Clothing companies in France have a habit of simply ignoring larger-sized women. But led by a new generation of designers, some of them inspired by first-hand frustrations, the sector is finally showing signs of change.
PARIS — Leslie Barbara Butch offered quite an eyeful when she appeared, in February 2020, on the cover of the French culture and television magazine weekly Télérama wearing nothing but a dash of crimson lipstick.
The image is all the more striking because of how the DJ and feminist activist directs her gaze — purposely away from the reader — thus giving people free rein to study her ample curves and countours as much as they want.
"My body is big," says Butch. "I accept it, I show it."
Her goal in agreeing to display herself in this way wasn't just to grab people's attention. As incredible as it may seem, it was also because she has trouble finding clothes in her size, 54/56 (XXL).
"If I posed naked, it's because nobody wants to dress me," she says, with as much anger as sadness. "For fashion, fat people do not exist. They don't want us. We're invisible."
When the edition of Télérama was published, the activist thought brands would contact her, proposing partnerships. But her hope was in vain. The front page was widely praised, her beauty admired. But from the fashion word? Nothing!
A quarter of French women wear large sizes
Butch is right: In France, from size large up, it is extremely difficult to find clothes in stores. The demand is there, but not the supply.
Indeed, roughly a quarter of French women wear large sizes, if we are to believe the last national measurement campaign, from 2006. And yet, the ultra-competitive fashion industry seems bent on ignoring this whole segment of the market.
Most stores stop at 44/46 (medium to large). From an economic perspective, it makes no sense. It's a commercial absurdity, a marketing mistake.
The only solution? Order on the internet. "It makes me want to cry," says Leslie Barbara Butch. "I can't go shopping with friends. I have to order online the same article in several sizes to find the one that will fit me, then try it on at home — well hidden, since the stores do not want to see me or advise me — and finally send back the rest."
But even on the internet, the pickings are slim. This summer, she looked for dresses to go on vacation: "I found black, bland, clothes designed to hide me. But what I realy want are dresses with straps, color. I'd like some poetry!"
Chic souls with nothing to wear
If shopping is an ordeal for daily outfits, for special occasions, it's a disaster. Two years ago, Butch went to the Cannes Film Festival. "I couldn't find a single dress, I had to mix in a bra," she recalls.
This summer, she shot a film in which she goes to a ball. She says finding a golden evening dress in her size was hell. With the director, Marina Ziolkowski, they ended up finding a gown in the United States, which they altered to fit.
Gaëlle Prudencio, entrepreneur, author, influencer, body-positive activist and creator of the brand Ibilola, agrees. "My shopping budget, I spend it abroad and on the internet," she says. "If you want to be fashionable, find style, color, accessorize, there is no other choice. France does not have any large specialized brand, while it exists absolutely everywhere in the world."
For instance, Torrid in the United States has become a leading plus-size brand since launching in 2001. It went public on July 1 of this year. More than two thirds of its business is online, but the company also has 600 stores and a turnover of $1 billion. An immediate hit with investors, the stock ended up +15% at the end of its first day of trading.
The contrast with the situation in France is infuriating for young stylist Sophia Lang, herself a size 52 (extra large). As part of her studies at the Arts Décoratifs de Paris, she wrote Fat and Furious (to be published this fall), a manifesto in which she dismantles the French fashion industry and its failings.
The introduction is meant to be detached, cynical. "'Plus-size fashion is a category that has its own aesthetic," it reads. "It's mainly made of loose-fitting clothes, with lots of spandex, little creativity and not a hint of elegance."
But the text progressively rises to the top and explodes: "I would always rather skin my bare feet with broken porcelain than force myself to be like you... I deeply believe that we must break into institutions, legally or by force. We must destabilize established systems and affirm the power of difference."
All-size catwalks and Jean Paul Gaultier.
Lang admits that she sometimes tried on a garment in a store that was obviously too small, and that she had no qualms about ripping the seams out of pure revenge.
Now, though, this long-shamed clientele is finally taking the fashion industry to task. Women, especially younger ones, are much more comfortable in their skin than their elders. Singers Yseult and Lizzo, whose body positivity is central to their image, are prime examples. A few years before them, musician Beth Ditto walked for Jean Paul Gaultier.
These women want to feel beautiful dressed the way the choose, whether in loose dresses or leggings and crop tops. And they are numerous enough to make their demands loud and clear.
