updated 16 Mar 2013, 09:44
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Thu, Mar 14, 2013
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Rise of the plus-size
by Louisa Lim

IT'S not a trend that even the great fashion maestro Karl Lagerfeld could've predicted - a parade of voluptuous models clad in skimpy swimsuits, clingy blouses and low-slung jeans appearing in fashion magazines, love handles intact.

Then more recently, an Australian model by the name of Robyn Lawley elicited more than a few gasps when she appeared on the covers of French Elle, Vogue Australia and Vogue Italia, as well as fronting a much-lauded campaign for British lingerie brand Boux Avenue and American fashion house Ralph Lauren. She is a size 16.

In her footsteps is American Kate Upton who - famous for her viral YouTube videos and Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover - graced the pages of Harper's Bazaar. The Harper's shoot earned Upton, 19, a glowing reputation and a nod of approval from fashion's Queen Bee, Anna Wintour, who used her for an editorial spread in Vogue USA. She was ranked the third sexiest model on's Top Sexiest Models last year, beating Victoria's Secret's Angels Miranda Kerr and Bar Rafaeli, both of whom are a svelte size six.

There's no denying it: fashion is in the midst of a revolution and models of double-digit sizes are gaining a foothold on runways, editorials and even TV shows (in 2008, Whitney Thompson became the very first plus-size model to win in the history of America's Next Top Model).

Unfortunately, the very opposite seems to be true in Malaysia - just ask Samantha P, a full-time straight-size model tied to a local modelling agency ("straight size" is a euphemism for the ultra skinny traditional fashion model).

"I can assure you that Malaysia isn't ready for plus-size models," remarks the 25-year-old.

Three years of experience in the industry has taught her that in order to make it big (no pun intended) in the Malaysian fashion world, one had to be small - 4kg underweight, to be exact.

"This is because spotlights on catwalks make you look fatter," she explains.

Despite being 173cm and a healthy size four, Samantha, was told that she was overweight when she participated in a modelling competition last year.

"I was constantly reminded of my weight every single day throughout the competition. I was encouraged to fast on water and sugarless soya bean, or plain crackers if I'm really hungry. They say things like, 'It's not healthy but hey, it gets the job done'!"

This begs the question: if a straight size model is finding it hard to stay afloat in an industry which suffers from fatphobia, what about a plus-size model?

Ironically, freelance fashion show producer and actress Bella Rahim, 38, who enjoyed a period of tremendous success on local catwalks compared to her peers (she has walked for Moschino, Salabianca and Melinda Looi since 1997), says that clients have asked her to lose weight despite knowing she is a plus-size model.

"Malaysia isn't like the United States or Europe. Curvy women are not celebrated," says senior manager of local talent agency, Hazel Loke, who has four plus-size models under her wing.

One of her talents, attractive 25-year-old Loretta Lucia Kwek Leng Choo with Rubenesque curves, has just started work as an administrative assistant manager because she finds it hard to land a gig as a size 16 model.

"I've been searching high and low for over a year," says Kwek, who is 165cm-tall.

"I've submitted my profile and photos to different agencies and I've attended casting calls and auditions, but nothing works. No one ever replies."

Incidentally, her 31-year-old sister Lorraine, also a plus-sized model, faces a similar problem. Her last booking was for a campaign with Ms Read many moons ago.

Even Bella confesses she would not be able to survive if she were a full-time plus-size model. "There are so many beautiful plus-size women out there with potential but there are a lack of opportunities," she says. She attributes her popularity with designers to "luck".

Luck or not, Kwek's photogenic qualities were finally noticed last year when an online fashion retailer named her its "face" in a photo competition on Facebook last year. But this victory would prove to be short-lived - instead of basking in the afterglow, Kwek had to endure a barrage of criticisms from netizens who posted disparaging comments under her picture ("Both men and women were equally nasty," she says).

Her critics have obviously not heard of Maile Nanri, an Asian plus-size model. Born in Japan, Nanri - like Kwek - is a rarity in Asia, where women, and not just models, are expected to come in packages of petite perfection.

She's 180cm-tall and wears size 12. But her girth, it seems, was not a deterrent, as Nanri became a minor celebrity when she was signed on by a major New York agency.

Defying stereotypes

There are a dozen modelling agencies overseas specialising in healthy, realistic sized models starting from a size 10. One of these is founded by Chelsea Bonner, the daughter of top Australian fashion model Nola Clark and actor Tony Bonner, who had an epiphany after her sister began a five-year battle with anorexia and bulimia.

"In the worst grip of her illness, my sister, who at 170cm and 45kg, looked me dead in the eye and said she would kill herself if she was as big as me at size 14," recounts Bonner in a letter to Vogue.

Scientific studies have shown that humans in general are getting bigger - taller and broader - and yet most of the models in Malaysia remain size two and below. Not only that, none of the established modelling agencies here represent plus-size models.

