By Jessica Ng
The fashion industry is no stranger to controversy, and one contentious issue that surfaces time and time again is that of dress size. It has been just over seven years since Madrid Fashion Week banned size zero models from its runways, following the tragic death of model Luisel Ramos from anorexia. Hailed as a watershed moment by critics of the size zero epidemic, it seemed as though the long-overdue revolt against the wave of emaciated models had finally commenced. Indeed, with influential Italian fashion houses Prada, Versace and Armani quickly following suit, one could be forgiven for believing that change was the hottest trend to emerge from those Spring 2007 collections. So why is it that all these years later, the size zero debate is still making headlines?
Earlier this month, news emerged that Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of Chanel, is being sued by the women’s pressure group Belle, Ronde, Sexy et je m’assume (Beautiful, Round, Sexy and Fine With It) for his comments about larger women in fashion. Speaking on French television, Lagerfeld delivered the damning opinion that ‘nobody wants to see round women on the catwalk’. Now, although it is true that Lagerfeld is known, even by the standards of the fashion industry, to be an eccentric character (anyone remember his announcement of his desire to marry his cat Choupette?), it would be negligent to dismiss these comments as just another one of his outlandish, unassuming quirks. After all, this controversy comes hot on the heels of the revelations of former model Georgina Wilkin and former Australian Vogue editor, Kirstie Clements, whose accounts both testify to a prevailing size zero culture still on trend in the fashion industry today, confirming that Lagerfeld’s comments did not evolve from a vacuum.
Arguably, it has not been from want of trying that this whole size zero trend has not yet been suppressed. For example, in 2009, editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman spoke out against leading designers who were forcing leading editors to hire size zero models by making only very small sample sizes of their clothes. This was followed in May 2012 by the Health Initiative, a pact between the 19 international editors of Vogue to ‘encourage a healthier approach to body image within the industry’. Indeed, that the size zero debate is no longer a taboo to be brushed under the fashion carpet can also be considered as significant progress from the situation all those years ago. However, it seems that for every step forward, the industry takes two steps back through the critical comments made by influential figures such as Lagerfeld against those who don’t fit the size zero mould.
However, it is not only the high fashion industry who should shoulder the blame for advocating this unhealthy ideal as beautiful. Indeed, a quick look at the role of big name, high street companies in the size zero debate suggests that the proverbial buck reaches further down the industry hierarchy. The notable example here is of course Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, who sparked outrage earlier this year with his justification of his company’s exclusionary attitude to larger sizes. He infamously argued that only ‘cool’ and ‘popular’ kids belonged in his clothes, the implication being that any girls who are sizes XL and XXL (the equivalent of UK sizes 16 and 18) should immediately be deemed ‘not-so-cool’. Given Abercrombie and Fitch’s immense popularity, specifically amongst the teenage demographic, arguably Jeffries’ comments have an even greater impact in shaping popular views of beauty than those coming from within the high fashion realm.
In this light, perhaps the latest initiative by British retailer Debenhams should be seen as more of a watershed moment than 2006 in the size zero debate. This month, Debenhams became the first department store to display size 16 mannequins in its shops nationwide. Although from the cynic’s viewpoint, the use of average-sized mannequins is a great marketing ploy, it seems that Debenhams director, Ed Watson, genuinely hopes ‘that it will help people in some small way to feel comfortable about their bodies’. Moreover, H and M featured size 12 model Jennie Runk in their 2013 beachwear campaign, and not as a plus size model. Small gains have been made in the past year on the High Street, and perhaps with this support, the size zero trend stands a better chance of being overcome than ever before.
Clearly, the revolt against size zero still has a long way to go, and as long as particular figures in the fashion industry still show support for the trend, the controversy will always live to see another day. But despite all the setbacks, the campaign is still on going seven years later, and with Vogue editors and influential celebrities now at the helm, it seems that it is stronger than ever before. Indeed, with rumours rife that US Vogue editor Anna Wintour is courting Lena Dunham for a possible Vogue cover, it seems that the future is looking positively bright for the rebels. Amongst all the ephemeral trends that 2014 will undoubtedly shoo away as soon as bring us, perhaps the fashion world will also breed an enduring movement, involving the abolition of the size zero epidemic, which has too long infected the industry.
Photographs: Terry Richardson for Vogue Paris, styleite.com