There is a need for Plus-Size Education for Fashion to be truly inclusive

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Although it is being covered more in school curriculums, many institutions have made it an option.

Plus-size fashion is growing exponentially. The market is expected to reach $24 billion by 2020. This means that clothing larger than 16 inches is in high demand. Designers and the fashion industry continue to be challenged by the coronavirus pandemic. Many are now beginning to see the value of this market and its community.

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Although retailers seem to be more open to size inclusion in recent years, luxury designers are still not at the forefront of the issue. InStyle published a report in February that revealed that only 22% showed at New York Fashion Week and produced clothes that were at least 20 inches in size. This is due to brands such as Chromat or Tadashi Shoji who have been leading the charge for luxury size inclusion, and not just the industry. The key to a future that is size-inclusive is not about requiring change from existing brands. It is about preparing the next generation to be inclusive while they are still in school. This requires a greater emphasis on inclusive education. Unfortunately, this topic is not well covered at many fashion colleges.

“The conversation about plus-size fashion or fat fashion has been viewed purely as an activist issue and a social justice issue,” said Ben Barry, chair for fashion at Ryerson University, Toronto. Ryerson offers a fashion program that focuses on inclusion of all sizes, genders, and races. This is a critical business issue for the fashion industry.

Although plus-size fashion is becoming more prominently addressed in school curriculums, many institutions have made it an option for students to study if they wish. Instead of stressing the importance and vital role that plus fashion plays in the future landscape, these institutions have left it out. This reinforces the idea that plus-sizes are a distinct and lesser entity, and continues to drive the division between straight and plus sizes.

According to all educators interviewed, students are more interested in inclusion than ever.

Ian Harris, who was a former student at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in apparel design, said that creativity and following your passions were encouraged at his school. He graduated last year. “Nothing was ever covered in regard to plus-size fashion… however, they would help us to work through any potential fit issues if we wanted something in plus sizes.”

He says, “It was annoying that if my goal was to make plus-size womenswear and I had to drape something or get an exact fit without a model. I couldn’t really do that.” Cesar, a Los Angeles-based designer, also found it difficult to get help from a smaller fashion school in California. Cummings was denied permission by the dean to design plus-size clothing in his courses. Cummings was then told by a professor that he should just “manufacture clothes” in one of his classes. Cummings fought back, and finally got the plus-size clothing that he wanted.

Moore College of Art &  Design are just a few of the many schools that offer this option. Kent State University and Design allow students to concentrate on plus fashion in their final projects or classes. They also offer support in many ways if the student requests it. However, this does not make inclusive fashion an integral part of the curriculum. Students are only allowed to express an interest in plus-size design if they have a valid reason. Many young designers, still learning the ropes, will stick with the standard size 6/8 dress mold.

COVID-19 has increased the demand for curriculums that are plus-sized. Students are less likely to be able to see the market as many schools, including Fashion Institute of Technology, have switched to an entirely remote or online-first education system in the fall 2020 semester. Although plus-size mannequins are available at select institutions, it may not be possible for students to find one at home. This makes it more difficult to pursue plus size design.

Virtual schooling, on the other hand can allow for a more inclusive education. Students can connect with plus-size fashion professionals via virtual seminars and panels. Students can design for more than one size, with 3-D technology.

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All that to say: There is no shortage of opportunities, but it will require forward-thinking people to place importance on body diversity in a new way.

What would an inclusive curriculum look like in real life? Despite best intentions, no one seems to have the right formula for incorporating size inclusion into their curriculum. Although it is possible to design instructors for students who are above the size 14 to help them, there needs to be more to show how important size inclusion is to the industry’s future success.

We spoke to Jennifer Minniti who is the chair of Pratt University’s fashion department. She said that the school is currently redesigning its entire curriculum in order to address gender identity, size inclusivity, sustainability and gender identity. Minniti says that she believes it is more beneficial to include size inclusion in the program than to offer plus-specific courses. Minniti states that she is trying to find a way for critical study to be included in the core curriculum. “So that our students can be agents of change and make real change in the industry.”

