‘It’s a whole new world’: Australian fashion week to feature first plus-size runway

The May event will also debut a stand-alone show for adaptive fashion designed for people with disabilities

Plus-size clothing will have a dedicated runway 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 20-something years now,” said CEO of size-inclusive modelling agency Bella Management, Chelsea Bonner, who will be staging The Curve Edit: one of 50 fashion shows and presentations taking place in Sydney in May.

“If I had pitched 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 inclusivity is a particular sticking point. In Australia, many of the designers who show their collections at fashion week do not make clothing above a size 12 or 14.

Last year’s Australian fashion week drew significant criticism for its lack of larger bodies on the runway, with model Kate Wasley branding size diversity “non existent”. After the 2021 event, artist and model Basjia Almaan, who walked 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 BIGGER bodies.”

Bonner pitched the idea for a plus-size runway to IMG, the US-based events company that owns Australian fashion week. She says the concept was welcomed with open arms.

“We’re 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,” Natalie Xenita, who heads IMG’s Australian fashion events, said.

The Curve Edit is not the only first for the event. Adaptive fashion – clothing designed for customers with disabilities – will also be featured in a stand-alone runway show.

“People with disabilities deserve more than basics,” said Molly Rogers, of Jam the Label, who will be staging the show with fellow adaptive designer Christina Stephens, under the banner Adaptive Clothing Collective. “It’s super important to show that people with disabilities can look … runway ready,” Rogers said.

The Adaptive Clothing Collective will custom-make every runway look specifically for the needs of their models. Adjustments include magnetic fastenings in place of buttons, and higher seat rises in pants, for wheelchair users. “It’s amazing to have diversity and representation [at fashion week],” Rogers says. “But … [creating] items that actually cater for people’s needs is more than tokenistic.”

Australian fashion week’s consumer-facing closing show in 2021 received criticism on social media for failing to consider the needs of model and Paralympian Rheed McCracken, who had to push his wheelchair down a runway covered in streamers and confetti.

“Being an adaptive clothing brand I was across all those sort of things,” Rogers said of that incident. “And the main thing I would say from that is that they [fashion week’s organisers] are not shying away and are not disheartened.”

Australian fashion week is traditionally a trade event, where designers present samples of their upcoming collections for wholesale buyers and media. The Adaptive Clothing Collective and the Curve Edit will both break fashion week’s usual business model.

Rather than selling the clothes on the runway, showcasing a collection of entirely custom-made garments is about demonstrating proof-of-concept, Rogers explains. “We would love if media, and fashion retailers, can come and learn.”

For a modelling agency like Bonner’s to stage and pay for a runway show is also unusual. “Why is the owner of a modelling and talent agency presenting the show?” Bonner said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”

“I don’t know if it’s because designers are terrified to put anyone over a size 12 or 14 on the runway, or if designers who cater [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, gives some insight into why designers might avoid size-diverse runways. Committing to it is “committing to double the work”.

Katie Louise Ford and Timothy Hugh Nicol at the Australian fashion week 2022 launch in Sydney
Katie Louise Ford and Timothy Hugh Nicol at the Australian fashion week 2022 launch in Sydney. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

In 2021 Nicol and partner Katie Louise Ford staged their first runway 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 cast from our community,” said Ford.

This year, the pair will be joining Australian fashion week’s official lineup. Nicol said the show will “be very diverse in terms of physicality and gender expression”.

“We do work backwards, we start with our casting,” said Ford. “It’s the only way we would do it, but it takes more lead time.”

“It means that we make a second and custom version of every garment,” Nicol said. “It is complex, it takes a certain amount of pattern making and production.” But, “it’s a labour of love”.

Nicol and Ford are not currently a wholesale business. The pair sew all of their garments themselves, out of their studio in Newtown. While Nicol said wholesaling is something they may explore in the future, the presence of small labels like theirs on fashion week’s lineup suggests the event is becoming less about trade, and more about public interest.

“IMG used to be all about media and buyers,” said Nicol. But now Nicol believes IMG “can see a public interest in less commercial work”.

Bonner, on the other hand, believes that committing to body diversity on runways is a commercial decision. “It doesn’t make any sense not to cater up to at least a size 18,” she said. “That’s 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 long-term clients of her agency.

Bonner says designers who do not cater to larger sizes are spending 100% of their energy on 20% of the population. “There’s a huge market they’re missing out on, of beautiful, fashionable, forward thinking women. I am that woman,” she said.

“We know how much retail’s been struggling. We’ve seen so many top designers go under, and I feel like if they’d been more inclusive, that might not have happened.”

  • Australian fashion week runs in Sydney from 9 to 13 May


Alyx Gorman

The GuardianTramp

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