Every year on the esplanade of the Trocadero in Paris, the plus-size model Georgia Stein organizes an "all-size catwalk," a fashion show for everyone and for all shapes. Last June, she gathered 250 models from all over France. Amandine Van Audenhove, who was Miss Curvy Paca in 2018, took part in the event, wearing purple lace lingerie.
"I love fashion, I love to dress up, but I have to devote a lot of time because it is difficult to find what I like," says Van Audenhove, who enjoys flamboyant colors and elaborate makeup. "I accept who I am. I don't want to hide under black fabrics anymore. I want color and prints, but apart from Kiabi (a French ready-to-wear brand), which I can afford, I can only shop on the internet."
Barbara Butch created her own version of Jean-Paul Gauthier's perfume campaign
barbarabutch via Instagram
Les Jupons de Louison in XXL
Serge Carreira, a lecturer at Sciences Po Paris who specializes in the luxury market, explains things from the industry perspective. "A number of designers were trained in the 1990s, at a time when a cult of thinness was taking hold," he says. "As a result, they were inspired by this aesthetic in their collections."
Generations of designers have been trained in the idea that a size small is the limit. Déborah Neuberg is the founder of De Bonne Facture, a brand of men's clothing that offers its retailers sizes ranging from XXS to XXXL. "The first time I saw a Stockman [a dressmaker mannequin] that was 'fat' — that is to say with a little belly and breasts — I'd already been in the business for three years," she says. "This made me react. I realized that I had only been taught to dress slim bodies."
It's not just the mindset that's lacking. These designers are also missing the technical skill to design clothes that fit, as Marine Monloubou, founder of Les Jupons de Louison, which goes up to size XXL, explains.
"Up to size medium, women's bodies grow in a perfectly regular way," she notes. "You just have to add a few centimeters each time. After size large, it's completely different; the waist may have stayed slim but the hips may be much wider. The chest may or may not be larger. The shoulders may not be wider, but the thighs may be... It's much more difficult to adjust."
It takes more fabric.
It also takes more fabric. "For a dress, you need 1.70 meters of fabric for a 36/38, and up to 3 meters for larger sizes, in several pieces," says Emmanuelle Szerer, founder of Almé Paris, which specializes in providing sizes extra small to extra large.
A call on Instagram for XXS to XXXL volunteers
Szerer explains that as the garment is more in demand, it is also necessary to provide reinforcements where there is friction, and to not use certain fabrics that are too fragile. A significant amount of work must be dedicated to research, development and pattern making.
Déborah Neuberg was forced to take on this task at the very beginning of 2021. "I was getting feedback from the United States, where retailers were telling me that my shirts were made for thin, wiry Frenchmen and were not suitable for American body types," she says.
In January 2021, with her chief pattern maker, she launched a call on Instagram and asked for volunteers, from XXS to XXXL, to come and be measured from every angle. "We realized that from size large, we had to review all the gradations, making them more adapted to reality," Neuberg explains.
Despite the pandemic and extra tight manufacturing deadlines, the designer is reimagining what's possible. Starting with the fall/winter 2021 collection, plus sizes are offered for the American market. "Either I do things right and with rigor, or I don't," Neuberg says.
Fat girls don't have that luxury
Today, in France, plus-sizes are mainly available from entry-level fast fashion retailers only available on the internet: H&M (as the brand has quietly withdrawn its larger sizes department in its stores a few months ago), Asos, Pretty Little Thing and Shein.
The latest arrival among these global giants is Savage x Fenty, a lingerie brand launched by pop star Rihanna in 2017. It goes from XS to XXXL, with prices starting at 6 euros for bottoms and 12 euros for bras. "So the fat girls don't have the luxury of being ethical," Sophia Lang bluntly points out.
In recent seasons, however, we have seen the emergence of very small brands with inclusive aspirations and environmental concerns. They were generally created by women who were not satisfied with what they considered either too low-end or much too expensive for them, like the label Marina Rinaldi, almost alone in the high-end niche.
"I gained 25 kilos after my second childbirth, and I went to size large," says Emmanuelle Szerer, the founder of Almé Paris. "I couldn't find anything I liked. I was cut off from my body. One day, I found a small silk blouse in my size in my grandmother's attic and, suddenly, I felt beautiful again."
It was a revelation: Szerer, then a trader at the bank BNP, decided to change her life. She moved to Avignon with her husband, a digital specialist and launched Almé in 2017. Last June, she raised one million euros. She estimates that Almé will break even in 2022.
