As the guiding mentor of “Project Runway,” Tim Gunn oversees the show’s many design challenges. The toughest of these challenges each season seem to be the ones where contestants must design for women with “normal” — rather than model-esque — bodies.
And the difficulty the “Project Runway” contestants always seem to have with this, says Gunn, points to a larger problem industry-wide. “When I’m working in the real world with real women and we’re shopping, we find that fashion seems to end when you get any larger than a size 12,” Gunn told The Huffington Post. “How ridiculous is that?”
Very. Gunn works closely in guiding the “Runway” contestants, to the point where he used his one “save” on last night’s episode and kept contestant Justin in the competition one more week. But Gunn also tries to open the designers’ minds to the idea of fashion beyond the runway, reminding them that there is a world of women out there who are not a size 2.
“I’ve had my own moments in front of designers when I’ve actually said, ‘You know, there’s a market here for expanding your work, and here it is,'” Gunn told us. “And frankly, there are two markets: The women who are larger than the 12, and then there are women who are petite. And most designers that I talk to have absolutely no interest in addressing either of those populations, which I find repugnant.”
It’s a problem that extends far beyond the “Project Runway” workroom. As many have attested, the fashion industry generally assumes larger women have no interest in style or trends — as plus-size designer Kenyatta Jones put it, many companies operate using stereotypes, like “Fat people don’t need clothes, all they do is eat Twinkies.” The in-store offerings for plus-size women are limited, forcing women to turn online; and what is in stores is often wholly unstylish.
Gunn illustrated for us:
“Go to Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue, I think it’s the eighth floor, and it’s just a department called ‘Woman.’ It’s rather devastating. You’ve never seen such hideous clothes in your entire life. I mean, it’s simply appalling. Thank God there are no windows on that floor, because if I were a size 18, I’d throw myself right out the window [after seeing those clothes]. It’s insulting what these designers do to these women.”
The challenge, said the former Parsons professor, is not simply to make clothes bigger, but to rethink the entire design process. “It’s not a matter of sizing up or sizing down from a size six,” he said, “It’s a matter of reconceiving things altogether. There are just some things that you can’t or shouldn’t do [design-wise].”
One place to start is to address sizing. “There is what I like to refer to as the lying, deceptive show-game of vanity sizing,” Gunn said. “I’ll use as an example a size 8 dress form. When I was at Parsons, we had dress forms from the 1980s and the early 1990s, and when I was there, we bought new dress forms. The difference in the waist size of the 1981 size 8 dress form and the 2001 dress form was two inches — the 2001 being bigger. So what would have been a 12 in the 1980s is in fact an 8 today.”
This fluctuation not only confuses shoppers, but also increases the stigma against larger sizes. We’ve become less familiar and therefore less comfortable seeing larger sizes sitting on the shelves — sizes 12, 14, 16. Women don’t want to buy themselves clothing in these sizes, and thus designers are only less likely to design clothes whose tags bear those sizes. “I think we should just be honest about these sizes and not try to pretend they are something that they’re not,” Gunn argued.
And the same goes for the small end of the spectrum. “[The standard size for runway models] is a two now, but that would have been a size 00 years ago,” Gunn pointed out. “I mean, there are so many models walking the runway who haven’t even gone through puberty, and this is not real world.” (Nowhere is this more apparent, said Gunn, than the phenomenon of Andrej Pejic, a male model who walks women’s runway shows. “The designers love him because he doesn’t have any hips,” Gunn lamented, “and women aren’t going to look like that.”)
In short, it’s time to get honest about sizes and bodies — women shoppers come in all shapes, including “plus-size” ones, and there’s nothing wrong with buying clothing that bears a size in the double-digits. There may not be enough stylish, trendy plus-size clothing on the market right now… but if the up-and-comers on “Project Runway” can be convinced to start designing those clothes, it might be a good place to start.