What do we want from Lena Dunham? If it’s more work, the Girls star has got you covered; she has two movies in the works. If it’s more of her infamous, chronic oversharing, she serves that up too, often in the form of longform confessional Instagram captions about her mental health, privilege, and body.
Do we want clothes from Lena Dunham? This week, the world got an answer: It seems like we do not. After announcing on Instagram last week that she plans to launch a collaboration with the plus-size e-tailer 11 Honoré, Dunham spoke to Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times about how it all came together.
She spoke of her body flippantly, as she tends to speak about most things, saying, “I have a straight-up gut, like an old man,” and adding that she does not like terms like “plus” or “curve” or “body positive.”
“The thing that’s complicated about the body positive movement,” she said in the interview, “is it can be for the privileged few who have a body that looks the way people want to feel positive. We want curvy bodies that look like Kim Kardashian has been upsized slightly. We want big beautiful butts and big beautiful breasts and no cellulite and faces that look like you could smack them on to thin women.”
But many women and non-binary people who have been championing size-inclusive clothing, mostly online and to little mainstream press, had something to say: not so fast. As soon as 11 Honoré announced the collection, there was backlash. Why was Lena Dunham, with her numerous controversies, picked to be the face of this line, especially when there were so many others who could have been seemingly better ambassadors?
In an hour-long Zoom call, six people from the plus-size community spoke to The Daily Beast about their thoughts on the collaboration, and how they felt about fashion more generally.
It was not The Lena Dunham Hate Hour, though the panel agreed that the actress’ foray into designing represents larger problems in this industry regarding representation and equity.
The group included Chastity Garner Valentine, a 40-year-old size-inclusive fashion designer and co-founder of the beloved CurvyCon convention who works with brands to create better clothing options for women size 14+. In a comment on an Instagram post from 11 Honoré, Garnier Valentine wrote that reps from the brand once asked to be on stage at CurvyCon “for free,” instead of paying the requisite sponsorship fee.
“But then you pay this woman who admitted to being a sexual predator in her book towards her sister. It’s the audacity for me,” Garner Valentine wrote in the comment.
(In her 2017 memoir, Dunham recalled stories from her childhood where she would bribe her younger sibling with candy to kiss her on the lips, open up her vagina with her fingers, and masturbate beside her in bed. Dunham would later apologize for the deeply uncomfortable way she joked about these stories; as an adult, her sibling Cyrus Grace Dunham came out as nonbinary and as transmasculine.)
The Daily Beast asked a publicist for 11 Honoré to comment for this piece and specifically on CurvyCon, but we did not receive a response on the record by deadline. (More on this below.)
Two fashion journalists, Shammara Lawrence and Gianluca Russo, who are also behind the body-positive @ThePowerofPlus Instagram group, joined the Zoom call, too. Lawrence is 26 and lives in New York; Russo is 23 and a New Yorker living in Arizona.
Rounding out the group was Karina Martinez, a 30-year-old expat who works as a beauty publicist in London and also does plus-size modeling and content creation on the side; Joi-Louise Hall, a 33-year-old influencer; and Alysse Dalessandro Santiago, a plus-size content creator and writer who identifies as queer.
“I wish we didn’t have to keep having this discussion, but I’m excited to be here,” Dalessandro Santiago said. Then we began the discussion.
What do you make of this collection—both the clothes and the fact that Lena Dunham is the face of it?
Chastity Garner Valentine: I hate to say this, but I actually like the pieces. But as a person who has created collections and understands the process, do I think she really created this collection? No, I don’t. So there’s that. The clothes, they matter, but I don’t know if they really matter. We know how celebrity collaborations are. It’s generally like, pick some things and put your name on it. 11 Honoré choosing Dunham seemed a bit tone-deaf. I’ve had an interaction with 11 Honoré on a professional level. I’m sure you saw my comment on their IG post about CurvyCon.
If anybody knows anything about conferences in New York, it’s a very expensive event. When brands come on board, they come as sponsors. 11 Honoré reached out to us for several years. Out of everybody there, they didn’t think they had to pay. I personally felt very offended because we had created this space that caters to the attendee in an elevated way, and [sponsor booths] are how it gets paid for.
