For The Help actress Octavia Spencer, Sunday’s Academy Awards will mark more than just the climactic conclusion to an impressive awards season. When she wins the award for Best Supporting Actress—and she will—it will be a coup for full-figured women and the designers who support them.
Over the past several months, Spencer has courted Oscar in a series of tasteful, flattering, and progressively fashion-forward looks. In response to Spencer’s claims that she feels vastly uncomfortable wearing three pairs of Spanx under her gowns, stylists Wendi and Nicole Ferreira assure me “it's a collaboration. Everything has been discussed and decided upon based on comfort level and how good it’s going to look.” (The duo has been on Team Octavia since being recruited by the star’s publicist before the movie premiered last August.)
“She’s open about it,” they tell me from their Venice, Calif., workspace, each response carefully delegated and measured. “She’s not anorexic or six feet tall. She’s real.” And when asked if weight is relevant in a discussion regarding Spencer’s “best dressed” status, they don’t pause: “It’s part of it.”
When it comes to being a stylist, working with a client who isn’t sample size provides a unique set of challenges. And while the opportunity to dress an acclaimed actress might seem like a no-brainer to most fledgling designers, Spencer’s anti-fashion dimensions result in limited contenders.
“I’m all about being loyal to the people who gave me free clothes for the publicity tour when there was nothing in it for them,” Spencer told People. “I love it that the other people are clamoring, but when I needed something, they weren’t there,” she continues. “My mom always taught us to dance with the one that brought you, so I’m going to dance with the ones that brought me.”
Those designers include Tadashi Shoji and David Meister, who have been responsible for the lion’s share of her lauded press-tour looks. “As it is with all of our clients, some dresses have been custom-made, and some have been a collaboration with Octavia, the designer, and us,” Wendi and Nicole explain. “Some have been modified off designs they already have.” One of these collaborations includes a lilac hourglass-shaped Tadashi gown in which Spencer collected her very first Golden Globe. “A sleeper hit,” the design duo dubs the look.
Other season high notes include a series of David Meister dresses, some of which can be purchased off the rack from the designer’s Special Sizes collection—a euphemism not lost on the designer. “There is very little out in the market in the way of beautiful well-made dresses for larger sizes,” Meister says of the division, which was created for a woman up to and including one with 48.5-42.5-49.5 dimensions, more than twice those of a typical sample-size wearer. “Sixty-five percent of the women in the U.S. are a size 14 or larger,” he continues. “It is an extremely good business.”
Meister, like Shoji, is a designer who consistently dresses plus-size stars. In addition to Spencer, he often works with Melissa McCarthy, another full-figured female on the Oscar docket for her role in Bridesmaids, and Jane Lynch, who hosted the 2011 Emmy Awards in four custom designs. The Ohio-born designer also outfitted 2009 Best Actress nominee Gabourey Sidibe for the L.A. premiere of Precious. “It was so va va voom,” she told Harper's Bazaar of the slinky design. “My boobs looked so good in it.”
And though 2007 Best Supporting Actress winner Jennifer Hudson wore Meister to the L.A. premiere of Dreamgirls, the star, who famously went from a size 16 to a size 6 in 2010, has not worn the designer since the dramatic weight loss. “We did a few things for [Jennifer] after the premiere, but we haven’t worked with her lately,” Meister says. “I think she looks amazing, and I am always ready and willing to work with her.”
In a culture in which curvy women are either condemned (Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld recently labeled Grammy sensation Adele “a little too fat,” a remark he has since redacted) or congratulated (Gossip singer Beth Ditto had a memorable love affair with the fashion industry in 2009, appearing nude on the inaugural cover of Love), being plus size in Hollywood is surprisingly political.
But as far as Spencer’s supporters are concerned, they are staying out of the fray. “I firmly believe the Oscar should be solely based on the nominated star’s performance in the film,” Shoji says. And if the Ferreiras understand the greater implications of the evening’s fashion, they aren’t interested in salacious soundbites. “All we can say is that we want to elevate the Golden Globes and SAG style,” they tell me of the objective for Sunday. “It's the grand finale to the whole amazing journey.”