Surprisingly, the appearance of a plus-size model on a fashion catwalk can still raise eyebrows, as Carolyn Moore.
Almost a decade ago, a little-known Canadian knitwear designer became the talk of London Fashion Week when he decided to cast three ‘plus-size’ models in his show to prove to critics that women of all shapes and sizes could wear his body-con designs.
Mark Fast made headlines in a world not used to seeing anyone above a size 8 grace a fashion catwalk — not least because his stylist walked out after the casting, refusing to work with bodies that didn’t fit industry norms.
Eight years on it would be gratifying to be able to say that Fast’s decision had a lasting impact on the fashion industry, but as Waterford model Kate Sullivan Vogelaar recently discovered, the inclusion of a ‘plus size’ model in a line-up of what the industry refers to as ‘straight size’ peers still has the potential to be newsworthy.
Last month, Vogelaar — a strong, healthy size 16 who stands just shy of six feet tall — was booked for Milan Bridal Fashion Week, and she found herself taken aback by the reaction she received. “I was excited about going, but didn’t think too much about it,” she says.
“I thought, plus size models are around a while now, there’ll be others over there. But it turned out I was the only one.”
Not alone was she the only one, it also transpired she was the first. On the job — looking every inch the stunning bride in figure-hugging lace — Kate quickly noticed she was attracting more than her fair share of attention.
“People were stopping to take pictures,” she recalls. “I started to wonder, is there something on my face? Is my lipstick smudged? Then a whisper spread through the crowd — ‘Wow, did you see the plus-size model?’ A TV crew soon descended to interview her for a feature that ran on the evening news. It was totally surreal,” she states, still bemused by all the attention.
The following day, she says “photographers were snapping me from the balconies with zoom lenses. It was a bit daunting, but I had to just compose myself and get on with my work.”
A consummate professional, having modeled since her teens, at 26 Kate is already a veteran of her industry. Her mum was a model and her gran ran an agency, so it was something of a family business, and at 15 Kate was encouraged to do a modeling boot camp.
“It was just to work on my confidence,” she says, “but afterwards they wanted to sign me, and that got the ball rolling. I’ve done the Simply Be competition; I was the first plus size model in Top Model UK two years ago; from there I just busier and busier.”
Last year — sensing the growing market for plus-size girls — she decided to take the plunge and channel her experience and expertise into running her own agency, PS Model Management, and she feels the attention she garnered in Milan is just another sign that the fashion industry is finally starting to embrace the fuller figured woman.
“I heard the word ‘bella’ used in the news report, so the coverage was positive,” she explains.
“Sometimes you might hear people complain that plus size models are promoting obesity, and we do get a bit of stick,” she admits, “but that debate starts because people don’t understand what a plus size model is.
Most of my girls work-out at least three times a week. They’re all fit and toned and healthy.
“The way I see it, I’m not a plus size person, I’m a plus size model – there’s a massive difference. ‘Plus size’ starts at a size 12, and it’s just an industry term that means I’m slightly larger than the 6, 8 or 10 you’d typically see on the catwalk.
“As a size 16 I’m actually the size of the average woman walking down the street,” she explains.
And that ‘average woman’ has been crying out to see herself represented by the fashion industry for decades, but only in the last few years has it seemed fashion has begun to heed her call.
Though the industry has flirted with the idea of plus size models over the years — sometimes for the apparent novelty factor; more recently with a genuine agenda to work towards progress and change — models who shattered the straight size mould often found they fell out of vogue after a season or two.
In 2005, however, things began to change. Crystal Renn burst back onto the scene as a plus size model having beaten the anorexia that consumed her as a teenager, when she struggled to maintain the weight loss that had won her a lucrative modeling contract at the age of 13.
Her autobiography, Hungry, released in 2009, came just a few years after four young models literally starved to death in a bid to meet increasingly unrealistic industry standards, leading to a frenzy of calls for fashion to call time on the trend for emaciated models.
Since then, Renn may have slimmed down once more to occupy a unique middle ground that defies categorisation — “In modeling, you’re either straight-size or plus-size,” she told Glamour magazine in 2014. “But I don’t want terms like that to define if I’m beautiful or not.” — but the momentum she kick-started a decade ago has not abated.
Spurred on by the growing body positivity movement and the rise of plus-size influencers and fashion bloggers, models like Ashley Graham — “I love her so much,” gushes Kate — are crossing over to enjoy mainstream success.
Graham cemented her position as a bona fide supermodel by sharing the cover of Vogue with models-du-jour Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid earlier this year, but where plus size models lead, it seems controversy is determined to follow, and Vogue faced accusations of using Photoshop to slim down her legendary curves.
Then there are the body-shaming Internet trolls who also follow every plus size success — a phenomenon Kate has personally experienced.
“I’m lucky in that I’ve only gotten one message on Facebook telling me I’m too big to be a model,” she says.
“I have friends in the industry who have been fat-shamed though. They get abusive messages, asking, ‘who do you think you are?Go lose some weight.’ There’s been horrendous stuff said to them.” It’s something she’s determined won’t get in her way. “It goes straight over my head,” she shrugs.
“I don’t even acknowledge it. My mum and my gran were confident, independent, strong women, so when I went into modeling as a size 12 it wasn’t an issue for me to be plus size; I didn’t have issues with my weight or my body,” she says.
“At the same time, I remember looking at models in magazines when I was younger, thinking, ‘God, they’re so tiny, I could never be like that.’ If you’re 12 or 13 and vulnerable and impressionable, and that’s what the media classifies as ‘beautiful’… it can be hard to ignore that message,” she admits.
“My models are in magazines and on TV, and it’s great to know young girls are seeing them and seeing that beauty can be diverse — you don’t have to be tiny.
“I’m not dissing regular sized models at all,” she adds, quickly. “My focus is on creating greater diversity within the industry, and that means including all body shapes.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved