The curvy women storming the catwalk: Once they were dismissed for being ‘too big’. Now normal-sized women are in huge demand from Vogue to Versace — and, as these British beauties show, it really can pay to be curvy

  • Over the past five years the models appearing on catwalks have diversified 
  • However, Farrah Storr says average British woman has been a size 16 for years
  • Elle Editor-In-Chief reveals the plus-size models leading the fashion industry

Let’s be honest, fat has never been fashionable. Fat has meant elasticated jogging bottoms, tops that cover the lardy bits of your arms and dresses that hang like giant teepees from your breasts.

Clothes for larger people have always been shameful clothes; clothes that disguise your body; clothes the colour of drudgery: black, brown, navy blue. I often used to wonder: were these clothes designed to comfort the wearer by shielding them from the world? Or were they created to hide the reality of bigger bodies from everyone else?

I came of age in the 1990s, a time when the athletic mould of the supermodel (Elle Macpherson, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell) gave way to the size-zero models of ‘heroin chic’. The idealised body type I was presented with then was pallid, delicate, emaciated. There was little variety out there and almost certainly no nuance. Thin was in. That was that.

Thankfully, today’s generation of young women is presented with a more diverse breadth of body types. In fact, over the past five years models with bodies that look not so different from our own have started to appear on catwalks and on the covers of magazines across the world.

Farrah Storr reveals a selection of plus-size models leading the fashion industry, as catwalks and magazines diversify. Pictured: Nicola Griffin

There is Precious Lee, 31, one of the hardest-working supermodels I saw at the most recent spring/summer shows. (And who, on two different catwalks, elicited cries of sheer delight from the audience.) Or Londoner Alva Claire, who appeared on the cover of the July 2021 issue of Elle UK, the magazine I edit. And Jill Kortleve and Ashley Graham . . . well, you get the idea.

Not a full house, exactly, but enough to show that fashion is taking bigger bodies seriously. This isn’t a passing trend meant to satisfy the inclusivity agenda. This is an acknowledgement that perhaps one size doesn’t fit all.

The megaphone that social media has afforded the world has meant different bodies have been allowed to shine. Where once the only images we saw were the ones presented (and indeed curated) to us through the lens of media and fashion, now you can see a thousand different bodies with a cursory scroll through the internet. But a groundswell is only possible when the culture is ready.

And most women have been ready for a while. The average British woman is a size 16. She has been for years. We’ve just been waiting for the world to notice.

Those brands that have clocked this have cleaned up. Brands including Khloe Kardashian’s Good American; independent label Reformation and Scandi brand Monki, who sensibly don’t have a separate plus-size range but instead recognise that an XL is best suited to a size 20, not a size 14. These are not speciality plus-size labels either. They are aspirational fashion brands that understand nothing dates you more than treating size 16 as an outlier.

There will always be critics; mutterings about plus-size models encouraging the obesity epidemic. But then they are missing the point.

This is not about telling anyone to be any size. That is not fashion’s job. It is about recognising that different sizes exist. That every woman will be a different size at different points in her life. After all, fashion’s job is to present the world as it is, not as some would want it to be.

AGENCY INNOVATOR

Anna Shillinglaw, 46, (pictured) founded MiLK Management in 2011, which is now valued at more than £9 million

Former model — she was even a Wonderbra girl — Anna Shillinglaw, 46, is founder of London-based talent agency MiLK Management.

She had been a successful straight-size model but during the 1990s vogue for waifs was sent home from jobs for being ‘too big’, even though she was a size 10.

When she launched MiLK in 2011, no other company specialised in plus-size models. Now her world-renowned agency is valued at more than £9 million and represents notable clients including actress and model Ireland Basinger Baldwin and singer Alexandra Burke.

MARATHON HEROINE 

Jada Sezer (pictured), who wears a UK size 16,  was picked up by the first ever plus-size London Fashion Week in 2014

When size 16 Jada Sezer ran the 2018 London Marathon in her underwear, alongside author Bryony Gordon, they wanted to prove anybody could do it ‘because a runner’s body comes in every size and shape’. A year later, they organised an event where more than 1,000 women ran 10k in their underwear.

Growing up, London-born Jada felt different. At 5 ft 9in, ‘with boobs and a bum’ (she’s a 36 GG cup), her frustration was ‘not being able to wear what I wanted’.

Graduating in 2011 with a BSc in counselling psychology, Jada did an MA in child psychotherapy. At the same time, she persuaded photographers to recreate fashion editorials with her modelling.

She had a vision: ‘I was working with young girls, many with eating disorders. I wanted to create content for them. Then my images went viral. I was picked up by the first ever plus-size London Fashion Week in 2014.’

Afterwards, Jada was invited to model for Evans at London Fashion Week and agency Models 1 signed her. An ambassador for UN Women UK and YoungMinds mental health charity, Jada, 32, has 300,000 Instagram followers.