"We have a lot of engineers in the capital, people who are not particularly interested in the product but see that dressing women, no matter their size, is profitable," she says.
In Los Angeles, French-American director Marina Ziolkowski had the same experience of gaining weight. Until then, the young woman liked to dress in trendy Parisian brands such as Agnès b., Sandro and Sézane.
"But when you're a size large to extra large, those brands have nothing for you," she says. She is left with Kiabi and a few American brands, but none of them offer the well-cut collections with sober colors that Parisian women with effortless elegance like, and the Italian brand Marina Rinaldi does not match her style.
Parisian XXL style for American customers
"I got to the point where, when I found a dress that fit, I would buy five of them for fear of not finding them anymore. That's why I ended up creating my own brand, so that I could finally dress to my taste," says Ziolkowski, whose short film "19" was nominated this year for a César, the French equivalent of the Oscars.
In November 2019, Ziolkowski launched her brand Bonnie & Tess with the help of the Banque Publique d'Investissement (a public investment bank), the CIC (a financial services company) and the French Federation of Women's Ready-to-Wear. Bonnie & Tess offers simple basics in sizes small to extra large Little black dresses,white silk shirts, tuxedo jackets and trench coats come in noble, well cut fabrics.
"The idea is to create a permanent collection with an additional piece every three or six months," Ziolkowski explains.
This kind of Parisian chic immediately appealed to American women. "Sales took off right away, then slowed down because of the pandemic," says Philippe Gompel, the co-founder of Bonnie & Tess.
Gompel says they plan to raise funds within six months, as soon as the COVID-19 situation clears up, in order to develop the brand's reputation. "We are already being approached by funds and investment angels, which is a very good sign," he adds.
The two entrepreneurs are confident. "There is no one in our market segment," says Gompel. "So this market will grow."
Almé Paris specializes in providing sizes extra small to extra large
almeparis via Instagram
Breaking out of the mold
Modeling agencies offer futher evidence of growth in the plus-size market. Deborah Dauchot is the head of the Curve division of the Dominique Models agency in Brussels. "Whether it's in ready-to-wear, cosmetics or shoes, I have more and more requests where they tell me they want such and such a personality, regardless of the size of the model," she says.
"It's true, sometimes it's just marketing, displaying," she adds. "But we also have brands that really don't care about the weight of the girls as long as they give off the vibe they are looking for."
A former model herself, Dauchot has seen the market adapt. "There are now very young plus-size models on the market for cool, curve collections aimed at young people that we didn't see 10 years ago," she says.
The model Georgia Stein is not as optimistic. "It's true, I work a lot, and that's very positive," she says. "But I never get called for the shows... Some runways show a little diversity, but I'm still waiting for my chance."
What's unclear is how the luxury sector will evolve. In the ready-to-wear departments of big fashion houses, larger sizes are still completely absent — even if the most fortunate customers can naturally have garments custom-made.
The first plus-size models have appeared on catwalks for a few seasons, at Jacquemus and Dolce & Gabbana. But in the case of iconic French label Chanel, the model is always the same: Jill Kortleve, who wears an average size medium. Everywhere else, larger models do not exist.
The schizophrenia of an industry.
One exception is Ester Manas, a young French house created in 2019, with sizes that since the beginning extend from XS to XL. The talent of its founders, Ester Manas and Balthazar Delepierre, immediately seduced the fashion world, from Naomi Campbell to the American musician Jazmine Sullivan to French singer-songwriter Yseult.
The industry has also welcomed these newcomers with a series of awards, including the Hyères Fashion Festival in 2018 and the LVMH Prize in 2020. This delights but also surprises Balthazar Delepierre, who's a little perplexed by the schizophrenia of an industry that, while advocating inclusiveness, practices it so little.
"From a creative point of view, it is very exciting to talk to all body types! We create clothes that evolve according to women's weight, throughout their lives, thanks to gathers, buttonholes, lace," says Delepierre. "And from an economic point of view, it's nonsense not to talk to women who can afford to buy our collections!"
If the resistance is real, Serge Carreira believes that it will not last much longer. "Inclusivity — weight, but also race or age — is a fundamental societal phenomenon," he says. "Luxury brands are aware of this. For the moment, the proposals are still timid and can sometimes appear superficial, but we are well and truly at the end of a cycle, that of the stereotype of thinness."