The person who handled our sponsorship at the time said, they kept asking. And I said, no, it’s offensive because we’re two African American women who bootstrapped this conference from the ground up. And when you consider the 11 Honoré price point, you’re in here charging $1,000 for a gown, but you tell me you don’t have five or ten for a sponsorship? It’s a huge disconnect for me. They’re not the first to try to get in for free, but every time it happens it’s offensive.
That’s my take on it. If you’re not willing to invest in your presence, that means you’re not willing to invest in the community. You’re just not willing to invest, you just want to pop up, show up, and get whatever free opportunity off of the backs of two Black women who have had a huge impact, along with the other women in this community, on the plus-size. So it’s kind of annoying.
Gianluca Russo: To add to Chastity’s point, the issue I see here is more company-focused than collection-focused. To talk about the collection, some people have an issue with 11 Honoré’s sizing only going up to a size 26, and them not expanding on that. But the bigger conversation being had is a company issue. If you look at CurvyCon, they’ve figured out who exactly this customer is in a way that 11 Honoré hasn’t.
What’s confusing to a lot of us in this situation is we thought that they did understand who this woman is. But it’s clear by choosing Lena Dunham to represent their initial launch of a celebrity line, they seem to be out of touch. It seems disingenuous in a lot of ways.
It’s really twofold. In one way, she’s an incredibly problematic and controversial person who has done a lot of things to turn a lot of people off. And on another level, she doesn’t have a role in the fashion community. She’s not a style influencer or someone that any of us look up to for style advice. To choose her when there are two major factors working against her in this situation really shows that they value clout more than actual community.
That’s a really big issue we deal with a lot in the plus-size fashion space. We need to look at that hard, especially when we look at a brand like 11 Honoré, which has tried to build a lot of trust with our community. They’ve worked with many of the influencers we’re friends with, and to see them turn their backs on those influencers for a celebrity name is really discouraging.
Joi-Louise Hall: I had the opportunity to go to CurvyCon for the first time in 2019. One thing about women in general—plus-size, straight-size, mid-size—is when we shop it’s very emotional.
I felt like there was no connection with this collaboration. I looked at Lena, and I did not want her to dress me. Also, I had heard of her before, and watched her in a few things. But I didn’t see the collection connecting to her personal style or her red carpet style. I was really confused and asking myself, what is this?
Before The New York Times article came out, one of my good girlfriends and I were talking about it. 11 Honoré was starting to market it and hype it up. We thought, “What is this? We don’t understand this.” It just didn’t make sense. There are so many other plus-size models who could have been a much better fit. It felt like such a miss, and almost a slap in the face to the people who aren’t seen as “normal.”
For me, being a Black woman, this goes beyond color. Obviously, there are a ton of Black women, but there are a ton of non-problematic white women who could have been chosen, too. It was a bigger, collective issue. As far as the collection goes, it doesn’t connect with me on it.
Alysse Dalessandro Santiago: For me, the style of the clothing is not as important. We see a lot of these collections, and there’s never been one that’s universally loved. People are always going to have individual styles and bring their own stuff to the table, whether it’s super risky or conservative.
So what it looks like doesn’t matter so much as the questions: are these clothes filling a need, are they changing and adding something different? If you’re going to put so many dollars behind a collection—and these collections are not cheap—you should be doing something different. You should be really changing the game.
If you read The New York Times article, everything Lena Dunham said shows that she’s not really at a place with her body where she is super-comfortable being a person who is going to disrupt and change the game. She said things like, when we wear loungewear it looks like we’re lazy and have given up. And that’s a conversation we had years ago. But she is still there, because she’s not involved in the community at all. It just doesn’t make sense.
I put all the onus on 11 Honoré. Dunham could have said no, I’m not a fashion influencer—and she did say, no one has asked me to do this before. No one’s approached her before because she’s not a good fit. What is this collection doing to push fashion forward? Yes, it’s luxury but there are plenty of independent designers creating amazing luxury goods that we could support instead.
Karina Martinez: The onus definitely falls on 11 Honoré. Still, I was not surprised, but once again disappointed by Lena Dunham continuing to take space where she shouldn’t. That’s what prompted me to comment on the brand’s Instagram. I’m not someone who comments a lot on Instagram posts that have nothing to do with me.
