As British Vogue's editor-in-chief puts the blame for skinny models on designers, fashion's favourite debate ranges once more.
A matter of size
Here we go again: the fashion issue that just won't go away is top of the news agenda once more. It's skinny-model season. After last year's self-flagellating exploration of the fashion industry's attitude to its mannequins, after the deaths of several models as a result of malnutrition in 2007, valiant attempts at legislation in France, America and Britain were well-meaning but apparently toothless in the face of hardline designers. Arguments were mooted in defence of skinniness: "We eat like a horse, we're just made that way. Mmmm, doughnuts," from models. "We don't hear anyone campaigning about obese models - talk about double standards!" from slender lay people. "It's art, and no one can dictate what we do with it!" from designers and other industry professionals. A few isolated voices were heard from within the industry - supermodels such as Coco Rocha and Erin O'Connor among them - and some earnest discussions at the British Fashion Council and the Council of Fashion Designers of America made everyone feel a bit better, but self-regulation seemed to be the solution everyone was really rooting for.
The problem with self-regulation is that someone has to be disciplined enough to make the first move. Finally, last week, Alexandra Shulman, the editor-in-chief of British Vogue, made just that. In a letter that found its way into the hands of The Times, she addressed a number of fashion houses including Prada, John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld, asking them to please make their sample sizes larger so that models could get into them.
The samples are the frocks made for the catwalk, usually based on the dimensions of the model that will wear them on the runway. (Catwalk models are, on the whole, much taller and thinner than editorial models used in magazine shoots.) The samples are then used for fashion shoots in magazines that work a few months ahead of the season, such as Vogue or Harper's Bazaar. The pieces that appear in the shops are, of course, reconfigured for "real" women, but by the time they reach the shop floor, the glossies are already on to the next season. Shulman's argument is that because these samples are made in such absurdly minuscule sizes - apparently getting smaller each year - the models and celebrities used in Vogue shoots simply can't fit into them. In order to make it work, Vogue has been using painfully thin models and airbrushing them to make them look bigger.
She wrote in the letter: "We have now reached the point where many of the sample sizes don't comfortably fit even the established star models." In the UAE, the situation is slightly different: few magazines use samples for their shoots because they work closer to the season, so stylists can use shop stock in any size. Models here come under a little less pressure, too. One model, Sixtine, who is 180cm tall with a 61cm waist, is with the Bareface agency in Dubai but recalls the pressures of working in Europe.
"The samples are very small," Sixtine says, though she adds that she always fits into them. "But the clothes from Italy are always smaller - tiny but tall. Sometimes in France, if the girls didn't fit the clothes they would send them away, and people would openly call them fat. It's quite hard there. But in Dubai, it's more relaxed - nobody's doing diets. If I go to Milan they ask me to get skinnier."
The Dubai-based fashion stylist Sarah Maisey, who has worked for many years in London, agrees that models are now expected to be thinner than they have ever been. "We did a shoot a few months ago, and we had to retouch some of it, yes: strong lighting picks up every dip and hollow, and when it's a hollowed-out rib cage on a picture, you think: 'Give the girl a burger.' The camera is very cruel, so it's great to have a girl with very few lumps and bumps, so you can hit her with dramatic lighting, but it's a very fine line between looking unattainably gorgeous and looking underfed."
The irony of a magazine such as Vogue complaining about this is not lost on its own people. Robin Derrick, the creative director at Vogue, told The Times: "I spent the first 10 years of my career making girls look thinner. I've spent the last 10 making them look larger." Yet nothing is likely to happen until there is an economic imperative to change. Arguably, a magazine as powerful as Vogue is capable of making a stand by simply not using the clothes of those designers whose samples are too small, but the loss of revenue through advertising being pulled from the pages by offended designers is a motivator for the status quo. Perhaps a global recession will be a turning point, as the general public's tolerance for the sillier aspects of fashion is eroded by their own hardships. But one thing's for sure: like a yo-yo dieter, the industry is all about extremes. Even if curves are the new clavicles now, you can bet bones will be the new black next season..