The increasing visibility of models like Crystal Renn, Tara Lynn, and Ashley Graham isn't just a fluke: Each is represented by Gary Dakin, a man who's been trying to re-make the plus-size modeling industry for over a decade.
Dakin heads up Ford +, which is pretty much the only plus-size division that matters in the New York market. (Wilhelmina's is a distant second.) And over the past year, as a series of discrete Special Issues has slowly morphed into a trickle of regular editorial coverage and runway spots for non-straight-size models, he has seen something very unusual take form.
As Louise France reports, "It's been a struggle, for a long time," Dakin says. It used to be that plus-size models (the industry's term for any working model over about a size 8) were mainly used for catalog work, and while this could be lucrative — and plus-size models traditionally enjoyed longer careers than their straight-size counterparts — it was also aesthetically uninspired, tedious, and widely disrespected. "They had to come with their hair and make-up done already. No one wanted to clothe them. They were in and out before the straight-size girls got there. Everyone knew the big girls had to be photographed, but for the photographers it was the most boring work on earth. The magazines would not feature them. No one wanted to be the first... Not so long ago people were dismissive. Nobody wanted to shoot the bigger girls. Nobody wanted to give it a go. This year has been the culmination of about ten years of not saying no."
Some of the results of this tenacity have been V magazine's recent size issue, Glamour's "woman-on-page-94 phenomenon," which led editor Cindi Leive to pledge to include larger models in every issue, Tara Lynn's cover of French Elle, Crystal Renn's editorial appearance in Vogue Paris, shot by Steven Klein, Polish Elle, and high-end knitwear designer Mark Fast's choice to cast a handful of plus-size models in his show for two seasons running. Whether plus-size models are just having a cultural moment while editors seek free publicity for their "novel" casting decisions, or this is actually a turning point for an industry that has traditionally rewarded only the narrowest of physical proportions, remains to be seen — and there are certain aspects of this so-called revolution that could give a critical-minded observer pause. Renn's editorial, at just three shots, was the shortest of any in that issue of Vogue Paris (even though Renn had, in those pictures, more presence than any other model in the magazine). And Lynn, though she got over a dozen pages in French Elle, says she wasn't sure the shoot would even appear in print. "I knew the pictures would cause a stir — but only if they used them. I wasn't confident that they would." Last month, television networks briefly banned a lingerie ad in which Graham starred, demonstrating yet again our discomfort with bodies that deviate from the established industry norm. No other designers have yet followed Fast's lead and mixed plus-size and straight-size models in the same runway show, and some fashion observers find even that modest step "gimmicky." (Dakin has little truck with that kind of response: "They said the girls looked cataloguey, or fat. This is bullshit. These girls look amazing.") Alexandra Shulman, of British Vogue, won't be doing a special issue. "I don't think readers want very, very skinny girls; at the same time I don't think they want size 16 girls either." The Washington Post's Robin Givhan just sounds confused: "It's hard to know what an acceptable size model is any more. How big is big enough?"
But Dakin is confident. "We used to be a $6-800,000 part of the business. Now we're worth $5 million. Whatever we want, we get." And he thinks consumers' money will talk, too: "The numbers are staggering. The industry traditionally thought that a woman who wants to lose 10lb is not going to invest in the right clothes. That's not true." I happen to agree — the idea that larger women don't want great clothes is demonstrably false — but I know we haven't reached the point where a size 16 woman can shop for designer clothes with ease, either. (Or, for that matter, at the chains: Old Navy even exiles sizes 16 and up to its online store.) Lynn would know: "I spend half my life walking around in clothes with my bottom hanging out. All these gorgeous clothes and nothing fits me. No wonder they always shoot me naked." Although Dakin says "Renn wiped the floor with" straight-sized model Jacquelyn Jablonski when they posed side-by-side in the same outfits for V (kind of an odd statement for him to make about another esteemed member of Ford's stable), Renn had to do it in samples that mostly did not do up in the back.
Still, if agents with the right vision and skills can ensure that with every Special Issue, the cultural space assigned to plus-size models grows, then perhaps there really is reason to be hopeful for the long term.
The Man Who Champions Curvy Models [Times of London]