Hopefully, one day we won't have to have categories, just models."
Source: The Wall Street Journal; May 3, 1999; Calmetta Y. Coleman