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September 06, 2019

Inside India’s ‘Plus-Size’ Fashion Industry

Text by Rushmika Banerjee

Should plus-size be a “plus point” for a model’s portfolio in 2019? A feminist activist, a plus size model and a body positive influencer speak to Verve about elevating industry standards.

Earlier this year, The Fashion Spot (TFS) – a leading digital media destination that focuses on fashion and lifestyle content – revealed their runway diversity report from Fall 2019 runways. According to TFS, a total of 50 plus-size models walked across the runways of Europe and America. Leading the brigade were two New York shows, Chromat and Christian Siriano, which had 10 and 9 non-sample size models respectively. Closer to home, the Indian fashion industry concluded its fourth largest sartorial spectacle of the year with Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festive 2019.  The fashion week initiated several conversations, one of them was the plus-size show organised in collaboration with aLL – The Plus Size Store and designer Rina Dhaka. The show started with a small TVC by aLL that exemplified the glories of being plus-sized. The visual representation was on point as the creators made sure that they didn’t shy away from using real individuals, however, the size-positive message that that they wanted to convey was exalted in a bid to distinguish the plus-size category. The commercial was riddled with problematic one-liners such as “log aapko khaate-peete ghar ka samajhte hain” (I look like I belong to a family that can afford a good meal), “Hum auro se thhoda zyaada jeete hain” (We live life more whole-heartedly than others) and “Jo aap se pyaar karta hai, saccha pyaar karta hai” (People love you for who you are).

Body positive fashion and lifestyle blogger, Aashna Bhagwani says, “I like the fact that I am actually seeing some plus-size models in mainstream media and that brands are giving plus-size models a chance while trying to advertise their products. At the same time, however, some brands tend to put down other body types in a bid to empower plus-sized women. When we talk about body positivity, it should include all types of shapes and forms. It is a good thing that brands are trying to make a difference, but they have to be conscious of the content that they are producing as it goes out to millions of people. ”

Are We Marginalising The Non-Sample Sizes?

On one hand, the industry is trying to normalise the conversation around plus-sized people by including them in runway shows and even designer campaigns; on the other, is the same industry is singling out one show and categorising it as “plus-sized” instead of encouraging the participating designers to have a diverse model portfolio. Manjima Bhattacharjya – the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry – weighs in. “I think norms are changing to a small extent because our role models are changing, for example, women like Serena Williams or PV Sindhu. Age may be less of an issue because it is older women who have the purchasing power. Hence, this kind of inclusion is market-driven. Gender fluidity is stronger because of the post Section 377 moment. So the modelling industry is responding to the wider environment, rather than actively or intentionally breaking out to be more inclusive.”

Inclusivity stems from acceptance and can’t be forced. Are we, as consumers of fashion, ready to see plus-size models on the mainstream runway? Are Indian designers even open to the idea of showcasing a range of sizes in their collections? The answer is not as straightforward as it seems. For instance, as India couture Week 2019 wrapped up, an interview by designer Falguni (of Falguni and Shane Peacock) came under scrutiny, as she advised plus-size brides to cover up from head-to-toe the and lose a few inches before the wedding. This is not what acceptance sounds like. Acceptance is when Sabyasachi’s campaign, unveiled on Instagram last month, features a plus-size model – Varshita Thatavarthi – who is not covered in unflattering silhouettes; she poses in a similar design as leading model Archana Akil Kumar. Thatavarthi was also a part of the designer’s runway line-up of his 20 Years Show in April 2019. Recalling the experience Thatavarthi says, “I’ve never interacted with another plus size model. Sabyasachi Mukherjee is the only designer I’ve worked with and he has never treated me any differently because I have a fuller body. It’s not a diversity discourse. He finds me beautiful and that is the only reason why I was made a part of his campaigns. Things are definitely changing now. Even though the process has been really slow as I haven’t seen much representation of curvy models on the runway or in major designer campaigns. But I’m sure there will be a day when women of all shapes and sizes will be embraced and promoted in the fashion scene.”

Representation Vs Marginalisation

While it is heartening to see TVCs, runway shows and campaigns that feature faces from different walks of life, in a country that lacks a standard sizing chart, it is difficult to determine what makes for a sample size or a plus-size. As an industry that is driven more by commercial profits than trends, it wouldn’t be unethical to demand a justified representation of sizes. Bhattacharjya thinks that there should be a change in terminology first. “There is some progress, you might say, at least some self-awareness that the industry may have now. Of course, I can’t say I am comfortable with this term (“plus-size models”) because it indicates that this is not the norm. “Model” is the norm and “plus-size” is an exception. I suppose the real change would be if we just called them all models.”

Social media has definitely played an important role in breaking stereotypes and celebrating individuality. A quick search for #SelfLove will give you a whopping 32.5 million posts on Instagram. The millennial and Gen-Z generation is here to accept exceptions. Bhagwani who has been a part of the blogging community for the last five years, however, thinks that terming a collection plus-size is more of a marketing stunt nowadays. “Whenever I have interacted with plus-size bloggers and models, one thing we have all discussed is how we are still not considered a part of mainstream blogging or fashion shows. There are so many brands that can have a wide range of sizes but they are not putting in any effort for some reason. The industry needs to normalise plus-size, it is not such a big deal.”

The Way Forward

Today, it is not only about celebrating the one (or two) show(s) that had a plus-size line-up. As we revere #real people on our Instagram screens, it is time we adjust to change in real life as well, sans inhibitions. Why can’t all mainstream designers have a line-up that is as diverse as the country is? “Firstly, the industry needs to change its point of view that plus size is odd size. They need to realise that plus-size women represent majority of the women in the country. Hence, we need better representation of these women on the runway and in the fashion magazines. We also need more plus-size women in powerful positions because they can relate and be better decision makers. As writer Nicolette Mason once wrote, ‘Inclusivity is the future in fashion. You can either get on board or fade into irrelevance’,” concludes Thatavarthi.

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