Home » The Alarming Return To Size Zero

The Alarming Return To Size Zero

Harris Reed AW23

Marc Hibbert / Courtesy of Harris ReedLAUNCHMETRICS SPOTLIGHT

Anticipation. It’s a feeling that permeates the month of fashion weeks and feeds the newness that drives the industry.

As the autumn/winter 2023 shows moved from New York to London, Milan to Paris, unexpected and unwanted anticipation built.

Alongside the usual hope for fresh ideas and thrilling creativity, a recurring question gained steam. Where is the body diversity? With each show, the casting appeared to be heading on a reverse inclusion trajectory. And fresh data from the fashion search engine Tagwalk is proof that these thoughts were more than warranted. Its report confirmed the casting of mid or plus-size models for the season declined by 24 per cent, with only 68 brands opting to cast at least one, whereas 90 did for the season before.

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With the exception of a few standout moments, the autumn/winter 2023 season was a clear step backwards for women who don’t fit fashion’s long-held sample size. And its absence dominated the chat surrounding the season.

The sight of exceptionally thin models on a runway is nothing new. Instead, it’s the seemingly conscious decision to exclude other sizes by so many designers (after several seasons of gradual progress in this area) that overshadows here.

Ask anyone who attended Milan or Paris Fashion Week and they’ll tell you that the lack of curve models at the majority of shows was stark.

Notable standouts that went against this unwelcome, unwanted vogue were few and far between. At Alexander McQueen, French musician and spring/summer 2023 campaign star Yseult walked the runway alongside models Celina Ralph, Devyn Garcia and Jill Kortleve, while Harris Reed bestowed the honour of opening his Nina Ricci debut to Precious Lee. Ester Manas, who is known for her size-inclusive approach, continued this course in Paris. Examples were especially limited in Milan, though Ashley Graham walked Dolce & Gabbana.

In London, things were better, but still noticeably different to seasons prior. Consider Alva Claire (in calf-height boots, no less! IYKYK.) and Nyangath Lual, in the sort of natty party dress usually reserved for the slimmest proportions on the catwalk, at 16Arlington. SS Daley, Dilara Findikoglu and Di Petsa featured curve models, while Karoline Vitto’s 12-look collection, shown as a part of talent incubator Fashion East, was entirely size-inclusive. Then there was Monët-Lauren Gordon making a triptych of appearances, including a particularly radiant turn at Ahluwalia.

di petsa aw23 runway

Di Petsa AW23

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Add to this Sinead O’Dwyer’s autumn/winter 2023 show, which went understandably viral for its strides-ahead approach towards size inclusivity. The Irish-born designer made it look simple: here were clothes made for, and worn by, models that are representative of a larger, truer size spectrum.

The truth, O’Dwyer tells ELLE UK, isn’t quite so linear.

‘Last season was very challenging as it was our first runway. The majority of our samples were UK size 20 and made to the specifications of our fit model’s body. It was challenging to find enough models with the same size and proportion to work with, so this made the alterations really intense for our small team,’ she explains of her process, which is vastly different to industry standard.

‘However, this season we combatted this by making seven of our looks made to measure.’ This meant that O’Dwyer had to pre-cast models far in advance, rather than in the week of the show which is the norm. It proved a success: ‘We will definitely continue to work this way and hopefully even make more made-to-measure to take the pressure off on the week of the show. In addition, we also made samples in four different sizes so we could have more flexibility in the styling and casting phase.’

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If an emerging brand like O’Dwyer’s can so willingly accommodate a range of sampling, it’s a wonder that those who have greater resources choose not to. This, the Royal College of Art graduate believes, has two-factor reasoning: ‘The speed of the fashion industry has a real part to play, and the relentless seasonal structure of the fashion industry makes it extremely hard to create multiple samples. Larger established brands may have the money so there is an expectation that they would be the first to implement a more inclusive design process, but their business models are already developed without the infrastructure in place to design and sample in more sizes.’