The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles hired Nick Verreos, a former contestant and producer on Project Runway, to co-chair its Fashion Design program. He hoped to diversify the curriculum and shake up the industry. Although much remains to be done at FIDM Verreos states that students learn the foundation of design before learning how to apply it on different body types. He emphasizes the difference between a body that is 18 and a body that is 6. Verreos states that they are considering offering electives for plus-size design. “We do hear from many manufacturers and companies that young assistants [not knowing how design for plus] have entered these kinds of companies.

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We spoke with Lisa Hayes, Fashion Design program director at Drexel University, Philadelphia. She said that the university has been including size inclusion in their program for the past ten years. They have brought in plus speakers and educators in order to show students the options available to them. Hayes attributes a lot of this success to the smaller program that allowed them to take on new initiatives such as adaptive clothing for people with disabilities or plus fashion.

The need for education in plus-size fashion was evident at FIT in New York City. In 2017, the school hosted “The Business of Curves”, a forum whose associate producers included plus supermodels Emme Schuller and Catherine Schuller. Fern Mallis, the creator of New York Fashion Week was also a special guest moderator at the event. There were 500 students present, and more than 16K people watching the event online. The desire to learn more about the topic was clear, so Steven Frumkin (Dean of the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology) created a few courses in the technical design area for those students. FIT was still hosting inclusive events pre-pandemic and had hired a Chief Diversity Officer in order to continue the dialogue. The program, like other schools, has included 3-D design in its courses. This allows students to dress for a wider range of body types and sizes.

Emme founded Fashion Without Limits, a collaboration with Todd Conover and Jeffrey Mayer, at Syracuse University, in 2013 to teach inclusive design. Fashion Without Limits is now a Syracuse University program that runs for four years. Emme tells us that everyone wins when there is innovation, newness, and change within a design program. It’s hard to be the first but it is necessary to stand up.

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Angela O’Riley, a former Ford Model, has created a similar program called The Curvy Lab for high school students. It was held at The High School of Fashion Industries, NYC in 2018. It teaches young designers about inclusive design before they even enter college. O’Riley says, “When you’re designing, you need to be able make something that’s beautiful and appealing to your customers.” We’re training these children to see beauty in everyone, no matter who they are or what their customers are.

Fashion Without Limits’ and The Curvy Lab’s success raises the question: Is it better to offer plus-specific courses and programs in fashion colleges than to incorporate them into existing curriculum? Although the majority of educators interviewed believed so, Susan Moses, author of The Art of Dressing Curves as well as the executive producer of FIT’s “The Business of Curves”, thinks otherwise. Moses states that there are many aspects to designing for plus they are all different.

Moses has a point. Fit is important when designing for plus-sized bodies. Too often brands do not consider this factor and grade up from a size 8 to 10. There are many ways to add weight to your body, so one woman sized 18 may look different from another. Young designers could fail if they don’t understand the demands and extensive training required to fit fat bodies properly.

Another question is: Why not allow size inclusion in technical classes, but also offer plus-specific options for students looking to grow in this market? Barry says that incorporating plus-size fashion and size inclusion into the curriculum is not a one-off initiative, but a long-term systemic change. It’s not about offering an elective, but about changing the entire educational system.

Ryerson students learn about the importance of fat activism before they can design. They learn about the stereotypes of marginalized bodies within the industry and the importance of inclusive fashion.

Barry says that “[Before] the pandemic, we were creating our own dress forms at our Creative Technology Lab. We were engaging a diverse set of local fat-identifying individuals in Toronto that identify themselves as men, women and trans. Working with them to scan their bodies and build our own plus-size dress forms to ensure that there are a variety of shapes and sizes represented,” Barry explains.

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He says, “If fashion education is to be transformed, we must invite people to the table who have lived experiences that were marginalized or erased from fashion. That will help us to really illuminate whose stories haven’t yet been told, who doesn’t feel welcomed in our classroom, and what can we do to change that.”

Although there is no single way to meet the demand for plus-fashion, it is possible to prepare students for the inclusive future. It is not an easy task. As you can see, funding is a major issue. Access to these institutions for students who cannot afford it is also a problem. The pandemic presents new challenges.

If inclusivity is not a core value in these fashion institutions, there can be no expectation that fashion will ever truly represent the consumers. Fashion’s future is now and it is inclusive. Young designers will need to learn how to design for all body types before they enter the fashion industry. Fashion schools are bound to change as they face one of the most difficult challenges in their industry.

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