Here's What It's Like to Work In An Industry That Kind of Hates You

Plus Size Fashion Industry
Photo: Gonzalo Marroquin/Getty Images

I have no idea what fashion actually is.

At times, I’ve appreciated it as an art form, one perpetuated by people with great talent who create an impossibly glamorous and complicated illusion. At other times, I’ve seen fashion as part of a larger societal mission to prioritize representation and inclusivity — Diversity! Extended sizing! Marketing campaigns disguised as feminist battle cries! And sometimes, fashion simply feels like consumer goods.

But fashion isn’t really any of those things, at least not completely. If fashion were art for art’s sake, or for the sake of social change, there would be limitless room for people of all races, body types, identities, and points of view to express themselves freely within it. People outside of the thin, white margins wouldn’t have to work twice as hard to have even half as much space, both in the industry and on the racks. Fashion also isn’t a consumer product — at least not in the free market, there-for-anyone-with-enough-money kind of way. I’m a size 22, and this fashion week will be yet another reminder that most of the clothing I’m surrounded by — 56 percent of it, in fact — is not made for me. Even when I can afford it, I can’t fit into it.

These days, I see fashion as a piece of my career, an opportunity to work alongside and be inspired by women like me (provided I can find them). On the rare occasion that I see a plus-size person at a fashion event, I feel the way I imagine I would if I found myself in a room with Beyoncé: thrilled to be in her proximity, but unclear on how we ended up in the same place at the same time. Beyond plus-size modeling and blogging — both of which are fashion careers you get because of your size, rather than regardless of it — plus-size people working in fashion are hard to come by. In fact, when I asked former colleagues to ask their colleagues for names of the plus-size people they know in the industry, a few had only one suggestion: me.

It’s not particularly surprising. The traditional model for The Type of Person Who Works Fashion is thin, white, mildly terrifying and at least as problematic. Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld; these were the names I heard growing up, both notorious for their harsh views on fatness. The thought of me, a chubby girl from Cleveland, pitching a story to a Vogue editor felt almost as absurd as imagining myself tottering down a runway. I've gleaned some inspiration from fashion’s outliers, the ones who didn’t fit the ultra-thin, sample-sized mold. Usually, when I found them, it was because they were being called out for their difference. Vogue contributing editor Lynn Yaeger was called “unconventional,” though usually with regard to her signature style. Glenda Bailey, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, was once described by The Guardian as having “a big bone structure.” Kim Hastreiter, co-founder of PAPER, was called “large” in multiple profiles.These women might not personally identify as plus-size, but for years they were as close as I got to seeing myself represented by anyone in the industry.

It’s not difficult to see why there are so few plus-size people working in fashion. In order to do so, you have to accept the fact that you could end up the butt of the joke (or at the very least, a curiosity), and spend a lot of time fawning over designers who purposely exclude you by making clothing you can’t wear. And as thin and as white as fashion was on the outside — the models, the folks dressing them — the people behind the scenes were largely held to the same standards. It's still rarer than it should be to see plus-size stylists, designers, photographers, and yes, editors permitted into the ranks, despite the routine praise few in the industry receive for going out on a limb to be more size inclusive. A sole model on the runway here, a few extended-size items for sale there.

The good news is, we do exist. That worn-out stereotype of a fashion person is less standard now than it was even five years ago. There are plus-size designers, stylists, photographers, editors, and writers, all working toward a more inclusive industry, that's representative behind the scenes, front-and-center, and on the racks.

In an attempt to be part of that change, InStyle is focusing on size inclusivity in fashion for the duration of New York Fashion Week. We’re breaking down exactly how many designers show extended sizes on their runways — and how many still don't. Our style stories will include the size range available for each article of clothing, so its relative accessibility is clear right off the bat. We’re giving you a first look at some of the up-and-coming plus-size brands and models, whose presence on the runways are an undeniable sign that progress is inching forward, as well as a street style gallery dedicated exclusively to plus-size people at NYFW, which has never been done before by a mainstream fashion publication.

Personally, I still don't know what fashion really is, and maybe that's the point. Maybe what fashion is right now — and what it was before — matter less than what it can be, and we need to be paying attention to the people who are defining that. The nine women below are shining examples, whomade space for themselves in an industry that all but refused to do it for them. Some of them have been at it for years; others are just getting started. Their experiences serve a reminder that even when fashion refuses to give people a seat at the table, there are those who show up and demand a chair.

Alex Waldman, Co-Founder & Designer, Universal Standard

“I used to be a fashion journalist, about a million and a half years ago. I used to also be a newspaper editor, and I oversaw the fashion section. I always got to go to these amazing NYFW shows, and I would sit there, and I would just look at stuff and know that I could never participate in it. I saw myself as kind of a conduit for other people to know about the beautiful things that they were going to get to wear. And in many ways, I accepted it.