For O’Dwyer and her contemporaries who are establishing their business structure in real-time, it’s an imperative notion that will shape their brands as they develop. ‘That is setting the tone for future change,’ she says.

return to size zero

Sinead O’Dwyer AW23

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This is a problem for the industry. And, ultimately, there’s a simple solution. Make clothes that extend to meet a realistic, inclusive parameter. Include plus-size models in your show and when you do, don’t make those samples simply available for editorial or campaigns, but sell them, too. It seems kind of uncomplicated when explained like that, right? But, as with many things in fashion, things are not as forward-looking as they might seem to be or are as welcoming of change as headlines (read: press releases) ring out.

‘The fact is fashion is quick to change based on trends, yet real tangible change is far harder to come by,’ Emma Grede, CEO and co-founder of Good American, a brand that has made extended sizing its modus operandi, explains to ELLE. ‘Unfortunately, there’s an undeniable reluctance in the fashion industry to embrace meaningful size diversity, but fashion is just a reflection of society at large and the existing bias that is so damaging.’

Grede insists that the reason Good American is able to offer such inclusive sizing is due to the fact that she and her team ‘think it’s important for all women to be considered, and we set out to do just that from the beginning! It was ingrained in our business plan from day one. While there may be added costs associated with this, we created the brand with a mission of inclusivity, and we won’t compromise that.’

In solidated thought and practise with many that exist within the size-inclusive space in the fashion industry, be that editors, stylists, designers or models, Grede admits that she can’t go it alone: ‘The sad thing is that so much of the industry isn’t representative of what women really look like, and while at Good American we are happy to be trailblazers, the truth is the real success will be when more brands follow.’

As with anything that centres around the female body, critiquing this issue is complex. Commentary on women’s bodies regardless of size is laden with misogyny, and so a pushback comes layered with nuance.

‘Body shaming has no place in considered fashion journalism,’ says Elizabeth Paton, a reporter for The New York Times. ‘But neither is being complicit in a deeply entrenched system that forces young women – and men – to compromise their health in order to book jobs. Ultimately they are the tip of the iceberg and thus the most visible as targets. Beneath them, and with far more power, are the designers – many of whom refuse to compromise on their aesthetics; the model agencies – some of whom are determined to book jobs for those on their books, and will make the models do whatever it takes to do that; and the brand executives, who ultimately could enforce change but are too nervous to rock the boat.’

It’s also important to also consider this return to the glorification of size zero by the fashion industry within a wider cultural context. Fashion is culpable for much of our fetishisation of thinness, but Hollywood and other creative industries are far from innocent bystanders.

return to size zero

Ester Manas AW23

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Consider the Ozempic craze. The anti-diabetic drug has become a fast track to weight loss in addition to its intended medical purpose, resulting in noticeably, almost unbelievably swift transformations.

‘I think the reversion to size zero fetishisation is not solely within the realms of high fashion at the moment – it’s part of a wider pop culture moment,’ agrees Paton. ‘So singling out any one specific model is probably not that helpful. However it is the job of journalists, influencers and those with a voice to analyse and dissect why this is happening and what it reflects about the industry – and wider world – right now.’

As in film, fashion’s casting directors have an intrinsic part to play in widening the parameters for those we get to see. Though not alone in responsibility, they are a key stakeholder in this issue. Before this season, things did seem to be changing pace as casting directors looked to models outside of standard sample sizing for the biggest runways, campaigns and covers. Some could be considered tokenistic talking points, but ultimately it was better than no representation at all.

Emma Matell, who works closely with Sinead O’Dwyer, is one such casting director who has become known for her size-inclusive approach. But, she admits that: ‘in the end, the clothes will determine how far you can go in terms of casting.’

Matell makes the point of accessibility also being something of a barrier to representation. ‘Unfortunately, accessibility often is something that is seen to take away the exclusivity of the product. The body standards being set to create an oppressive environment that on a commercial scale makes the product for the select few and thus make the product “aspirational”,’ she shares.

return to size zero

Dilara Findikoglu AW23

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Speaking to Matell makes you wonder if the ability to cast curve models in the luxury space is the motivation here. ‘A lot of the time the most inclusive brands are not high-end luxury brands and so the models that are being signed on agency curve boards often have a more traditionally commercial look,’ she explains. ‘The more “editorial” faces are being overlooked when the agencies go scouting and so often I’ll have to go find those people myself on the streets or Instagram. In one respect it’s more challenging, however, interesting, bigger-sized people exist everywhere around us and so if you choose to look for them it’s not hard. It’s a matter of rewiring how you’ve been taught to see beauty.’

