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Sample Size Me: Money, Culture and Size in Fashion

Tonight, Fashion's Night Out whips the retail outlets into a frenzy during which women of all sizes will be out in droves spending on fall looks. A perfect time to bring up size in the industry.
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It's NYC fashion week once again. Lanky runway models flood the trains, a stopover on their rounds between Paris, London, and Milan. Tonight, Fashion's Night Out whips the retail outlets into a frenzy during which women of all sizes will be out in droves spending on fall looks. A perfect time to bring up size in the industry.

This usually erupts in conversations about eating disorders, female body image, the crisis of American culture, the irresponsibility of the fashion industry or media and ultimately a sort of futility. The bottom line is: Why can't we just insert some size 8, 10, or 14 girls onto a runway, a cover, or a campaign? The demand is overwhelming. What's the problem?

One little thing: The Sample.
On which turns the entire machinery of mainstream fashion and retail. Like any multifaceted, corporate industry it's a complicated cocktail of bottom lines, mechanized production, deadlines, budgets, supply and demand, publicity, and perhaps least of all: creativity.

Media consists of advertising, branding, sponsorship and entertainment. Most of this sells us something, and those things represent an entire business, in this case the clothing business. Behind every designer is an accountant. Many of whom are recognizing the growth potential of the plus size market, whether that means carrying more sizes, or starting up a new company. But people aren't frustrated with a growth in the market, they're frustrated with the status quo, supported by a whole production line already in place...

A designer designs a piece of clothing. A sample is made for the runway, fitted to the model wearing it, in a size 0. This is a sorry state of fashion body-trend and an economic super-saver for fabrics that can cost hundreds of dollars a yard. These are then hand-beaded/sequined/sewn by incredibly skilled craftspeople paid by the hour. At the shows, like those this weekend, the industry-established editors and buyers take notes on which pieces they want to feature in their magazine or on their store racks.

Now the designer puts his pieces into production, depending on the demand. Patterns are cut based on the original piece. The pattern is cut to be a "medium" in the range of sizes ultimately to be produced. This production sample (a size 4-6 today, in the past an 8) goes into very limited production in order to make final tweaks. It's also used to make the rounds to magazine or vendor photo shoots. The lead time varies, but is generally 4-6 months in advance of it coming out in stores.

The magazines and stores have their own lead time so that after the shoot they can work on post-production: photo-shopping, layout, editing, and printing. Web-based selling/advertising has slightly less lead time. For those pieces that end up worn by a celebrity on a magazine cover --usually by a design house that is a major advertiser, there may not be a production sample, and so that celebrity gets the added pressure of fitting into the runway sample size zero.

For a catalog, like J. Crew, it's all in-house. They design and develop their lines and put them into production, along roughly the same lead time, but are able to determine their own sample sizes, though these rarely vary, which go from office to photo shoot.

A model is the last cog to be fit into the machinery on the set of a photo studio. This is where it gets sticky. We are meant to be somewhat interchangeable in terms of body type for a reason. Though that used to mean a size 6-8, and still very well could, the production has followed the cultural trends in down-sizing the models, and up-sizing (vanity-sizing) the clothing for the consumers. Which means that when people say Marilyn Monroe wore a 12, it was a 1960 size 12, with is a good degree smaller than a 12 today. Sorry, ladies.

So, when we talk about plus models, plus clothes have plus samples, which range in size anywhere between 10-18. This accounts for some of the modeling no-man's land of the size 8-10, and why it's difficult to simply stick a plus girl into the picture, or anyone above a size 4, really. That's one potential reason that when plus models have been photographed for editorials in the past, they're not only the exception but they've also frequently been nude, or in swimwear and lingerie. It's also a part of the controversial "padding" issue for plus models: using padding to fill out a sample size bigger than the model.

Making bigger samples, going back to an 8, for example, seems an obvious step in order to include more body diversity on the pages of catalogs and magazines. But this would mean re-setting various layers of production on both sides: the design room and the factory floor. It can also mean more money in yards of fabric and the budget. Finally, it may mean getting over the 15 year-old size 0 model. A wholesale shakeup of the industry standards. However, unless we remain content with an exception made every few seasons on a runway or magazine cover in the shape of one curvy girl, it may not be enough to have a conversation about size, health and culture anymore, but actually question the business norms that keep the current status quo in place.