I'd been thinking about creating a brand that I would want to wear, not the brands that were available for me to wear, because I was never satisfied with what I could find in my size. I wanted to look like I really understood style, and I really loved fashion — I didn't want to just dress myself. I wanted to look like my peers, I wanted to look cool, and I wanted to look current. And I didn't want to look trendy, or even worse, behind trends, which is what I felt was offered to me as a bigger woman. I'm just constantly picking the best of the worst, because that's all what's available to me.

When we decided to create Universal Standard, we wanted to make something that was not just another offering for plus-size women — why should plus-size women get something less-than? I just don't see any sense behind that. Here's the thing: If you're not making something that an average-sized woman wants to wear, with all of her options available to her, don't make it for a size 16. I'm influenced by the same television shows [as straight size women], I walk past the same windows, I read the same magazines. There is no reason why my taste level should not be considered as refined as anyone else's. The reason I don't look the way I would like to look, is because I don't have access to the same options. As I've always said, a size six woman has never had better taste, she's just had better options."

Lydia Hudgens, Photographer

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“I started working in fashion in 2011. I’ve been multiple weights during my career and I will say: I’ve worked with less straight-sized companies since gaining weight. Whether or not that has to do with my size, or more the fact that a lot of brands tend to view plus-size fashion as more lifestyle-leaning — i.e., less edgy editorial or minimal styling — perhaps they see my photography and pigeonhole me, assuming I can’t shoot something else. I think the expectation is that there is one type of plus-size consumer, so the focus always gets geared towards that: the happy fat girl, the pretty girl next door, the girl that wears to flatter her body and ultimately, be a sex figure or something deserving of attraction. People that push the boundaries, I do think, find it harder in the plus industry to make a name for themselves. I personally find that I work with only a handful of plus brands that I feel speak to the direction I want to see plus women being treated – as women deserving of fashion, regardless of size.

I work with all types of clientele, but I will say that since becoming more focused on plus, I’ve started to notice a change in my clients – less straight sized brands approach me now. Whether or not that is because they don’t want to be a part of the conversation, or aren’t ready to be size inclusive, I’m not sure. If I do work with a straight sized brand, my first question is always about sizing and pushing for diverse models, whether it be skin color or size. Personally, I want to work for a brand who’s pushing to evolve rather than remaining stagnant.”

Khalea Underwood, Editor, The Zoe Report, formerly Refinery29, US Weekly

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“You know how you sometimes have to skip the comments on posts, because they’re sure to be a breeding ground for hatred? Well sometimes, you hear those comments IRL — right at brainstorm meetings. Editors can be very candid when they’re trying to figure out who to feature, and will easily exclude a deserving actress or singer just because she’s fat. And as a plus-sized woman, it makes me feel super uncomfortable to hear that real-time judgment.

A few jobs ago, I was tapped for off-camera interviews where the talent was front and center… I’d be posing the questions somewhere on the side. At that same publication, there were certain staffers who were always asked to do camera work, and were offered media training. I wasn’t. The publication had a very specific audience: rich, white 35-year-old women. I guess my look — and my weight — wasn’t palatable enough for them.

I think that a diverse readership can’t be achieved if the people who are creating the content only look a certain way. I feel like some companies are realizing that, because after all, talent is what really shines. I hope that the plus-size tastemakers in this industry are able to forge ahead of that bullshit and continue to show doubters that style and beauty are multifaceted. Just because I'm a size 22 doesn't mean I'm incapable of serving my readers, literally and figuratively.”

Nicolette Mason — Co-Founder, Premme

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"When I graduated from college, I didn't even bother applying or looking for jobs in fashion, because I didn't really see anyone visible who looked like me in front-facing parts of the industry. It didn't even really occur to me that someone like me could exist and be successful in the fashion industry, and all the stereotypes definitely reinforced that.

There’s still a lot of fatphobia in the industry. I’ve been attending NYFW for over a decade, and still get jeers and stares. I have a very distinct memory of attending the Anna Sui show in 2011… a very prolific editor who I shall not name insisted on being moved so she would not be in my proximity. She seemed truly aghast that someone relatively unknown — and also, let's be honest, fat — was seated in the same row as her. At another show where I was seated front row, I had a PR intern approach me to ask if I was sure I was in the right seat — despite my name literally being printed out onto the chair. I’ll never know why they did that, but I can only assume it's because I didn't look the part of a front-row attendee.

I think a lot of people in the industry want to collect points for diversity, but are careful about their proximity to plus-sizes or fat bodies in fashion. On the other hand, I feel genuinely grateful that there are a lot of people who are genuinely interested and committed to breaking some of the size exclusivity and creating more seats at the table — and I do want to stress this. We all know there's shitty, fatphobic people in our industry but there are a ton of people committed to making that stereotype a thing of the past and making editorials more diverse."

Jasmine Elder, Founder & Designer, JIBRI Clothing

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"I was my first customer. I needed something to wear that told my story. I think that's what makes my work exciting. It's totally different from anything ever offered to women who look like me. It's been a joy to service plus-size women exclusively. Women are pressured to fit molds. We've all experienced it in one way or another. When a woman is worried about the way she looks, she can become distracted. When she loves what she's wearing, she can focus on whatever goal she has in front of her that day.

