When I look back and realize how far the plus-size fashion industry has come, I can’t help but think of those who fought and helped it evolve. Emme, known as the “first plus-size supermodel,” is one of those people. And she is far from finished. I don’t normally share interviews that I don’t do myself, but I felt like this is one you should read. She opens up about how she got started, her views on the plus-size fashion industry, and what she’s working on.
What inspired you to become a plus size supermodel, and ultimately role model for not just curvy women everywhere, but also anyone wanting to make it in the fashion industry?
First off, modeling never appealed to me as a kid. I was much too active and involved in sports to care about all that. However, in 1989, after being an NBC on-air reporter in Arizona, I fell into modeling during a lunch break from my marketing director job in New York City. I had just read an article in an inflight magazine on the new plus size industry that piqued my interest. Being tall and a size 12/14 was an asset – WOW! The cincher is that they were looking for new talent. It didn’t take me long to grab my red lipstick, give into curiosity and throw fear into the wind. Off I went, and the rest as they say, is history.
To think I would one day be called a supermodel was as far from the truth, as you could imagine, being a high energy, athletic, competitive and towhead kid. However, the writing was on the wall after I signed on and experienced the bizarre attitudes, pay scales differentials and lack of advancement for the beautiful plus size models size 12, 14, and 16. So, I took a stand, utilized my past reporting experience and began to use my voice on these issues in a very public way. What tipped the scales in this direction was a horrendous incident in the early 90s when a photographer called me a “fattie” to my face prior to shooting, and left his crew and me in shock after slamming the door behind him. That was my defining moment and one that almost ended my career, but actually fueled my passion for justice.
At that time, some high-end fashion photographers felt embarrassed (to put it mildly) to shoot plus size models. They would rather leave the money on the table than to have their film processed by technicians who would tell their contacts at magazines the inside scoop on who was working with whom. No one talked about this, but to shoot a full figured model no matter how beautiful she was, was considered a real kiss of death for a photographer’s career.
As with everything, I was thrilled to work with the exceptional hitters, Arthur Elgort and Francesco Scavullo, who were gentleman, fun to be with and always made us look incredible!
Thank goodness I didn’t quit when it got rough. The change we see today wouldn’t be here if the other plus size models or I had left. So, we showed up to work, made good money and persevered. The more challenges we were faced with, the more I began to feel that there was a real story going on here. So much so, I took out my old NBC reporter hat and really began to listen and take note of the lack of respect for millions of women wanting to look and feel beautiful every day.
When People Magazine named me as one of the “50 of the Most Beautiful” in 1994, I began to communicate from this platform about the indifference within the industry and the lack of clothing for the curvy customer. I found information and research that revealed that things were not adding up; that the shoe was actually on the wrong foot. Why were 68 million women above a size 12 not finding clothing suitable for their lives, and why was advertising of those clothes only on women size 0, 2 and 4? It just didn’t make sense to me, and slowly, to many others. I asked, “Why not add a curvy gal into the equation?” And with my bookers, models, press agent, forward-thinking clients and talent agents asking the same question in the mid 90’s enough times, we ALL created a cultural shift beyond the narrow aperture we had perceived a woman’s beauty to be.
Enter the next generation of outstandingly bold and gorgeous models to own this thriving and robust movement. What a magnificent time today is. It is really very special to see the enormous empowerment and opportunities that exist today.
What are some of the challenges that plus size women face today, and how have you helped to address them?
Over the last two decades, I’ve seen the subtle dance between the viability of plus size spending power vs. an industry not knowing how to address her as a consumer. However, it’s interesting when you see plus size lines pop up when a recession hits. I always say, “There’s never a recession that a plus size line can’t help!”
Strangely, the relationship with the decision makers of the 7th Avenue fashion elite has always been one with push and pull. In the mid 90’s, the bell rang loudly when the glass ceiling shattered and women above a size 12 saw an array of models, including myself, reflecting a more inspiring and aspirational image in major advertising campaigns, TV shows, and mainstream media. Until then, models with a curve in Revlon ads, People Magazine spreads or on billboards in Times Square were a dream. A new beauty standard was in place and was seemingly here to stay.