But through her career, Dunham continues to put her foot in her mouth, apologize, be forgiven, and get a clean slate. That’s frustrating to see. This summer, during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, Lena Dunham talked about all the money she gave to certain charities and posted this long caption about how reparations must be interpersonal and ongoing. This is where she could have put her money where her mouth is in a real way. She could have declined doing the collaboration. She could have given the space to someone who has actually done the work.
It felt like she did the Sparknotes version of body positivity and fat liberation, and that’s what she spoke about in The New York Times article. It is really frustrating to see that again and again from her. Being a fan of so many amazing plus-size women, I think this was a place where Lena could have said, this is actually where I’m going to pay my reparations, take a step back and listen.
Shammara Lawrence: I totally agree with you. There were way better people they could have chosen for that collaboration. I just feel like this 11 Honoré collaboration with Lena Dunham shows a larger issue with a lot of size-inclusive brands putting their bottom line over what their customer base actually wants and needs.
If they knew just how disconnected Lena Dunham is from the plus community—she has said publicly that she doesn’t like the terms plus-size, fat, etc.—then they wouldn’t have chosen her to be the spokesperson. That goes to show me that they really aren’t tapped into this community and are listening to what the plus-size consumer wants and needs.
All of the pieces to me just seem like iterations of designs we’ve seen before. Plus-size women don’t need any more basics. When we see another line of blazers and white button-up shirts and such. I really just expect, from a luxury fashion retailer, for them to be pushing the needle forward and to be bringing something to the marketplace that we haven't seen before. Unfortunately, that fell short.
Russo: There is a bigger issue here that has been misconstrued. Everyone is putting so much attention on Lena Dunham, and we can sit here for hours and talk about why we don’t like her. But to be honest, I don’t care about her.
I care about the fact that 11 Honoré did this. That is the larger issue we should be focusing on. Lena Dunham has always lacked self-awareness, and she always will. She does these types of things.
The bigger thing is that the fashion industry looks at women who are on the smaller end of this spectrum and will uplift them over the women of color who have been here for decades. We see it time and time again with the uplifting of Ashley Graham in 2008/2010, instead of Toccara Jones, who came before her and didn’t get the career she deserved. We see it with the influencers 11 Honoré works with. Why wasn’t someone else in this collection?
I think the issue requires looking at how the fashion industry will uplift these smaller, palatable white voices instead of giving space to the women of color who actually do the work and have been here for so long. To focus on Lena Dunham is neglecting that. Why are these brands who capitalize off of marginal communities not actually serving those marginalized communities?
Garner Valentine: I wanted to pop in to play devil's advocate for this entire conversation, and not the advocate for Lena Dunham but the advocate for 11 Honoré. Has anybody on this panel ever bought anything from 11 Honoré?
Lawrence and Russo have purchased clothing from 11 Honoré, Dalessandro Santiago has been gifted items.
Garner Valentine: OK. Just roll with me on this. It seems like Lena Dunham could actually be representative of their customer. I feel like this customer—and I don’t mean to offend anybody—is probably a white woman who is not OK with being plus-size. She hovers in that middle area where she might be too small for plus, too big for straight clothes. And someone like Lena Dunham would appeal to her in some way.
Because everything I’ve seen about this brand makes it feel like walking into Hermès and not looking like what their customer should be, and not being waited on. I’m throwing that out there. I’m a person who could potentially be an 11 Honoré customer, because I do buy luxury fashion, but I’ve never shopped there either. Because everything I’ve ever heard says that they don’t want me as a customer.
Joi-Louise mentioned how shopping for plus-size clothing can be an emotional experience. Can you talk about your best and worst shopping excursions?
Lawrence: Before the pandemic, I loved shopping at Eloquii in person. They have stores across the country. Whenever I’d walk into the Soho location, I felt welcome immediately. Most of the customer service reps are plus-size themselves and understand what it’s like to shop as a plus-size person.
Sometimes when I go into other stores, people will just make really nasty snide comments about your body or things you pick up, if it's a crop top or something more revealing. At Eloquii they are the opposite. They foster community where I felt comfortable experimenting and trying things I normally wouldn't. And their price point is pretty accessible, it’s not at a low-end range and it’s also not luxury, but it’s that middle ground that I can personally afford for my budget.
