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I don’t have a good explanation for why most brands have fashion shows anymore, and I’m not sure that they do, either. The math on a show, which can easily cost six figures and generally lasts less than 10 minutes, makes little sense for all but the biggest, most powerful designers. It’s easier for retail buyers and magazine editors to evaluate clothes at appointment-only previews. It’s easier for digital editors to make web content out of high-quality lookbook images. It’s easier to communicate with shoppers by partnering with influencers or building a brand’s own social following to speak to them directly.
So why did Torrid, a mass-market retailer for plus-size shoppers in American malls, take on the enormous expense of staging a traditional runway show? And why did the retailer choose to do it within an institution like New York Fashion Week, which traditionally pretends the exact shoppers the brand hopes to reach don’t exist? I was there, sitting front row, and I still don’t have any idea.
Fashion shows, at their most effective, communicate specific things about a brand to a particular audience. To make it worth the expense, a brand has to have a fine-tuned sense of who it’s talking to and what it’s trying to say to them. When I arrived at Torrid’s show on Tuesday, I felt a little bit hopeful that the retailer had figured out both of those things. The enormous crowd waiting to get into the show was full of fabulously coiffed fat people across the gender spectrum; it was by far the most vibrant, diverse, and excited-seeming group of showgoers I’ve seen in the dozen seasons I’ve been attending NYFW as a journalist. As a plus-size woman who covers straight-size brands professionally, it was just refreshing to be around people who looked like me instead of showgoers whose clothes I could identify by designer and season but obviously could never buy for myself. If the brand was staging the show in order to talk to this crowd and their audiences, then maybe it would have something interesting to say to the right people after all.
When the doors finally opened and people started finding their seats, though, my optimism waned. Many of the people who looked like they had audiences full of Torrid’s actual customers filed to the back rows, while traditional press took their traditional seats at the front. And although that makes sense at mainstream designers’ shows, what’s the point of Torrid prioritizing fashion publications who will never feature its clothing or include its shoppers as anything beyond occasional, politically correct tokens? I was one of the only plus-size reporters seated in these sections; most websites and publications didn’t appear to have bothered to track down a fashion journalist with any experience in the market at all. When you’re a plus-size woman, you grow used to noticing the ways in which people with bodies like yours are pushed to the margins.
While scanning the front row for familiar faces before the show started, I hit upon Danielle Bernstein of We Wore What and could almost feel the remaining hope that the event would go well draining out of my body. Bernstein is enormously popular on Instagram, boasting over 1.7 million followers, but she’s also quite thin and isn’t well-known for using her platform to address any of the myriad problems her industry has with body diversity. She was a paid attendee at the show, based on her #ad-tagged Instagram in which she splayed herself against the set’s floral backdrop. Bernstein’s photo doesn’t feature any of Torrid’s clothes or the brand’s name, except in the caption, which often flies by unnoticed as users scroll through the platform on their phones. None of the plus-size bloggers with whom I spoke during or after the show had been paid for their time or to promote the event to their social audiences, even those whose followers range deep into the six figures. (Torrid PR has not responded to questions about which attendees were compensated).
I don’t blame Bernstein for taking the gig — after all, showing up to fashion events looking stylish is literally her job — but I wonder why Torrid felt its money was best spent with her instead of any of the dozens of women they could have hired who have bootstrapped careers out of nowhere by talking directly to plus-size women, the same people who are shut out of exactly the mainstream standards of beauty that make Bernstein a desirable, expensive fashion show guest. Ostensibly, the same people for whom Torrid wanted to break the barrier and produce what they were calling the first-ever plus-size show at New York Fashion Week. (That’s not exactly true, by the way: Eden Miller of Cabiria and Addition Elle have both previously staged NYFW shows.)
The whole enterprise could have been saved by a terrific set of clothes on the runway, but the clothes were never going to save us. As a brand, Torrid trafficks in exactly the kinds of juvenile graphic tees, nonsensical over-embellishments, and odd tailoring decisions that have long plagued the plus market, and I say that as someone who has things from Torrid in her closet. (To its credit, the brand’s bralettes are very good.) For most shoppers above a size 14 or 16, getting dressed is usually about making do with a bad set of limited options. In the past five years, the internet has slowly allowed those options to expand and improve, with indie brands like Universal Standard, Eloquii, and Premme and fast fashion behemoths like ASOS Curve and Forever 21+ popping up to fill some of the many openings in the clothing market for an enormous proportion of American women. Those improvements have put the dowdy, low-quality offerings available at most traditional plus retailers in stark relief, and none of them have figured out how to improve their own collections to keep up in any meaningful way.
A Fashion Week show in front of some of the most powerful plus-size fashion stars in the world would have been a great time to take a step forward and offer an underserved market something better, or at least something new. Unfortunately, anyone who’s shopped at Torrid will recognize a lot of what came down the runway: punk accents on things that don’t need them; corsets and cinched waists when the rest of the fashion industry is experimenting with sporty nostalgia and androgyny; mesh, lace, and translucent floral polyester that look inexpensive even from a distance. Plus-size shoppers can sometimes be defensive about criticism of the few brands that deign serve us at all, but I’ve got to imagine we’re all a little tired of them telling us we’re moving forward and then giving us more of what we’ve always had.
All of these things happened at Torrid’s show, but Torrid isn’t the problem, or at least not the entire problem. The mainstream fashion industry is not interested in serving plus-size customers, full stop. I’ve worked in fashion for nearly a decade, and absolutely nothing about how the vast majority of brands view fat women has evolved in any meaningful way in that time, even if brand PR has generally gotten a little bit less rotely dismissive of the idea when the question is very occasionally posed to them. That’s about messaging, not about action: Being openly derisive of plus-size women kicks the internet outrage machine into high gear, so it’s better to simply be quiet and vague about “diversity” and then do everything possible to exclude us from your customer base in any real way. In media, that means celebrating conventionally attractive Instagram models for taking on their rude commenters as the apotheosis of body positivity. Or, it means the review of the Torrid show that ran Tuesday at The Daily Beast, which was essentially a condescending pat on the head to the brand for literally making any clothes for fat women at all while Donald Trump is president. Attempts by plus-size brands to work within these existing institutions aren’t going to pan out. Their customers are not welcome.
When a plus-size brand tries to bend that reality to its will by using a corporate budget to buy its way into the performative exclusivity of showing at NYFW, this is what happens. Hiring a PR firm with experience in Fashion Week show production means hiring one that doesn’t understand how much the plus community values our self-made stars, so they give the money to a thin person with more followers. They evaluate the relative value of media attendance by traditional standards, which means those who prop up the exclusionary status quo are nonetheless given preference over upstarts who consistently fight for the dignity of fat people to do something as basic and necessary as clothe ourselves.
There’s nothing about selling clothes that requires we be reverent of the fashion and media institutions who marginalize us; that’s entirely voluntary, and there’s no reason a plus-size brand should play by the rules of a game that inherently dehumanizes its customers. There’s no runway show that’s going to convince them we deserve nice things.
Correction: September 19th, 2017
A previous version of this piece stated that Cabiria and Addition Elle had not been part of the official NYFW calendar, when in fact it had.