The healthy-looking model has not been considered fashionable for some time, as anyone who has flicked through a glossy magazine recently will know. Instead designers, photographers and stylists have been tinkering with the concept of edgy in a way they consider challenging -- think gaunt girls placed in awkward poses made up to look scarily hard or depressingly world weary. But recently there's been a change in mood.
It was noticeable at the couture shows last month. On the catwalks young models looked self-possessed, sexy and ever so slightly rounded. We're not talking about he Super Breed -- those other-worldly Naomis, Lindas and Ambers -- but the New Breed. Girls like Devon, the short-for-a-model Asiatic girl with the sexy strut, who wove her way about the catwalks striking poses that made the most of her compact, curvy frame. and karen Elson, the Mancunian model who last season worried about losing contracts because of her naturally rounded figure, who was allowed to look real and womanly on the Chanel catwalk and -- shock horror -- expose a slight tummy through her sheer dress.
While the couture world has opted for a very low-key take on healthiness -- s smattering of flesh as opposed to bone, and made-up designed to let natural beauty shine through -- it's the American fashion scene that is adopting healthiness and with it, curviness in a big way.
Earlier this week one of New York's most high profile agencies, Wilhelmina Models,launched a model search with a difference -- the entrants had to be over an American size 10 (a British size 12). In the modeling world that's news: regular figures with curves are not common. You only have to think of the furor caused by photographer Nick Knight's pictures of curvy girls for Vogue a couple of years ago. Voluptuousness in Vogue is not something you see every month. Then there's our own size 14 Sophie Dahl. Although she's been on the fashion scene for a good few years, it is only now that she is losing her token oversize tag, and getting photographed for being beautiful rather than just being big.
One thousand women entered the American Plus Models Search on day one. "There are something like 70 million women in America who are an American size 12 (British size 14) or over. "Women are getting bigger, and that can't be ignored," says Kristi McCormick, Director of Special Projects at Wilhelmina. So of course it makes sense to reflect them in the fashion market, and in the press. And it also makes sense that this trend is really picking up in America, where more than any other nation they respond to consumer needs.
The model search is being run in conjunction with Mode, the first American high-end fashion magazine to target women who are an American size 12 and up. "There is an incredible demand for new, full-figured models," says Abbie Britton, Mode's editor in chief. "The timing of this contest is perfect, because the apparel market for full-figured women is exploding."
Wilhelmina already has a stable of "plus" models. Heading up what they call their Ten-20 division, is actress Liv Tyler's sister, Mia, "Beauty comes in all different packages," says the 19-year-old. "If you're a size 12, then you're not any less beautiful than a size four."
Many of the models at Wilhelmina are vocal about the lack of real-sized women represented in the fashion industry. Especially as some of them have been cast out by former agencies for putting on weight. Kate Dillon, who is now a curvaceous American size 14, battled with her weight for three years to maintain what she considered her "model" figure, an American size six. When she realized she was anorexic, she turned to a nutritionist and subsequently gained 15 pounds. Her old agency badgered her to lose it again, so she quit. Wilhelmina signed her up two years later.
Natalie Laughlin, know as the Cindy Crawford of plus models, was particularly alarmed by a recent edition of British Marie Claire. "It was all about body image and there were plenty of articles on how you should be happy with your body, and just be healthy, whatever size you are. But then they only showed skinny girls in the photographs. I was shocked."
It's this kind of fashion attitude which will be the hardest to break. At the couture shows, healthiness caught on in a small way, but of course none of the models had the kind of curves that men always say they like.
Of course I want to work for Vogue and Marie Claire," says Natalie, "But it's a struggle to get photographed in a beautiful way with great photographers if you're a plus-sized model. But slowly, it's happening." She's done advertising campaigns for River Island and Hennes, as well as specialist shops like Evans. recently Natalie also appeared in Glamour magazine and has been photographed for her fifth billboard campaign in Times Square. "We're winning the battle -- but then there's a need for it, women should be able to feel happy with themselves."
It's more than a year since Bill Clinton spearheaded the move against scrawny models when he castigated the fashion world for promoting heroin chic. Slowly the American fashion world is coming round. Hopefully it's not still true what they say about Britain being at least 10 years behind.
Source: The Daily Express; August 14, 1998