I just really love the kinds of clothes Eloquii puts out. They’re fashion forward, on trend, and colorful. A wide range for every kind of taste and personality. That’s always my best experience, going and shopping in person at Eloquii.
Russo: To bring it back to Chastity again, because I love CurvyCon so much and what they’ve created... there’s a really transformative power that comes with plus-size fashion. That’s what should be centered here. It’s more than just clothing. To finally have access to clothing for the first time after being rejected in this industry for so long, that can have an emotional weight. That’s what more brands need to realize.
I remember being at CurvyCon in 2019 and seeing people in tears while trying things on for the first time. They could finally feel accepted in this industry. Everyone here has had those singular experiences. I remember seeing it firsthand for all these women. They’re shopping alongside women of all sizes, not just this palatable size 14-16 that we see on the runway. Sizes 10 to 26-plus are feeling seen in an authentic way the first time.
When we hear representation or inclusivity from brands now, it’s this really washed-down version. But when you’re at CurvyCon or Eloquii or Chastity’s collaboration with Fashion to Figure, it’s true representation. When you hit true representation on the head, the benefit is immediate. People’s lives can really be changed here.
Dalessandro Santiago: There’s a higher chance of getting it right when plus-size people are in the conversation. And that means people who are truly comfortable identifying as plus-size, fat, curvy, whatever you call it. They have made some type of acceptance with the size of their body and the fact that existing in this body is a political act, a radical act. That’s when you see true transformation.
It is great to walk into a store and find your size on the rack, but that’s still not the experience for a lot of folks size 24-plus. I’m currently a size 20, but I have been larger. And I’ve gone to the mall and not been able to find a single thing in my size. And that is very common. That’s where these emotions come from.
I’ve been doing this work for years, but yesterday I tried on a dress that didn’t fit right and it raised my anxiety. I am very comfortable with myself, I’m truly body-neutral. But clothes can stir up those emotions, because some of us have been trying on clothes that don’t fit since the second grade and have been dealing with that forever.
There are so many folks that can still walk into a store, even Eloquii, and not find clothes. We need more than these collections where we’re just not being represented and plus-size folks are not in the room when they’re being created. If there were more plus-size folks in the room, they would have said there was an issue with this. If you ask anyone in the community, we don’t claim Lena Dunham.
Anybody who identifies as plus openly would have said this wasn’t a good idea. We need plus-size people in positions of power so things like this don’t get made. Someone who’s part of that conversation and also in the community, and knows this isn’t going to work.
Lawrence: Not only that, but we also need to make sure that leadership at these brands are open to listening to them. The people at the table need to feel empowered to speak up when something is amiss. I’m sure somebody maybe even spoke up and said, I don’t think this collaboration is a great idea. But they still went through with it. So not only do we need a seat at the table, we need a listening ear as well.
Russo: Instead of thinking automatically that they didn’t consult with anybody, we should think what if they did consult with people and they didn’t care. Maybe they know that Lena Dunham is representative of their customer, so they were OK alienating one group with another. We can’t just assume they didn’t consult with plus people, because there are plus people who work there and are in their circles.
What are some of your biggest pet peeves when it comes to plus-size clothing and designs? Is there anything you are tired of seeing?
Martinez: Cold shoulders.
Lawrence: Those are good for getting your vaccine, but they have no other use!
Martinez: I think there’s been years of Torrid and Lane Bryant doing everything in a cold shoulder and a butterfly print. Very specifically a cold shoulder. In the U.K., it’s very much still stuck there. And we can’t shop in-store here, they’ve taken plus out of all the high street stores. So I can’t shop here, I have to wait until I get back in the States.
Garner Valentine: There are certain things in plus-size fashion that I feel like the designers think works for the plus-size body. I feel like they say, Plus-size women don’t want to show their arms. So the cold shoulder was the perfect solution to that. They take it, they run with it, it’s seven, eight years of a cold shoulder. I don’t love a cold shoulder, but I’ve seen it done right a couple of times. But it’s done wrong so many times.
I personally hate a keyhole neck. I will fight for a keyhole, I don’t want to see it. But there are so many design elements you’re always going to see in plus, they run into the ground. I try to say those things when I work with brands, why is this still in here?