ANTI-AGEISM ACTIVIST

Nicola Griffin, 56, (pictured) who wears a UK size 16, became the oldest model to feature in Sports Illustrated’s infamous swimsuit issue in 2016

In 2016, Nicola Griffin became the oldest model — at 56 and size 16 — to feature in Sports Illustrated’s infamous swimsuit issue.

In her teens, she’d tried and failed to launch a modelling career. But in 2013 she was spotted in the queue at a bank and was asked to model for a grey haircare brand.

More jobs followed, then Sports Illustrated arrived. ‘It totally changed my life,’ she says. ‘I suddenly had this brand new, fabulous, exciting career.’

The 61-year-old mum of twin daughters from Nottingham has since modelled for Boden, Harrods and Heist, and appeared on the cover of Grazia magazine.

‘I’m more body confident now than when I was younger,’ she says. ‘My stomach is a little soft and floppy, it always will be, but I’m fine with it. I can cover that and focus on my long legs.

‘I don’t think of myself as plus-size but I don’t mind what people call me. As long as I feel good, you can call me what you like.’

VICTORIA’S SECRET STAR

Paloma Elsesser, 29, (pictured), who wears a UK size 16, has modelled for Fendi, Lanvin and Alexander McQueen

London-born supermodel Paloma Elsesser, 29, has modelled for Fendi, Lanvin and Alexander McQueen, and last December graced the cover of U.S. Vogue.

A UK size 16, who describes herself as ‘chubby, short and mixed race’, she told her 433,000 Instagram fans: ‘I never thought this would be my reality.’

This year she became one of seven women chosen by Victoria’s Secret to shed the brand’s sexualised image — and align it with female empowerment.

THE RUNWAY ROLE MODEL

Saffi Karina (pictured), who wears a UK size 16, has starred in campaigns for L’Oreal, H&M and Tommy Hilfiger

It’s no wonder 5 ft 10 in size 16 (bust 36E) curve model Saffi Karina stops traffic. With her mixed Irish/Filipino/Cuban/Hawaiian heritage, she describes herself as ‘a very eclectic mix’.

She featured in British Vogue in January this year. But the star of L’Oreal, H&M and Tommy Hilfiger campaigns is still a down-to-earth South London girl. Saffi, 34, went to the London College of Fashion and planned to design womenswear. But after being scouted twice on London’s Tottenham Court Road, she decided to try modelling aged 22.

Frustrated by not fitting sample sizes — ‘I refused to conform to something I’m not’ — she signed with Sarah Doukas’s curve division at Storm. ‘I thought, “Great, I can finally embrace who I am,” ’ she says. ‘Women tell me, “I relate to your body, I bought that outfit knowing what it would look like on me.” It gives me purpose, beyond modelling an outfit. It’s about the representation I didn’t see growing up. Finally, there’s no longer one idealised beauty standard.’

MULTI-TASKING MUM

Chessie King, 28, (pictured), who wears a size UK 12, posts humorous real versus filtered views of her own body on social media 

Author Chessie King, 28, from East Sussex, is no ordinary Instagram influencer. She delights in shining a light on the tricks celebrities use to make their bodies look impossibly gorgeous, posting humorous real versus filtered views of her own body.

A few months ago, 13 days after giving birth, she posted a photo of herself in a bikini, cuddling her daughter Auraelia. ‘I’d choose happiness over 11 per cent body fat any day,’ she wrote, comparing a photo of her old gym-addicted self with her healthier size 12 figure.

DIET DEFIER

TV presenter Scarlett Moffatt, 30, first lit up our screens on Channel 4’s Gogglebox. In 2016, she shed a dramatic amount of weight on a punishing 700 calories-a-day diet and released an exercise DVD.

She has since described it as ‘the worst thing I’ve ever done’ and harmful to her mental health.

After deliberately regaining the weight, she’s a size 12 and far happier. In August, she told her two million Instagram followers ‘After five years of not daring to wear a bikini I’m actually doing it’, posting a joyful photo as proof.

GEN-Z GIRL POWER

Sonny Turner, 23, (pictured), who wears a UK size 16, has already modelled for Primark, Figleaves, ASOS and Savage x Fenty

Only 23, Sonny Turner already has huge campaigns for Primark, Figleaves, ASOS and Rihanna’s lingerie brand Savage x Fenty under her belt.

Being 5 ft 10 in, size 16 with a 38DD chest, she says a revolution has finally come: the fashion industry is looking at all types of beauty. With Swedish and Jamaican heritage, she grew up in Birmingham and was scouted at London’s Euston station.

‘I’d do what they call “straight-sized” jobs and some plus-size work too,’ she says. At times she had to wear padding to make herself look bigger (as many plus-size models did back then).

In 2019, she was one of the first curve models to walk in both London and New York Fashion Week. She juggled modelling with studying sociology, then worked on campaigns for Marc Jacobs, H&M, Tommy Hilfiger and Simply Be.

‘I used to be scared because I thought, “What if I’m the only plus-size one with boobs, who needs extra support?” But now I feel more confident. Everyone knows plus-size models can be seen as fashionable, sexy and empowered. We’re no longer described as lazy and all those negative stereotypes.’

