Plus-size clothing will have a dedicated show at Australian Fashion Week this year, for the first time in the event's 26-year history.
"I've been fighting and working for this for about 20 years now," said Chelsea Bonner, CEO of size-inclusive modeling agency Bella Management, which will curate The Curve Edit: One of 50 Fashion Shows. and presentations taking place in Sydney in May.
"If I had floated this idea even five years ago, it never would have happened," Bonner said. "It's a whole new world. The way we think about bodies, the way we think about ourselves is so different now.
Diversity has become a watchword for the fashion industry in recent years. But at the higher end of the market, size inclusiveness is a particular sticking point. In Australia, many designers who present their collections at fashion week do not make clothes above a size 12 or 14.
Last year's Australian Fashion Week drew heavy criticism for its lack of taller bodies on the runway, with model Kate Wasley calling size diversity "non-existent". After the 2021 event, artist and model Basjia Almaan, who has appeared in several shows, also spoke out. "Yes, I'm a curve model but I'm still palatable. I'm a size 12-14," she wrote on Instagram. "Where were the biggest bodies."
Bonner pitched the idea for a plus-size show to IMG, the US-based events company that owns Australian Fashion Week. She says the concept was welcomed with open arms.
"We are working to create a more accessible and equitable industry by ensuring talented designers, creatives and fashion professionals of all identities have the opportunities and resources they need to succeed," said Natalie Xenita, who runs IMG's Australian fashion events.
The Curve Edit is not the only premiere of the event. Adaptive fashion – clothing designed for customers with disabilities – will also be showcased in a stand-alone fashion show.
"Disabled people deserve more than the basics," said Jam the Label's Molly Rogers, who will curate the show with fellow adaptive designer Christina Stephens, under the Adaptive Clothing Collective banner. "It's super important to show that people with disabilities can look…ready for the track," Rogers said.
The Adaptive Clothing Collective will tailor each runway look specifically for the needs of their models. Adjustments include magnetic fasteners instead of buttons and higher seat heights in the pants, for wheelchair users. "It's amazing to have diversity and representation [at fashion week]", says Rogers. "But … [creating] items that actually meet people's needs is more than symbolic.
The 2021 Australian Fashion Week closing show has been criticized on social media for failing to accommodate the needs of model and Paralympian Rheed McCracken, who had to push his wheelchair down a runway covered in streamers and of confetti.
"Being a adaptive clothing brand, I've been dealing with all this stuff," Rogers said of the incident. "And the main thing I would say about that is that they [fashion week's organisers] do not fear and do not be discouraged.
Australian Fashion Week is traditionally a trade event, where designers showcase samples of their upcoming collections to wholesale buyers and the media. The Adaptive Clothing Collective and Curve Edit will both break the usual fashion week business model.
Rather than selling the clothes on the catwalk, showcasing a completely custom-made clothing collection is about demonstrating a proof of concept, Rogers says. "We would like the media and fashion retailers to come and learn."
For a modeling agency like Bonner's, staging and paying for a show is also unusual. "Why is the owner of a modeling and talent agency putting on the show?" Bonner said. "I don't know the answer to that."
"I don't know if it's because the designers are terrified of putting anyone above a size 12 or 14 on the runway, or if the designers who supply [to those sizes] don't know how to apply or don't have the funding," Bonner said.
Timothy Hugh Nicol of fashion brand Nicol and Ford explains why designers might avoid catwalks of varying sizes. To commit to it is to "commit to double the work".
In 2021, Nicol and partner Katie Louise Ford held their first show, the week before Australian Fashion Week. In a single presentation, it featured a greater range of body shapes than most of the following week's shows combined. "We design for our community, [so] we broadcast from our community," Ford said.
This year, the pair will join the official Australian Fashion Week lineup. Nicol said the show "will be very diverse in terms of physique and gender expression."
"We work backwards, we start with our casting," Ford said. "It's the only way to do it, but it takes longer."
"That means we make a second custom version of each garment," Nicol said. "It's complex, it takes a certain amount of patronage and production." But, "it's a labor of love."
Nicol and Ford are not currently a wholesale business. The couple sewed all their clothes themselves, in their studio in Newtown. While Nicol said wholesale is something they could explore in the future, the presence of smaller brands like theirs in the fashion week lineup suggests the event is becoming less and less popular. a matter of commerce and more of a public interest.
"IMG used to be media and buyer focused," Nicol said. But now Nicol thinks IMG "can see a public interest in less commercial work."
Bonner, on the other hand, believes that committing to body diversity on the trails is a business decision. "It makes no sense not to accommodate at least a size 18," she said. "This is where most women live and sit."
The Curve Edit will feature six designers - 17 Sundays, Saint Somebody, Embody Women, Vagary, Harlow and Zaliea Designs - who Bonner describes as longtime clients of his agency.
Bonner says designers who don't cater to plus sizes spend 100% of their energy on 20% of the population. "There's a huge market missing for them, beautiful, fashionable, edgy women. I'm that woman," she said.
"We know how hard retail is struggling. We've seen so many great designers disappear, and I feel like if they had been more inclusive, this might not have happened.