One of the proudest moments in model Leslie Flores’s career was in September 2016 when she won ASC Production’s competition for New York Fashion Week Model of the Year in the “Ultra” category. After a shocked reaction, she rushed on stage to claim her prize which included a sash, the chance to walk at ASC Dubai Fashion Week, and a free photo shoot.
Flores is unique because she is not your traditional runway size model, but she is not plus-size either. She falls into the aforementioned “Ultra” category, which includes women size 8 to 12.
Flores got into modeling because her daughter became ill with pediatric cancer, and it was a job she could do freelance while still having time to take care of her. The big problem she had when she started modeling was that she wasn’t sample size, but she was also too small for plus-size.
“I was in ‘Neverland’ as they call it,” Flores said. “As a size 8 to 12, there is no marketing out there for you. The only person I ever see representing those sizes on the runway is me.”
In the last year, women size 8 to 12 have slowly been getting representation in the modeling industry with agencies like MSA Models and True Model Management including those sizes in their Curve divisions, although Curve often includes women size 14 and 16 who are on the lower end of the plus-size spectrum. For the longest time, women size 8 to 12 were just expected to buy.
Francesca DeCastro is a retail sales professional who has worked at large specialty stores including Gap and Banana Republic, and smaller boutique retailers like Splendid. Over the course of her retail career, she says the most common sizes she’s sold have been between sizes 6 and 10. However, she also noticed when they had live models for events they would be no bigger than a size 2.
“The only time in my whole career I saw women bigger than a size 2 represented in any type of promotional material was for the plus-size division of Gap.com,” DeCastro said. “When I worked at Gap, we started scaling down on marketing, but I do remember these ‘real people’ campaigns, that would include people of all races and sizes, but aside from that, all I saw were skinny women.”
At most retail stores, it’s easy to find sizes from 00 to 12, with more stores starting to carry sizes 14 and 16. The demographic of women 8 to 12 have been referred to as “the rack queens,” in reference to the expectation they will just buy, even though they are rarely if ever represented on the runways or in ad campaigns.
Research by Dr. Xuemei Bian, a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Kent in the UK, found that when ultra-thin models were switched out for average-size women, it didn’t change the perspective or opinion of that brand.
So, what does the fashion industry have to lose by being more size-inclusive?
One problem is, average size women have grown too accustomed to not being represented.
“They know their sizes are carried in store even if they don’t see it in the pages of fashion magazines, but they have become so used to not being represented, they just go ahead and shop, and until recently there wasn’t a strong vocal movement calling for change,” DeCastro added.
The issue with the lack of marketing and representation for women size 8 to 12 goes further than just the marketing and promotional teams of fashion brands. It starts with the design schools.
Most design schools lack mannequins bigger than traditional sample sizes, so from the time they start developing their craft, most designers aren’t even trained to think about women beyond the standard runway sizes.
Rashad Calhoun, a self-taught designer behind his own brand, Dahsar by Rashad, has spent 14 years in the industry as both a custom clothing designer and celebrity stylist specializing in evening wear and bridal.
When he first started out, he worked exclusively with plus-size women, and once he transitioned over to working with standard sizes, he had a different perspective from many of his colleagues. He found that many designers and stylists are only equipped to deal with women who are one size.
“When clothes are designed for runway shows they are obviously designed to fit a certain size. If you have models who are all sample sizes and one doesn’t show up, it’s easy to switch out for another model,” Calhoun said. “The fact is, designers are afraid if their one size 8 to 12 model doesn’t show up, they are stuck with this garment that none of the other models can wear. When design students are teaching their students how to prepare for Fashion Week, the focus is always on the standard size models.”
The lack of size representation for size 8 to 12 women is also an international one. Frederick Frost, a fashion stylist and blogger based in Venezuela, has found that the majority of women he has done wardrobe styling for are size 8 to 12. However, while he finds the majority of women he works with are curvier, the ideal body image is the slender figure of Miss Venezuela.
“When I see advertising with women it’s usually for specific shops or underground publications, it’s never anything too popular,” Frost said. “While plus sizes will start at 12 in Venezuela, women size 8 and 10 get virtually no marketing.”
The solution needs to first start with the fashion schools who need to train their students to use more women sized 8 to 12. It is also on marketing and promotional teams of designers and mainstream stores to feature more models of those sizes, and not just for “real people” campaigns. The size 8 to 12 consumers deserve—as consumers of all sizes should have—their moment to shine. They shouldn’t just be treated like they are programmed to buy.