Tags: fashion industry, Industry Insiders, plus size clothing, project runway

Project Runway and Tim Gunn are changing the way the fashion and retail industries look at plus size. Through his own comments and actions, Tim Gunn has promoted inclusivity for all body sizes and shapes. This stance has not widely been supported on earlier seasons of the hit fashion design show. A slight change in the format of the most recent season of Project Runway is sending a message of plus size inclusivity throughout the fashion world.

Background of Project Runway

Project Runway premiered on December 1, 2004. Each season starts with an initial field of 12 or more fashion designer contestants. In each episode, the contestants are given a challenge, like designing a garment only using items from a grocery store, or a car or they are given a theme like a prom. Contestants are also given parameters, such as a budget and a time limit, in which they must design pieces to feature in a runway show. A panel of judges scores the entries and the designer with the lowest score is usually eliminated from the competition. This process continues for each episode until one designer is declared the winner.

Place in the Fashion Industry

As a series Project Runway has developed a bit of a cult following, and for good reason. The judging panel routinely features titans of the fashion industry and has made a household name of Tim Gunn. Gunn has had a distinguished career in the fashion and design industry, including serving on the faculty of Parsons The New School for Design and as the chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne. On Project Runway, Gunn serves as a mentor to the contestants.

Draw of the Talent

A major draw of Project Runway are the contestants. Big personalities can sometimes lead to friction and competition. The winner receives a six-figure payout, in addition, to help to launch their own clothing line, features in major publications and more. The level of artistry and creativity the contestants use to come up with their designs throughout the competition is intriguing and entertaining. Many of the Project Runway contestants have parlayed their win, or even just their appearance on the show, into successful careers in the fashion industry.

New Season of Project Runway Generating Buzz

Season 16, the most recent season of Project Runway, will focus on ‘real women’ throughout the entire season. On previous seasons in a single episode contestant may have been given the challenge to dress individuals that fell outside the range of typical fashion models. Within the industry, most fashion models are a size 8 or smaller. On previous seasons contestants would create designs to fit models who wore single digit sizes for most, if not all, of the season. Throughout season 16 contestants must dress models from a size 0 to a size 22, so they will regularly be presented with different body sizes. This is an opportunity for designers to showcase their skill and ability to dress a variety of body types.

Tim Gunn Promotes Size Diversity

Tim Gunn has long been a proponent of representation for all body types in the fashion industry, including plus size. This means plus size dresses, plus size business casual and options to cover a range of needs and styles. In a recent interview, Gunn admits, “I’ve been wanting to do this for quite a number of seasons. To be blunt, the network has been quite nervous about it. The whole fashion industry is nervous, despite the fact that people are now talking about size inclusivity.”

Women’s fashion drops off above size 12. Plus size designer fashion is practically nonexistent. There is a clear ignorance of the plus size market. The mentality of the network is representative of the fashion industry. Tim Gunn and Project Runway are looking to change that.

Limited Choices

The unfortunate reality for many plus size individuals is that they make decisions about what to purchase based on what fits. Personal preference, expression, and style are seldom determining factors. To further compound the problem of limited options is the fact that most plus size offerings are simply scaled up versions of smaller sizes.

Designing Specifically for Plus Size

All body types are different and clothes fit people who are the same size differently. Scaling up clothing and calling it plus size will not deliver an accurate fit. “Designs need to be reconceived, not just sized up; it’s a matter of adjusting proportions,” explains Gunn. When Project Runway contestants are asked to create plus-size garments they need to design to fit the person. The size and proportions are different and the way clothing drapes the body needs to be taken into account.

Acknowledging the Plus Size Consumer

Recently, there are more retailers providing clothing in the plus size range. We are starting to progress. The industry is just starting to acknowledge the plus size segment of the market. It is bizarre that the fashion industry has been so resistant and slow to acknowledge plus size given that so many consumers fall into this category. By not providing acceptable plus size fashion, the industry is eliminating a substantial demographic and hurting themselves. This is ironic because this demographic dominates in the consumer realm with some studies identifying the average American woman as being a size 16.

Normalizing Plus Size Fashion

By only featuring plus-size models as a specific challenge in previous seasons, Project Runway reduced the place of plus size individuals in the fashion world.  By regularly including plus size models Project Runway is helping to normalize this demographic in the industry. Plus size bodies are starting to be seen as common and acceptable.

NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 11: Designer Christian Siriano poses backstage at the Christian Siriano show during, New York Fashion Week: The Shows at The Plaza Hotel on February 11, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Desiree Navarro/WireImage)

Earlier Contestants Embraced Plus Size Fashion

The most recent season of Project Runway is a step in the direction of inclusivity, but this is not the first time contestants on the show embrace plus size fashion. Christian Siriano, the fourth season winner, has gone on to launch a successful design career post Project Runway and is known to design for all body shapes and sizes. In his runway shows Siriano has featured models that range from a size 2 up to a size 16, and he recently cast a staggering 10 plus size models to walk the runway in a single show.

The Importance of Representation

Siriano has developed a celebrity following, and his fans run the gamut in terms of shapes and sizes. When modeling his designs they show the breadth of his ability. Siriano is a plus size fashion stylist and he understands how to dress different body types. He also understands that plus size women want to be fashionable. They want to have choices about their clothing and wear garments they like that also make them feel good. Consequently, Siriano has put his skill to use and designed for Lane Bryant, the perennial plus size retailer.

Season 14 Shone a Spotlight on Plus Size Fashion

Project Runway’s season 14 winner, Ashley Nell Tipton, made a statement when she exclusively used plus-size models for the final runway of the season. Tipton decided to track a different course after her victory. Many contestants go on to create designer lines, but Tipton wanted to get her designs to regular people. Particularly, regular plus size people. A collaboration with JC Penney allowed her to realize this goal and follow through on it.

Exclusively Designed for Plus Size

Tipton’s clothes designs are specifically for plus size women. Her clothing design fits and flows and moves with the plus size body. They are not simply a larger version of smaller clothing size. Tipton’s entire line is exclusively for plus size ladies and runs up to 30W / 5X. Style is important, but in Tipton’s line, there is also a focus on fit and quality. The clothing is constructed to wear well and hold up. Tipton personally tests her clothing and wears samples to determine if they are good to go or need to be revamped. The purpose of Tipton’s clothing line is to have fun and use clothing to showcase the personality of the wearer, while also creating quality garments.

Lack of Vision Was Common in Plus Size Design

There are unwritten rules in the fashion industry that govern plus size clothing. There is a notion that plus size clothing should hide the body. Garments should fit loosely, billow and flow. When sizing up proved ineffective the majority of designers likely just stopped trying.

Rule Breaker

Ashley Nell Tipton pushes the envelope with her design. Things like bright colors, white, patterns, and horizontal strips are traditionally a fashion faux pas. Fashion industry convention dictates that these design choices are unflattering to a plus size form. Since Tipton politely disagrees and features these elements in her plus size boutique line. Her work is daring and inclusive and gives choices and options to people who have typically been denied.

Creating Clothing and Building Confidence

Inclusion in the fashion industry is an exciting turn of events for many. Being able to find clothing that fits and is stylish gives consumers choices and allows them to express themselves in a way that has typically not been possible. “It feels amazing to be able to change women’s minds about having confidence. It’s all about loving yourself and feeling great in your clothing,” explains Tipton.

Expect Resistance 

From the network’s initial response to current contestants, there has been resistance to the more inclusive model lineup on season 16 of Project Runway. It is unfortunate, but also what you expect. The fashion industry has made it a point to feature thin models and typically celebrates the slender form. The industry has not failed to notice the plus size demographic. The industry has purposefully ignored plus size individuals. One season of Project Runway will not change that, but it can start a dialog and make people aware.

One Small Step for Project Runway

Previous efforts to feature plus size clothing design on Project Runway have been minimal, but the changes in the latest season are a big step. This is just one season, but it will likely cause a ripple effect through the fashion world. The reach of this season will extend way beyond after the air date. “I believe that this step is very profound, and it’s rather revolutionary,” said Gunn, “I believe we just have to keep doing it. One season only, and it’ll be forgotten pretty quickly and beg the question why aren’t you still doing it? And we need just to keep at it.”

Representation on the Screen and Clothing Racks

It is probably not a coincidence that two of the most well-known and successful Project Runway winners, Siriano and Tipton, design specifically for the plus size person. The inclusive model format of Project Runway season 16 makes sense given that the average American woman is plus size. As a result this season of Project Runway will expose the void of plus size representation on television and in the fashion industry. Plus size individuals will tune in to see designers create clothing that will fit them. They will also see models that look like they wear the clothing. The format should challenge the designers to showcase their skill and ability in ways they may not have had to previously in their work. Most noteworthy this season should also challenge the fashion industry to work to become even more inclusive and create designs that appeal to plus size consumers.

Leading the Way

As a result Project Runway is breaking down walls by including a more diverse model lineup in season 16. On some level, it is disappointing that it has taken so long for this to happen. This focus from Project Runway will hopefully increase awareness and show the industry that there is a demand. This is a market that just wants to be fashionable. Project Runway and Tim Gunn have the ability and are working to change how plus size fashion is changing.



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