A Trip to Toronto to Talk to Fashion Students
About Dressing the Non-Standard Body
You can't tell, but that's me, second from the right in front of the screen, speaking at Ryerson University's Diversity Now 2014 panel discussion in Toronto for first year fashion students.
The brainchild of Dr. Ben Barry (far left in front of the screen), Diversity Now is Ryerson's subversive way of sneaking into the fashion industry young designers who are trained from the very beginning not to think strictly in terms of Kate Moss (sorry, Kate, no offense intended), but to think in terms of accommodating a variety of body types. Dr. Barry, who founded his own modeling agency, did his doctoral thesis on the use of models in advertising and demonstrated how sharply models diverge in looks from the actual purchasers of clothes. (See his very interesting article in Elle magazine here.)
In keeping with that theme, Dr. Barry invited a panel of people with appropriately diverse views on the fashion industry's response to manufacturing clothing for body types with different needs. Besides me, representing older women, there was Bruce Sturgell, founder of of Chubstr ("life in your size"), who tells his readers where he has (or hasn't) found clothes he likes in his size; Marie Denee of Curvy Fashionista ("curvy, confident, chic"), who confronts fashion houses on ignoring (or paying lip service to) plus size women; and Sharon Haywood of Adios Barbie, an organization "whose mission is to broaden the concept of body image to include people of all ages, genders, cultures, abilities, sexual orientations, races and sizes." Originally, the panel was to include Jean, but much to our dismay and disappointment, she had a previous commitment.
We had a really good crowd, and saw the face of diversity in the student body.
One issue (among several) we all had was lack of standardization in sizes. Bruce pointed out that sometimes he wears a large, and other times he wears an XXL because different manufacturers label their products differently. (Readers, who among you can't relate to that?!) You can return products that don't fit, Bruce admitted, but if you're shopping by mail order, this is a major inconvenience. And inconvenience, as we all know, often translates to no sale. (Bad for business!) Because he has been in the forefront of plus size men's issues, at least one manufacturer is discussing working with him on a line of men's underwear.
Manufacturers turn a blind eye to diversity at their own peril, and at their own loss, we agreed. No one benefits if right-sized clothing is not available - not the customer, not the manufacturer, not the economy. Bruce pointed out that "menswear is growing at double the rate of womenswear". Marie told a story about a single style of thigh high boots made by a single manufacturer that sold out because they were among the only thigh-highs that fit plus size women. Marie says these boots sell for more now on Ebay, second hand, than they did when they were brand new at the retailer. These are niche markets that will make millionaires out of entrepreneurs willing to invest in them.
|Marie, Bruce, Sharon, Ben Barry, Valerie, Robert Ott, School of Fashion Chair|
Among many other incisive questions, Dr. Barry asked if we saw any progress in the fashion industry. We agreed that we saw more people "like us" in print ads, but that it amounted to little more than tokenism so far. "There is no follow-through", said Marie. For women of a certain age, there is the occasional Carmen del Orifice, but wouldn't it make a nice change if we also saw the occasional Jane Goodall, or the occasional Alice Walker?
Sharon pointed out that the body image promoted by the fashion industry represents only 5% of the population, and when people struggle and fail to live up to that image, it can have a negative impact on self esteem. Studies have shown, she said, that there is a link between body image and purchasing behavior. She said there is a "moral reason to embrace diversity". She's right, but every first-year MBA student will tell you the market doesn't respond as well to moral reasons as it does to the bottom line.
The bottom line is: we've got the money! Willing customers shouldn't have such a hard time finding places to spend it. Ryerson University is challenging its students to design for all body types. We can't wait to see what they come up with.