Another New York City fashion week - that semi-annual orgy of crotch-length minis, transparent tops, plunging necklines, skeletal teen models and faux congratulations all around. But for me, a follower of the fashion world for more than 20 years, the spectacle gets more depressing each season. Why? The fashion industry, this year as every year, persists in sending clothes down the runway that can't be worn by 90% of their potential market, for a laundry list of reasons. In the current economic climate, fashion week has become the spectacle of a struggling industry willfully committing suicide by ignoring real women.
By real women I mean those who have bodies who don't look like those of the waif kids on the runway. A brouhaha broke out this week over the fact that some designers make their sample sizes a size 0, meaning that most of the models are, in fact, underdeveloped fourteen year olds who have yet to develop hips, breasts and thighs. But the body shape of models on the runway is an old complaint. My issue is with designers who don't even cut their clothes for ANY women above size 12.
This exclusivity isn't just snobbery; it's stupidity. Any idea what the average size of women in America is? It's size 14 and a 36D bra. That's right, this is an industry that writes off more than half of its potential market from the get-go. Imagine if Ford were to manufacture cars that couldn't be driven by anyone who weighed more than 200 pounds. Or Apple designing a laptop with keys unusable by anyone over the age of 30. These companies wouldn't survive for very long. Is it any surprise that fashion houses are in such trouble? (Latest casualities: Maria Pinto, Ruehl, Phil, Christian LaCroix...)
Yes, there are a few designers who make sizes for women above size 12. But try shopping for them. Most department stores force their size-14-plus customers to shop online (you have to be thin to get the luxury of actually trying on clothes before you buy them) or shunting them to hard-to-find, out-of-the-way outposts in the store: a poorly lit, inadequately staffed, uninviting downer known as the "plus-size" section. One frustrated size 16 style maven told me that her choices are so limited, she's adopted a new shopping mantra: "If it zips, buy it."
This is an insult to more than half of the women in America. And it's proof of an industry's death wish. Women in this country, and especially those who are carrying a few more pounds than they should, want to look good. And many of them have money to spend on it. But they can't wear micro-minis, sleeveless tops, bare-back dresses, transparent blouses, or pouf skirts--to name just a few of the trends I saw at this week's shows. And the few super skinny 20-year-olds who can? Chances are their $30,000 salaries won't cover those $3,500 designer price tags. They're the ones buying the knockoffs at H&M.
So what does a real woman do? She shops where she can. Is it any wonder that among the few retailers who are doing well in these tough times are Eileen Fisher and Chico's -- stores where real-sized women can actually walk out with something that fits? Or that discounters like WalMart or Target have become fashion destinations by default for larger women? Even Ann Taylor has stopped offering size 16s. Fat chance you will find a size 16 at a stylish retailer such as Barney's, whose style guru admitted on a recent fashion industry panel that "We once had a size 16, and it was on the sale rack." Yes, because no woman of size would ever think of walking into Barney's for clothes! Or Bergdorf's or Bendel's.
What makes this so frustrating is that the money is there. Americans spend $59 billion a year trying to lose weight. A lot of those dollars could be going to stylish clothes that hide the pounds just as effectively as trying to diet away those extra pounds -- which aren't necessarily unhealthy, just unfashionable. But the fashion industry would apparently rather than go bust than risk looking un-cool -- that is, having larger women wear their labels. Some designers have used the excuse that it costs more to make bigger garments. Then by all means, charge more! At least give larger women the option to buy.
Fashion's Mean Girls attitude is not good for anyone. After all, fashion is supposed to make us feel good -- put this on, feel more confident, look sexy, look hot. But if stylish clothes are only available to the thin, it ends making most women feel even worse about their less than perfect shapes. We need to help women feel better about their bodies -- and, by the way, get them back into the stores shopping. Then maybe Fashion Week will really mean something. Hey, Anna Wintour, instead of another Fashion's Night Out, how about this radical concept: Fashion for Everyone, whatever your size.