The Real Reason Many Brands Won't Dress Curvier Women

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Fashion could be the perfect vehicle for celebrating female diversity, but a slew of recent red carpet incidents highlights just how much work is left to do to achieve that. The supposed roadblock? Women’s very own non-sample-size bodies.

When actress (and, increasingly, activist) Leslie Jones took to Twitter in late June to rant about the lack of designers willing to dress her curvier figure for the impending Ghostbusters premiere, she became the poster child, of sorts, for a problem that’s been brewing for a while. Way back in January, Bryce Dallas Howard communicated a similar lament at the Golden Globes when she explained how she was forced to buy her dress off the rack due to a lack of designer options for her size-6 frame. More recently, Vogue spoke to Orange Is the New Black star Dascha Polanco about her own struggles working with the industry.

“I want to break that barrier,” Polanco said of the rampant sizeism. “Even though I’m a size 8 or 10, I can still look as great as someone who’s a size 0.”

Their point should be obvious, but the fact that it needs spelling out should have the industry doing a double take. Christian Siriano certainly has, becoming one of the few champions for these ladies since creating a custom dress for Jones’s film premiere—just one highlight in a career dedicated to dressing women of every size and age. A mere handful of other designers, like Naeem Khan and Bao Tranchi, are also known for celebrating a wide range of body sizes.

So what, exactly, is going on here? Is the issue at hand really “pure economics,” as one stylist told The Cut in the wake of the Leslie Jones debacle, or is there a grimmer reality (one involving size-0 tunnel vision) at hand? To get the insider insight, I spoke to top Hollywood stylist Ilaria Urbinati, whose clients include Shailene Woodley, Ginnifer Goodwin, Lizzy Caplan, Nina Dobrev, Laura Dern, and Lady Antebellum.

Money is partially to blame, she concedes. “Designers—for what I believe to be financial reasons—are only making one sample of everything, and it’s the same sample that goes down the runway (shared by stylists, editors, and the sales team). So it’s always model size, and the average age of a model today is 14 to 19, so it’s basically a negative size. You would not believe how small these samples are—even my skinniest clients have a hard time being zipped into these dresses.”

Tailoring is crucial as a result, with Urbinati regularly letting out more fabric to accommodate her clients’ bodies when borrowing from the more diverse array of store stock is not an option. “Brands don’t even produce store stock until about six months after a collection is shown on the runway,” she explains, “which means only older seasons are available to loan in [a range of] sizes.”

But wearing an in-store item is an industry faux pas, of sorts, as both designers and celebrities hope to avoid snide tabloid coverage and the requisite “who wore it better?” lists.

“The brand has to pay for those items to be taken out of store stock,” as well, says Urbinati, who notes that they have very limited budgets. “It would need to be a celebrity getting [a lot of] press coverage for them to justify the cost … so a lot of stylists just don’t want to go there.”

Once upon a time, movie studios might have pitched in to help stylists actually purchase the clothes, she says, but thanks to a weaker economy, those days are over.

“We [also live in] a celebrity culture where everyone expects everything for free,” Urbinati points out. This is “understandable to a point,” given that it’s a walking advertisement for the brand, but she still believes someone (be it the brands, the studios, or the celebrities) should be willing to cover the costs.

Another potential solution? Designers working with models who are “actually the body shape and age of the women who can really afford to buy these clothes.” Sample size would increase as a result and, at the least, fit a larger swath of women. In the meantime, stylists like Urbinati are left trying to operate within the broken system.

“I always work it out,” she says confidently, noting, however, that it often requires favors and is far more time-consuming than it should be. “I’m not a sample size myself, so I feel that I have an understanding of women’s bodies of all shapes and sizes,” Urbinati further explains, pointing to her client selection criteria, which keeps superficial considerations off the table: “I choose to work with clients whose work I’m excited about—that is my only criteria.”

Perhaps the rest of the industry should be taking notes.

What changes do you think designers should make to accommodate all body types? Let us know in the comments, and then shop some of our favorite figure-flattering pieces!