COVER QUEEN

Alva Claire, 29, (pictured), who wears a size 14-16, has modelled for Versace in Milan Fashion Week as well as fronted a MAC cosmetics campaign 

British model Alva Claire, 29, made headlines last year as one of three plus-size models to walk for Versace in Milan Fashion Week — a first for the fashion house. Last summer she fronted a global campaign for MAC cosmetics.

Long gone are the days when, at size 14-16, she couldn’t even get a Sainsbury’s Tu campaign and worked in a shop. But as a mixed-race, plus-size model of Jamaican and American heritage, it’s still difficult, she says. ‘I will continue to fight this for ever.’

MODEL AND AUTHOR

Naomi Shimada, 34, is a London-based model and writer. As a teen model, she felt pressure to diet and has said that ‘plus’ still feels like a ‘dirty word’.

But since re-launching her career at size 16, she has modelled for ASOS, Nike and H&M.

ANTI-AIR-BRUSHER

British model Iskra Lawrence, 30, a size 12, was dropped by her agency at 15 because her 36 in hips were ‘too big’. She has now modelled for L’Oreal and is the global model of lingerie line Aerie. The company is the first national retailer in the U.S. to sponsor the National Eating Disorders Association, for whom she is a brand ambassador.

She is a fierce critic of ‘body shamers’ and her 4.8 million followers online know she doesn’t retouch her Instagram photos.

INBETWEENIE WRITER

Aleesha Hansel, 33, (pictured) who wears a UK size 14, has worked for Marks & Spencer and Rimmel

At 17, Aleesha Hansel was scouted when delivering flyers for a London nightclub.

But, a size 14, she was considered an ‘inbetweenie’: both too big and too small.

She forged a career as a wine writer until curve models exploded. Now, at 33, she has worked with Marks & Spencer and Rimmel and is a face for Tesco’s F&F clothing.

PLUS-SIZE PIONEER 

Felicity Hayward, 33, was scouted by top fashion photographer Miles Aldridge while dancing in a London pub in 2012.

At size 20, she was one of the first models to show stretch marks in campaigns with brands such as The Body Shop and Missguided.

Felicity Hayward, 33, (pictured), who wears a UK size 20,  was one of the first models to show stretch marks in campaigns with brands such as The Body Shop and Missguided

She has since been a face of Mac and L’Oreal, appeared in Vogue, and worked with other leading photographers including Rankin.

‘I never thought I could model,’ she says. ‘When I started, there was hardly anyone like me.’

As ASOS’s first Curve Ambassador in 2014, she says ‘it was great to be able to give advice to buyers: many were smaller women, trying to imagine what [we] wanted. Plus-size fashion wasn’t exciting back then. I told them we didn’t just want plain clothes, we wanted fun, bright, stylish pieces.’

Depressingly, there’s an inevitability to the abuse she’s encountered. ‘They literally can’t understand that you can be confident and curvy,’ she says.

‘But for every negative comment, I’ll get 20 more positive messages from people telling me I inspire them.’

SWEATY BETTY TALENT

London-based model Simone Charles, 29, swept into the fashion world at 18, after winning an Instagram competition and being signed to Models 1.

At first, as a plus-size black woman, she says ‘there was almost no place for me’. Now, at size 18, she’s been in campaigns for Tu clothing, Simply Be and Sweaty Betty.

BRITISH-ASIAN TRAILBLAZER 

Bishamber Das, 34, (pictured) who wears a UK size 18, has modelled for Radley, Curvissa and Simply Be

At size 18, Bishamber Das, 34, is Britain’s first Asian plus-size model. She has modelled for Radley, Curvissa and Simply Be, and is a face of Tesco’s F&F TV campaign.

‘I did a big eBay fashion campaign in 2018 and my face was all over Piccadilly Circus,’ she says. She has also launched her own plus-size fashion brand, Girl Like Me.

Raised in Derby (her mother’s Indian; her father Malaysian), she was a ‘chubby child’ and felt different from her friends. ‘I loved fashion but the clothes weren’t there for me,’ she says.

As a young South Asian woman, there was community pressure to marry a man from a respectable family. ‘Because I was overweight, I was automatically deemed unattractive. I grew up feeling unworthy of marriage.’ She was told she had a beautiful face but there was pressure to diet. She chose to focus on her career, studying law and criminology, before becoming the youngest Asian magistrate in the UK at 22.

Bishamber (pictured) said she grew up feeling unworthy of marriage and was deemed unattractive because she was overweight 

Then, in 2014, she discovered the beauty pageant Miss India Europe. ‘There were no height or weight requirements. So I thought, you know what, I’m going to try.’

She ended up representing the UK against nine European countries. ‘I was the only plus-size girl and came second runner-up, which was a massive achievement. Especially as, throughout, I was made to feel, “What is this fat girl doing here?” ’

She proved them wrong. ‘I realised there’s nobody like me, doing what I’m doing. Why couldn’t I be the role model I never had growing up?’

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