I never expected anyone in the fashion industry to notice my work, as it is dedicated to a historically ignored consumer. Lately, many big brands have decided to service plus. The designers who pretty much established the desirable silhouettes [are] rarely recognized. [Plus-size designers] aren't really included in the conversation, unless it's to copy what we've done. I always daydream of the day that the right person in fashion sees JIBRI and says 'Oh! Now this is interesting!' Maybe it will happen one day."

BeBe Jones, Stylist

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"I really take pride in my research. I’m always stopping by local boutiques, thrift stores, checking in with local designers for new pieces/collections, building relationships with showrooms, and searching online through my favorite sites — I’m always ready! This helps me a ton when it comes to styling any client, especially plus-size clients.

We need more plus-size women and men with stronger voices working behind the scenes. I never understood how a company can tell and sell a story from someone else’s point of view without that person present: It’s not real. There’s no way a skinny girl can tell me where to shop for me."

Shammara Lawrence, Plus-Size Fashion Columnist, Teen Vogue

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"As a fashion writer, it's my job to be in the know about all of the cool up-and-coming brands, what's trending, and anything that's newsworthy in the fashion industry. To keep up, I regularly go to press previews for brands where they showcase their newest collections. Often times when I go to these events, there's absolutely nothing there that could fit me, not even if I tried to squeeze into the pieces. I don't take it personally anymore, but in the beginning, it was really disheartening to see that a size 10 was the biggest size a brand carried. It felt like I wasn't worthy of wearing their clothes, even though I'd cover them through my work — that always stung.

When it comes to having access to clothes in my size, I don't know what I'm going to do when I eventually reach a director level at a media company and I have to find something to wear at the last minute for an important event, which is a frequent occurrence in this industry. The idea of pulling clothes from a fashion closet or calling in samples from a designer is laughable, since most brands, as it stands, only make clothes for people with far smaller frames than I have (ie: a typical fashion model). Essentially, I'd always need to have a couple of dresses in rotation for those moments, which just seems like extra work that I have to do that my slimmer peers don't even have to think about.

It may be cliché to say it at this point, but it's worth saying over and over and over again until the playing field for everyone is leveled: plus-size people, especially those of color, have to work twice as hard as their thinner and white peers to get anywhere in this industry. People are warming up to the idea of people of color and plus-size people participating in the fashion industry, but only as the token talent for the "diversity projects" publications and brands do once in a while, not as the decision makers who drive said brands, magazines or editorial websites. That's why I'm so vocal online and in my work about how talented plus-size people are."

Meaghan O'Connor, Stylist

Plus Fashion

"I’ve certainly been aware of my size in the fashion industry, it’s hard not to be aware when you’re often times the only plus woman in the room. But I’ve never felt that my size has prevented me from a job or an opportunity. My work speaks for itself and I pride myself on my both work ethic and being able to remain positive in a high stress environment. Those qualities are a part of who I am, and a part of why I’m good at what I do, and my size doesn’t change that.

I’ve been in the industry long enough to see the change. And while I’m not one to give time to negativity (nor notice or accept it) I will say that in the past, there was a different vibe. Smiles and hellos came with side eye and judgment. I assume it was because the disrespect towards differences wasn’t challenged.

Now that the level of respect and awareness around inclusivity is heightened (mainly because it’s being spotlighted), it’s become a more even-keeled space. Older brands, old school fashion people — they’re still learning. There is certainly still a long way go in terms of inclusivity and acceptance, but I think as the conversation continues and more designers extend sizes and continue to put all shapes/sizes into the forefront, the behavior will continue to evolve."

Kat Eves, Stylist

"My clients have included singer-songwriter Mary Lambert, The Daily Show's Dulce Sloan, The Walking Dead's Pollyanna McIntosh, comedian Jenny Zigrino, and more. As a plus-size woman navigating the fashion world in Los Angeles, I can always tell when I'm being underestimated because of my size. I get to decide in that moment whether I want to challenge their biases try to win them over, or avoid them altogether… there are way too many great, creative people working in this industry to waste my time on people who have forgotten that fashion is an art, not a weight contest. I've never been told outright that I've missed jobs because of my size, but I can say definitively that I have worked on shoots with people who told me they were so relieved to see a plus-size stylist, because they assumed that I would understand what's going through their heads as they step into a dressing room. In that regard, my size can genuinely be an asset.

While the pool for well-made, stylish, and high-end plus-size clothing is small, I find that working with indie designers makes all the difference for presenting a look people haven’t seen yet. I truly value the relationships I've been able to build with the indie designers who are truly unique and stylish, but also ethical and inclusive… it is very, very challenging to find brands that are both inclusive and ethical, and fit the aesthetic I'm going for. Sometimes, that means I can't work with an ethical brand to complete the vision, sometimes that means going vintage, and something that means working with an indie designer to create something custom that they're making themselves. In the last year though, I have seen more ethical plus brands enter the fold, as other brands expand their sizing finally, so I'm just hoping we'll continue to see momentum."

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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