Size tokenism within casting was certainly present this season, especially when you consider it was the same handful of curve models often seen in rotation. For autumn/winter 2023, it appeared that several opted out of the catwalk circuit. Their decisions obviously remain unknown, but you can’t help but wonder if they too have become frustrated with a stretchy dress for every runway exit, or being representative of a box-ticking exercise.

‘I find it astonishing that the rest of the industry is obsessed with debuting hundreds of smaller-sized new faces every single season but the selection of curvy show models is tiny in comparison,’ Matell attests. ‘We therefore always end up seeing the same four to five girls on rotation who are successful top models with a wide social reach, and usually not bigger than a UK size 14 to 16.’

For those of us that work in the industry, It can be hard to hear the stories that come whispering from backstage, where tales of designers notionally known for their sensitivity, for making clothes that celebrate women, cast models that find themselves falling ill backstage, all because they’ve not eaten enough for the pressure of not fitting in the samples.

This frustration with a lack of size diversity on the runway is felt keenly by the buyers in attendance. Often, it falls on them to push designers to extend size ranges, to cater for a willing, and wanting clientele.

‘We constantly think about the different women who shop with us and ensure our offer and size range reflects this,’ explains Liane Wiggins, head of womenswear at Matches Fashion. To offer an accessible edit that will prove profitable, Wiggins and her team work with brands to ensure a greater size inclusivity arrives online: ‘Although this is not always represented on the runway, we spend a lot of time in the showroom with our brands and within our own teams discussing fabrications, how they perform for different body shapes and sizes and ultimately how they will enhance women to feel great regardless of what size they are.’

plus size model fashion week

Wiggins, however, is sensitive to the demands and financial implications of extended sizing for brands, which Matches Fashion often helps with: ‘Brands don’t always have the capability to offer an extended size range and for some of our smaller and more contemporary brands, it can be challenging to extend across all sizes. It is a commitment in terms of product development, resource and cost. Over the years, we have worked with several of our brands to ensure we are offering a full and extended size run where we can so that we can cater to all our customers and their changing lifestyles.’

Like many women who work in fashion (myself included), Wiggins admits that she’s found this visible exclusion difficult: ‘I know over different points in time and depending on which stage of life I have been in, it has been frustrating when we haven’t been able to buy into everything we love.’ Now, with her books looking to autumn/winter 2023, Wiggins believes that: ‘the importance of casting diverse models in shows and campaigns is more prescient than ever; we have to represent women globally but it must be achieved with authenticity and integrity to avoid feeling tokenistic.’

As these conversations with industry insiders prove, the solution exists. It’s out there, but it’s not yet common practice to make for constant, seismic impact.

return to size zero

Chanel AW23

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‘The needle is only going to move meaningfully when brands who are driven by profits and not people also cast models who are not straight size,’ concludes Paton. ‘I think this season it was extremely clear that there has been a troubling backslide in size diversity on the runways. In Paris, only a handful of shows reflected a breadth of shapes and sizes. Really, of the blockbuster names, just Chanel could claim it had addressed the issue, alongside Harris Reed at Nina Ricci and Ester Manas. However, those designers have publicly and consistently put inclusivity at the heart of their brand values.’

And, while it might seem that she has her approach to sizing considered, O’Dwyer is not complacent in her practice. ‘I believe that inclusive design starts in the design process, it can’t be done as an afterthought in the grading phase. I also think brands could consider developing fewer styles each season and focus on the development of more sizes, this is also a more sustainable way of working. These are approaches we are considering as we develop.’

‘Seven years ago, people weren’t talking about body positivity in the same way they do now, but inclusivity shouldn’t be a trend,’ adds Grede. ‘There is still much more work to be done to acknowledge and address the barriers.’

But it’s Mattel’s parting words that are perhaps the takeaway of note industry insiders should listen to: ‘If I can’t be part of changing it for the better, I should be doing something else.’

Here’s hoping this is not a conversation we’ll be having in six months.