There were more choices, and the gatekeepers were beginning to listen…until the events of 9-11. The effects on the fashion industry rippled through an already shaky economy, then the spring market week turned a poor show as well. Clothing lines closed down, the country became scared to spend money, and the plus size community was forced to step back.
Regardless of the abundance of plus positive NPD research available, the demand remained untapped, stores claimed plus size lines failed due to the lack of customer support, that plus size customers were not motivated by fashion and didn’t have the money to spend on fashion-forward clothing. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
The community stood back in shock. What was once gaining speed was gone in a flash. The backlash sent a message loud and clear to motivated, dedicated and determined women and men behind the plus movement. It could be built again.
Today, I see a variety of bold steps in a new direction. The customer is being heard online, in chat rooms and through bloggers. Now feedback is directly delivered to stores and media. For example fashion blogger @GarnerStyle took a stand against Target last year. Most recently, plus model Ashley Graham took on Hollywood. This is not an industry sitting back and taking it. Ownership is in play now, and for those wanting to get in, there has never been a better time!
In what ways has plus size fashion changed since you hit the scene?
Today, our new fashion leaders in the market have NO shame listening to their customer and delivering what they ask for, and it’s paying off. The customer is not one boxy plus size, one personality, one plus fit. She’s diverse. She’s young, old, funky, rocker, conservative, contemporary, minimalist, Goth, preppy, hip, casual and more – just like her smaller contemporaries. She is here to be served well with a great fit and awesome styling, or else she can find others doing it better and will go there.
What are the brands that you believe get plus size fashion right?
The seasoned leadership at Eloquii, and Lane Bryant’s bold move to bring in designer talent put their stores firmly in their customers hearts and on the map. New online stores like HeyGorgeous.com increased sales 300% from one year to another, having evolved from MadisonPlus. New plus initiative at Ideel.com got a big full figured lift having Groupon sign on as its mother ship. Specialty stores Fashion to Figure and Torrid, Ashley Stewart, Forever21, H&M, and major retailer Macy’s offer fashion-forward options that include all her personalities and wants, to include bodycon dresses. Beloved designer brands such as IGIGI, Cabiria, Anna Scholz, and Marina Rinaldi have firmly established that they are here to stay.
What advice do you have for brands that want to market to plus size women?
Get on the ground and do your research, ask questions, bring them into your plan and have them as your guide. Don’t go blindly into your development without having an in-person or online advisory council. Catering to curvy women who want fashionable, well-made clothes is unchartered territory for many fashion brands. The mistake is thinking you know what she wants without asking her. Save yourself the heartache of losing your money. Dress her well, make her feel amazing, and you will have a loyal customer for life. And for goodness sake, stay consistent in your fit. Once you hit it, stay with it.
What changes do you hope to see in the future in regards to plus size fashion?
The more passionate people in the industry that think out-of-the-box for this customer, the better. For example, in the fall of 2014, I along with Syracuse University developed the Fashion Without Limits (#SUFWL) initiative where all designers learn how to design on size 2, 4 and 6 forms as well as size 16, 18 and 20 forms – representing all women’s bodies during their education. The goal upon graduation is that they’re able to create inclusive fashion lines for those manufacturers not wanting to incur the costs of learning how to do so with the majority of designers that don’t have this education or experience. It’s an initiative that has been wildly successful, and one that has motivated many design schools and programs to follow suit.
I also encourage stores to allow their customers to share their opinions. It’s from this feedback that the industry will develop real and long-lasting roots with those they serve. We will no longer need these plus size vs. straight size conversations in the future.
I want all women to find what they’re looking for and for designers to help make it happen. I hope this will ignite a new generation of fashionistas who seek joy in their reflections in the mirror. I want these women to project power on a job interview and feel sexy on a date or in the bedroom! Now that’s something to strive for!