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Tim Gunn says the fashion industry is failing 100 million women

CREDIT: EVAN AGOSTINI/INVISION/AP
CREDIT: EVAN AGOSTINI/INVISION/AP

New York Fashion Week started on Thursday. The event brings to New York a phalanx of adult models, model-celebrity hybrids Taylor Swift coerces into pretending to have fun at her Fourth of July parties, underage models who may very well be paid in clothing instead of cash, designers, celebrities, aspiring celebrities, Kanye West relations, photographers, media types, a handful of labor violations, and — in theory, most importantly — clothing.

It will probably not surprise anyone who pays even a tiny bit of attention to the fashion industry to read that it is a rare, rare thing to see a plus-size woman and, by extension, plus-size garments, appear on an NYFW runway. This status quo, like open-plan offices and holding national elections on a Tuesday, is objectively absurd but culturally normalized.

Tim Gunn, fashion mensch, occupies an interesting space in this world. He is, in some ways, the ultimate member of the establishment, a former chair of fashion design at the elite Parsons School of Design with a voice that sounds more like money than Daisy Buchanan’s. But he’s also proven himself to be an advocate of accessibility in fashion, lending his cred to that most lowbrow of ventures, a Bravo reality show. On the remarkably long-running Project Runway, where he serves as an on-air mentor, he is the voice not of fantasy but of reason, imploring contestants, always, to make it work.

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In an industry where it’s apparently acceptable to say, as Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld did in 2009, “no one wants to see curvy women” on the runway and only “fat mommies” would claim otherwise, Gunn is adamant that women of all sizes can be beautiful in clothing. The thinly-veiled judgment in comments like Lagerfeld’s is clear: Fashion is unimpeachable, and women who cannot bend their bodies to fit its constraints are failures. But Gunn takes the other view: Clothing is failing women, not the other way around.

On Thursday, Gunn published an essay on the Washington Post’s PostEverything blog: Designers refuse to make clothes to fit American women. It’s a disgrace.

He wrote (emphasis added):

I love the American fashion industry, but it has a lot of problems, and one of them is the baffling way it has turned its back on plus-size women. It’s a puzzling conundrum. The average American woman now wears between a size 16 and a size 18, according to new research from Washington State University. There are 100 million plus-size women in America, and, for the past three years, they have increased their spending on clothes faster than their straight-size counterparts. There is money to be made here ($20.4 billion, up 17 percent from 2013). But many designers — dripping with disdain, lacking imagination or simply too cowardly to take a risk — still refuse to make clothes for them.

Plus-size women are routinely ignored — or, worse, degraded — by the offerings (or non-offerings) available from “straight-size” retailers. They’ve been told by mass fast fashion chain H&M, essentially, that they’re welcome to purchase H&M’s wares, but only online. H&M won’t carry anything over a size 14 on its shelves, sending a pretty clear message to plus-size consumers: We like your money, but we don’t like, well, you.

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H&M To Plus-Size Shoppers: We’ll Sell You Clothing, But Only OnlineFast fashion behemoth H&M won’t carry plus-size clothing in stores, Racked reports. In keeping anything over a size 14…thinkprogress.orgPlenty of other mainstream brands have been called out by shoppers for similar failings. Lululemon, Target, Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret, Old Navy: All have refused, to varying degrees, to keep plus-size clothes on their racks.

Gunn cites a 2014 survey by ModCloth, a retailer that invested in plus-size shoppers by doubling its inventory in plus sizes in a single year. The findings reveal 74 percent of plus-size women are “frustrat[ed]” by the experience of shopping in stores. Even smaller-size women notice what these stores are failing to deliver; 65 percent of all women noted that plus-size women “were ignored by the fashion industry,” as Gunn writes. And, the kicker: Plus-size women are game to spend more money on clothing, but only for better choices in their size.

A 2013 survey by ModCloth of over 5,000 American women (of all sizes, from ages 15 to 65) had similar results: Women who “primarily wear plus-size clothing” are twice as likely as women who wear standard sizes to shop online each day.

There are more American women who wear a size 16 than there are that wear a zero or two, combined.