Hall: For me, it’s bad suiting. I don’t like when the material is thin or cheap or they haven’t put thought into the waistband if a girl has a tummy or that lower belly area. You need to make sure the pants fit a certain way. Or if a girl’s busty like me—I’m a 44 triple D—make sure that it’s double-breasted or has more than that one button. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone on job interviews and not felt my best because this was all that was available to me. So, I really don’t like bad suiting.
Lawrence: I’m over the matronly floral prints. The ones that are just super-boring. Even though I love print dresses, it’s something brands continually do instead of trying different patterns and textures. Floral print is the go-to.
Dalessandro Santiago: I just want the same exact options made for straight sizes. If you need to adjust and make it double-breasted or adjust the pleating, that’s fine. Make it however you need to so that it’s supportive, but don’t assume because of the size of my body that I hate myself and that I would never wear something that shows my body. I am tired of that. Give us the same trends you’re giving everyone else. We don’t want to hide. If you’re going to design something for a size 2, I want to see it for a size 22. Period.
Martinez: We’re not a monolith. We’re not all the same, we have different tastes, different needs, different spending power. You see that in straight sizes, you can get literally anything off the rack. We don’t have that option. 11 Honoré was a step in the right direction, crumbs in the right direction, but unfortunately we were happy to at least see that.
Russo: The important thing is to represent diversity of style, as well as diversity of size. In the plus-size community, it’s viewed as one woman. In reality, it’s a wide range of women, and men, and gender non-conforming people. So I think that’s what we need to see more of, diversity of style. There are different customers within the plus-size community. It will never be successful if you view it as one woman.
How do you feel about clothing availability as a plus-size customer? Is it better now than it was in the past? And what are you hopeful about for the future?
Lawrence: Does anyone feel like the industry has regressed a little bit?
Martinez: Yes, we got a little bit [of progress] and now it’s been taken back.
Lawrence: I’m not quite sure if it’s because of the financial constraints brands are under, but I feel like we were doing so well from 2016 to 2018/2019. Then newer brands started shuttering and our options were dwindling. Then COVID happened. Brands aren’t innovating as frequently as they did before, maybe because of budget reasons. There is such a long way to go when it comes to getting the same access as our straight-sized counterparts do.
Russo: What leaves me hopeful is seeing changes implemented on the ground floor. That's what interests me more than any collaboration. For instance, Eloquii partnered with Curvy Fashionista to give a grant to three BIPOC designers. It’s great, and I want to see what happens with that. If you look at schools, Parsons brought in Ben Barry as the new Dean of Fashion. [Barry has researched the fashion experiences of plus-size, disabled, trans, and queer people. He was tapped as dean last December and joins the school in July.]
We can sit here and scream about the designers of today, or make sure that the next generation is taught right and know how to make clothing for all bodies.
Hall: I was just going to call that out. Obviously, we can try to beat these brands over the head, but we need to look at the new and upcoming designers.
One other thing for plus, and tell me if I’m reaching—I feel like we’re forced to rely on fast fashion a little bit. There’s nothing like stepping into a garment or putting on a sweater that you know is quality. We don’t have that experience enough. We have to resort to fast fashion brands that are experimenting and cutting everything wider because they think for some reason we’re all rectangles.
Like Shammara said, we have made progress, but we also are regressing. We need to keep pushing. I love that Eloquii is reaching back for BIPOC designers. To bring in people to push us forward, because that’s what we need to focus on. We can’t look back, we can’t look down, we have to forge and create our own path. In a lot of ways, these people hear us and they are just not listening.
Dalessandro Santiago: We have been asking for an indie, plus-size designer to be given the opportunity to collaborate with a major plus-size retailer for years. For years! These designers in the Eloquii competition are not new to this. They have been designing for plus-size bodies for a long time. But they lack the resources, because they are small businesses.
I used to run a plus-size brand, and I could not afford to keep it going. I was working a day job and using that money to invest back into it. I could no longer do that. We need to see more of an investment into these brands. If you’re going to put that investment into a thin, white celebrity, put it into your own community. These people have a built-in fanbase. I want more of that.
