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The Economics Of Skinny Models

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This season in the lobby of the Fashion Week tents, there was a booth tucked amidst the flashy sponsor offerings that had a serious message to share. Instead of girls dressed in skimpy sponsor branded outfits offering free samples of specialty goods, this booth was staffed by earnest young women who were there to talk about fashion's dark side: eating disorders.
The booth was created by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, in conjunction with the Renfrew Center Foundation for Eating Disorders. Its goal was to continue to raise awareness on the issue and offer treatment referrals for those in need. This was part of a health initiative that the CFDA formed in January 2007 to address the international concern that some models may be too thin and are practicing unhealthy eating habits to stay that way.

It was two years ago this past August when model Luisel Ramos died of heart failure caused by anorexia while participating in a fashion show. Her death gained massive media attention and first cast light on the problem of models starving themselves to achieve "perfect form." In 2006, "perfect form" for a runway model meant small, nearly flat breasts, narrow hips and a tiny backside. As I watched the models stride down the catwalk during the latest spring collections last week, my impression was that despite our raised awareness, this super skinny aesthetic has yet to change. See this slideshow of a few alarming examples.

Why? Some theories will point a finger at the media for continuing to glorify the look or say that male designers prefer girls with proportions similar to young boys- but I don't know that either idea really defines the root of the problem. Lately, I've been seeing more media attention than ever directed towards redefining standards of female beauty- from articles on looking great at every age to Jennifer Hudson's turn as Vogue's cover model. The male designers that I am friendly with- both gay and straight- love women and their curves, that's why they design for them.

So then why do we keep seeing such delicately thin young girls model clothes meant to be sold to women with mature figures? One little addressed reason may have to do with the manufacturing process: it's cheaper and easier to mass manufacture clothes that have less built-in shape. Garments with less shaping hang more attractively on linear bodies. Bust darts, waist darts and curved seams are all more difficult to both fit and sew than straight seams. These are the elements of tailored garments that enable clothing to sit smoothly over shapely curves. But-- it takes time and expertise to perfect these elements and this can cost a lot of money. Additionally from a financial perspective, garment pattern pieces with straighter seams can produce better yield from a bolt of fabric. Think about it like this: if you have two cookie cutters, one square and one round that you apply to equally sized sheets of dough, which will give you more cookies with less wasted dough in between?

Fashion cycles keep whirling faster as stores both encourage and cater to consumer demand for a constant influx of new merchandise. Designers are being pushed to their limits to keep up. In today's global market place, having a fashion business is all about dealing with economy of scale- if you can't produce quickly and in large volume, it is very, very difficult to stay in business.

So perhaps it is actually the mechanics of an ineffective and over-burdened manufacturing system that is the true culprit behind why our runway models look the way they do. If our designers do not have the support from both the industry and consumers to rigorously examine things like fit and innovative but wearable proportions, they will keep on sending clothes down the runway that hang uninterrupted from shoulders to hips. These fashions will continue to be worn by very thin models because that's who looks good in them. And models will keep on trying to stay as thin as possible because they, like everyone else, want to keep on paying their bills... even if it's killing them.

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