BY MATTIE KAHN
Candice Huffine had waited for last season’s New York Fashion Week for close to two decades. The famed plus-size model and former ELLE cover star, who this week walked the runway for Prabal Gurung and Christian Siriano, watched a riot of designers walk plus-size women in their shows. She read the numbers like tea leaves; at least one model of colour was cast in every presentation, plus-size women were hired more than ever before, and trans models saw better and more holistic inclusion. It was, for Huffine and her peers, a triumph, “a high of all highs.”
This week, Huffine can’t hide her disappointment. New York Fashion Week, which wraps up this evening, could have been so, so much better.
On Tuesday, Huffine joined Siriano, models Precious Lee and Andreja Pejić, actress Keke Palmer, and Planned Parenthood Director of Constituency Communications Alencia Johnson for an candid ELLE.com panel event at the YouTube Space in Chelsea Market to discuss the changing faces and bodies of fashion. The conversation kicked off with an assessment; how did the business do this week?
“Give ’em your real answer!” Siriano said, a prompt for Huffine. And, oh, she did.
“[We didn’t do] as great as I thought we could,” she said, especially compared to the previous season’s shows. “I’ve waited for February for my whole career, for 17 years,” she said. “I was patient and positive that that day would come, and it did, and look, that was validation for me.” But after the record-setting season, Huffine “expected a little bit more.”
Six months ago, Huffine was sure: “I was like, ‘Wow, there’s no way backwards from here. This is the future. Look how excited everyone was, look at the positivity around it,'” she said. “How could you ever then remove that?”
“I just thought we would be wowed in so many places,” Huffine said. “If I’m going to be quite honest,” that isn’t what happened. While she was thrilled to be cast in shows by Siriano, especially with Lee, who’s also plus-size, she’s frustrated. There are so many “maddening assumptions” about what plus-size women want, first and foremost that they wish they were thin. “Proving yourself gets exhausting,” Huffine said, the tension obvious in her voice. “Why do I have to prove so much to just get a pat on the back or to get an outfit or to get recognized or for someone to realize I’m not alone, like, ‘She’s not the only one.'”
Pejić, who is trans, believes that fashion must be progressive; it’s a creative imperative. But Huffine and Lee think the case for inclusion isn’t just moral; it’s economic.
“The average size woman in America is a size 14,” Lee pointed out.
“70 percent, in fact, are above a size 14,” Huffine added.
“I know when I go into a store, the first things off the rack are larger sizes,” Lee said. “When I go to a makeup store, the first things that are gone are the darker colours.”
“We’re starved,” Palmer chimed in.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Lee, who, it should be mentioned, stunned in a head-to-toe Christian Siriano. “I understand creative control,” but what’s chic isn’t “one kind, it’s not just a 34-inch hip, it’s not just one shade of colour, it’s not one type of skin, texture of hair, height, weight.”
“I just think it’s really, really up to the people that are in control,” she said. “Like, I get asked so many times, ‘Why do you think such-and-such designer doesn’t do this or include this?’ And I’m like, ‘Why are you asking me? Why won’t you ask the designer? Why don’t you ask the people that are in control? The casting directors, the editors?”
“I just think it’s important for us to be aware of what’s happening and ask the right questions to the right people,” she said, adding, “It’s time to be efficient in our work. We’ve talked about it, we’ve made it a conversation, we’ve gotten attention. Now let’s do the work.”
That is, it’s time to make demands of the business — on every front, fiscal, moral, creative, aesthetic. Inclusion is more than a trend, Pejic said. It has become the status quo. “To be excluded, just because you’re trans, is the worst thing in the world. It feels horrible,” she said. “To be included, just because of that fact is better, but it’s still reductive…. It just has to become more normal.”
The implications have real consequence, especially for young women. “Fashion, what people think is good, is all subjective,” Palmer said. “If nobody up there looks like you, at a certain point, no matter how confident you are, you’re gonna say, ‘Well, damn. Am I beautiful? Do I fit in this world?'”
Lee hears that all the time, mostly from her followers on social media who reach out to tell her what an inspiration she is for them. “And it’s always in the moment where I’m just so exhausted. It get’s exhausting. And to have one girl say, ‘You know what? Because I saw you go down the runway with, like, your boobs, your skin color, oh my gosh, I’m going to go for it.’ Or, ‘I got out of that bad relationship.’ ‘I got a gym membership.’ I have been brought to tears on a daily basis, and I’m like, ‘You know, what I’m not gonna snap, I’m not gonna be discouraged.’ We are not gonna stop.”
Siriano, at least, is full speed ahead. Beloved for his before-it-was-chic emphasis on dressing women of all races and shapes, Siriano said his focus on inclusion began with the realization that “some of our number one customers that shop with us are over a size 10.”
“I was like, ‘Well maybe if we showed that on the runway or in a collection or in a campaign, they would feel more excited to shop,'” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re designers, we’re here to sell clothes. That’s what the job is. And I think that just triggered something [in me].” It isn’t hard, he said. It isn’t hard to cut clothes for women in different sizes. And it really isn’t hard to find beautiful women from diverse backgrounds. “I like girls that are powerful and strong and tall, but all different colors,” he said. “I like that. That’s what I think is beautiful.”
If Huffine could decide, every show at Fashion Week “would look like Christian’s show.” It wouldn’t only feature women in all shapes and sizes, but women of different “heights, ages, races, abilities, religions…. The world is made up of that. And I think that runways should showcase that and represent that.”
“It’s time to take a risk,” Johnson agreed, speaking for Planned Parenthood. “And if you are not taking a risk, you’re really not about people.” It starts, according to Johnson, with both sharing your individual story and realizing the limits of it. “It makes no sense for me as an able-bodied, cis gender woman to sit here and talk about an experience I don’t know everything about,” she said. “Bring other people to the table. Stop standing for people and start standing with people.”
And to those who control the beauty and fashion industries, she has just one message: “Your market is women, people of color, queer, and trans folks. You should be on the forefront of the issues that are literally killing us.”
And on that note, given the sheer size of the problems we face now, “it’s almost comical” to Siriano that this conversation — over what it means to make fashion for all —hasn’t been resolved. “Shouldn’t getting a dress and buying makeup be the fun part of the day? Like, that should be the easy part. That should be easy, fun, fabulous…. Going to buy a dress and not being able to find it —that shouldn’t be the challenge of the day. It just can’t be.
We’re living in crazy times,” Lee said. So here it is, the chance we’ve all waited for: “This is an opportunity for everyone in a creative industry to uplift.”