I don’t want to see another straight-size designer say, “I’ll finally make a plus-size collection.” I want to see our designers be given the resources that they need to thrive. That’s what small businesses need. These larger companies have our dollars because we can’t shop other places. It costs a lot more for an independent designer to make a garment than it does for an Eloquii or 11 Honoré to make the same garment. They are making it at volume, but an indie designer often literally purchases fabric by the bulk, hand-making it themselves. It’s just a more costly product.
Martinez: One thing that has been a bright spot in this conversation for me is being on TikTok. The young fat kids that I see on there dress a lot cooler than I did at 16 years old, and they have access to it. They’re using it. That’s our work and the work of the people that came before giving them that opportunity. I think the future is in good hands, at least.
But the work continues to happen. I don’t know if we’ve taken a step back, but we’ve paused. Living in the U.K., I shop at Asos a lot. It’s the same exact designs and the same exact garments over and over again for plus. I think these companies feel that because we have been breadcrumbed by fashion for so long that they think we’re OK. This might be a great conversation with 11 Honoré to kick off more movement. It might be the kick in the butt that they need.
Dalessandro Santiago: Also speaking out makes change. We know that by having this conversation, 11 Honoré is going to listen. That’s what we have to keep doing as plus-size people, especially those who are influencers. By having this conversation, we know we may not work with certain brands again. Especially because some people don’t want to work with you if you have a loud mouth. But that’s what we have to do to create change.
Garner Valentine: I am a person who has used my voice, but I also understand what it’s like to be a Black woman in this space and to be automatically labeled as a troublemaker or things like that.
Very early in my blogging career, I talked a lot of shit. Anything I didn’t like—I said what I didn’t like. I had to figure out the middle ground between doing what I love, getting a paycheck, and speaking for a group of people. And that is a very tight rope to walk as a Black woman. Lena Dunham has basically admitted to sexually abusing her sister, and has an entire contract. Me as a Black woman would never be able to come back from anything like that in my life. Lena Dunham gets a pass that I’m never going to get.
But there’s always a tightrope with being able to get in the room to express your opinions, having an honest opinion, and saying what you want.
I’ve been more boisterous lately, and it’s because I’m not dependent on the dollar as an influencer. That gives me a lot more leeway to say the things I feel. Five years ago, I would have never outed 11 Honoré in that comment [about the CurvyCon booth]. It could have meant my job. Now, it doesn’t. I have other avenues of income that allow me to say what I want. A lot of influencers cannot do that, because they have to eat every day.
Especially as a Black person, you know you have to eat every day, you know the rent has got to be paid, and you know no one’s going to pay it for you. This is America. I’m not declining anybody else’s struggle here, but we know we don’t get the chances other people get. I’m still bootstrapping different projects of my own on my own. Nobody just hands me things.
I always just say that I know it takes a lot to speak up, and I know that it could mean whether a person eats or not. You do what you feel like you have to do in order to survive. That’s one thing I’ve always been in, survival mode. Unfortunately, that’s just how I grew up.
Russo: To that point, it’s really important that the pressure be on those who are in the privileged positions to speak out. When the 11 Honoré thing happened, there were many people in the company who were not happy with the way this played out, but they can only talk off the record or in DMs. There is the worry, what could happen if this goes public?
In the push for diversity in fashion, those in the more privileged bodies really need to be the ones elevating these voices and navigating these difficult moments. It’s not fair to those who put so much at risk to speak out. Those who are able to, should. That’s the only way we progress forward—those who have the ability to speak out very loudly do so.
Martinez: As a white woman I felt very compelled to say something about this collaboration. That’s where my biggest problem with Lena Dunham comes in. You don’t have to pretend to be an ally or an advocate, you can keep your business to yourself and keep moving. But once you say that you are one and want to profit off of that advocacy, you have to put your money where your mouth is.
Dalessandro Santiago: There are ways to make an impact. If you have a relationship with a brand, you don’t need to blast them on social media. You can go to the contact you have there. I would rather have a conversation privately than have one publicly. I think a lot of people don’t know that’s something we do behind the scenes. If we know somebody, we’ll go ask: Why is this size range so small? Why did they pick this person?
Hall: It’s tricky. But also being plus-sized, I feel like I’m being pulled into talking about it. Like we said earlier, this isn’t about bashing anyone. It’s about starting a conversation and really advocating in a way that is more constructive. Because I’m here, I’m in the community, and it’s important to be heard.