Andrew Tan, founder of one of Malaysia's leading model agencies Andrews Models, says he supplied models for a plus-sized fashion show before, but only once, a long time ago.

He denies, however, there is a discrimination against plus-sized models in Malaysia.

"In fact, I enjoy working with them more than I do with regular size models. They're more fun to be with. Unfortunately, there's little demand for them. It's a niche market in Malaysia," he says.

While couturier Melinda Looi acknowledges that models have gotten "too young" and "too skinny" over the past few years, she says a majority of designers see them as the right "hangers" to showcase their creations on stage.

Looi herself has defied industry standards by using Bella for some of her shows. She believes fashion should be enjoyed by regular people.

"I personally don't like meatless models," she admits. "To me, models must be a size M on runway. However, they must be size S to look good on photos. We always put on weight in front of cameras, no?"

Despite the presence of daring (and not to mention, enlightened) designers like Looi, Tan advises plus-size models to approach talent agencies instead, saying that they will have a better chance there.

"They have a wider spectrum of jobs available; not necessarily related to fashion, but things like TV commercials or stage shows," he says.

Meanwhile, Loke echoes Tan's sentiments, saying she has only received two requests for plus-size models for fashion-related shoots last year.

"We have very few brands in Malaysia that are solely dedicated to plus sizes. Even then, many of these brands are designed with older women in mind so they only look for plus-size models who are age 30 and above," says Loke.

Call it the curse of plus-size fashion. While the few brands that do cater to curvaceous women like Flow, Ms Read and Dorothy Perkins have upped the style ante in recent years, there's still a lack of options for plus sizes.

But, in Kwek's opinion, even worse is when plus-size labels use average-size models in their advertisements. "I've seen it before," she says. "It looks really silly."

This is because our notion of what constitutes plus size is changing - for the worse. On 2011, a magazine dedicated to plus-size fashion and models sparked controversy with a feature claiming that most runway models meet the Body Mass Index criteria for anorexia.

With a bold shoot featuring a nude plus-size model posing alongside a straight-size model, Plus Model Magazine released some interesting statistics regarding the conditions of models in the fashion industry today compared with previous years. An average fashion model used to weigh 8 per cent less than the average woman, but today, that figure is 23 per cent.

Author Dave Barry was probably not joking when he said, "There is a new breed of fashion models who weigh no more than an abridged dictionary."

In a blog post written by the magazine's editor-in-chief, Madeline Figueroa-Jones, she explains that there was a larger range of body sizes with models sporting sizes 14 through 20 when the modelling industry began. Today, however, advertisements portray rail-thin women.

"Small women cannot be marketed to with pictures of plus-size women, why are we expected to respond to pictures of small size six and eight women?" asks Figueroa-Jone .

Many readers, however, disagreed with Jones' message, arguing that larger bodies are unhealthy and should not be advocated by the fashion industry. But that, says Bella, is another misconception about plus-size models. "I join marathons, I climb, I hike and I used to play softball for Selangor," she explains.

Jones hit out at her critics in an interview with Fox News. "This is not about healthy vs non-healthy women. Because if that was so, most of the models on the runway in New York and Paris would not be walking. Not eating for days at a time can't be healthy. But I don't see anyone proclaiming how unhealthy it is and yanking them off the runway and denying them fashion," she says.

She adds that the feature is simply about "those plus size women who do embrace their size and want to be treated, marketed to and accepted as equals."

Future scenario

As some say, things have to get worse before they get better. A movement is taking place across the pond.

In May 2012, Conde Nast International released a statement on behalf of 19 editors of Vogue around the world, stating it will no longer promote models with physical conditions of blatant anorexia. The statement reads: "We will be ambassadors for the message of a healthy body image," and, "We will work with models who, in our view, are healthy and help to promote a healthy body image."

Loke, who's had eight years of experience managing talent, also says the situation is improving - albeit much more slowly - in Malaysia.

"When I first started out, there was no such thing as a plus-size models. Fashion designers are beginning to acknowledge their presence however. I've been receiving more enquiries as well," she says.

But perhaps chief creative director of Flow Lavina Valiram says it best with this quote: "The industry has come a long way in recognising individuality, but there's still a way to go. People tend to want to see 'perfection'. But perfection is subjective. We have created a mould, and most women struggle to fit into it.

"Women need to know it's okay to be who they are. A fuller size does not equal an inability to be fashionable. All is not bleak. Things are changing. The industry gurus are slowly seeing the importance of instilling a healthy, realistic self-image in women. And we, as leaders in retail, are committed to facilitate this shift."

Even Lagerfeld appears to be changing his mind.

The man who famously declared, "No one wants to see curvy women" reneged on his statement when he cast plus-size models in shoots and hired The Gossip's heavyweight lead singer Beth Ditto to headline a Fendi party (Incidentally, it's not Ditto's first fashion gig; she has appeared on the catwalks of Jean Paul Gaultier and Versus).

If the ever so obstinate Kaiser can do it, so can we.

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