According to a popular German carnival song, “fat girls have pretty names.” Perhaps, but what’s abundantly clear is that heavier models have much prettier faces than their gaunt, undernourished counterparts.
Any visitor to last week’s Curvy is Sexy expo in Berlin could see that. During the simultanous Fashion Week, stressed-out, expressionless stick models, many with sunken cheeks, were parading size 0 German fashion on the catwalk in the Brandenburg Gate tent while their more ample counterparts over on Französische Straße were a lot more relaxed.
“We get a lot of valuable customers here,” says expo head Stephan Sonn. What he means is that the people who come to the Curvy is Sexy event actually want to buy — or order. That’s in marked contrast to many of the Fashion Week events that draw young bloggers and fashion freaks who just want to be in the know but aren’t really consumers of what’s on display. Curvy is Sexy is only open to the trade, and its mission is to get fashion for fuller women into the stores.
But perhaps “fuller” is the wrong word. “Most women in Germany wear German size 42 (U.S. size 14 or UK size 16) or larger,” Sonn says. “Our fashion starts at size 38 (U.S. 10 or UK 12), which shows you the absurdity of the situation.” The expo also caters to “normal-sized” women who just don’t happen to fit into a 34 (U.S. 6 or UK 8) or a 36 (U.S. 8 or UK 10). The market is vast.
And yet what’s shown here is geared to significantly larger woman, those who can’t go into typical stores and find clothes that fit them. These are the women known in the fashion industry as “the problem cases.”
“Our customers want to wear normal fashion, the kind they see in catalogues and all around them,” explains Chantal Smits of the Amsterdam-based Yoek label. “They just want the clothes in bigger sizes.”
Which is why the Dutch designer develops her designs from current trends. Right now, that means a lot of sequins and very bright colors. The Yoek brand is about femininity and the joy of life, says Smits, and the message has certainly penetrated The Netherlands, where the company now has 100 stores. Overweight women are tired of hiding, she says.
Some habits die hard
Not all the exhibitors are as dedicated as Yoek to making fuller women feel really comfortable in their clothes. There are still a lot of dark colors. Black has always been the traditional fashion for fuller shapes, but that emphasizes hiding rather than showing. Many customers are just relieved to find many selections in their size.
Ilse Nemec of the brand Ulla Popken is an expert on fashion for the overweight. In fact, Ulla Popken was the first fashion brand in Germany that targeted this market deliberately and exclusively without shame, although it was something of an accident. “At first we were aiming more at moms-to-be and baby fashion,” says Nemec, head of shop-in-shop retail.
Then they began to notice that some of these supposedly pregnant women were ordering things like eight pairs of slacks, and it became clear that many of the customers weren’t pregnant at all, just fuller-figured. So the company moved to meet the needs of its customers, and now has some 600 branches in over 30 countries around the world.
More stretch fabrics, long sleeves, longer skirts. The focus of fashion for the fuller-figured is not the slim waist but the lush décolleté. Some brands increasingly offer — in stores but also on the Internet — exactly the same fashion they make in smaller sizes.
But do clothes designed for slim figures work in large sizes? Not really, says Nemec, who was serving canned Prosecco and colorful calorie-bomb candy snacks at her stand. “Many people think it’s enough to simply make small-to-medium-sized clothes in large sizes. But that’s not enough. It’s a whole other market.” Making the same dress to fit a size 34 and a size 58 U.S. 30, UK 32 quite simply doesn’t work. The larger sizes just won’t look good.
Most of the 54 exhibitors at Curvy is Sexy expo were still showing their “Plus Size” (the official fashion world term) clothes in the spirit of what overweight women have become accustomed to for decades: stretch black, capes to hide the curves, long blouses in discreetly patterned fabrics, single-color slacks with high waistbands.
Yet slowly but surely there are signs of fashion that embrace larger figures instead of feeling the need to camouflage them: brighter, more attention-drawing looks, and a lot more of them. S. Oliver has developed his own brand, Triangle, for plus-sized customers. Anja Gockel calls her line “Woman I am.” Sallie Sahne only makes clothes in sizes that run from average to plus.
Brigitte Models, an agency for plus-size models, was also represented. Fashion magazine Brigitte has switched back to using normal-looking models on their covers and in the spreads. None of the cheerful young women at the expo corresponded to the fashion industry’s ideal measurements.
A couple of hours earlier they had modeled in a fashion show that had the audience clapping frenetically. It was nothing like the measured response given to the size 0 models in a neighboring tent. The enthusiasm also had a bit of a “sticking it to them” feel — as if the audience were telling the fashion industry where to get off. As if to say, “No, I don’t fit into your fashion, and I’m just right anyway. Exactly the way I am.”