Diversity has become one of the more sweeping phrases in the fashion industry. But while a new list of the highest-earning models of 2017, released by Forbes this week, reveals a depressing lack of racial diversity, it does include a plus-size model for the first time in industry history. Ashley Graham, the 30-year-old American model on track to becoming the first plus-size “supermodel”, was the 10th highest-earning model of 2017, suggesting plus-size – or curve, as they are also known – models are now more than an industry fad or, at worst, a nod towards tokenism. They are actually selling clothes.
Graham, whose recent appearance on the covers of both British and US Vogue was seen as a game-changer in the industry, earned $5.5m (£4.1m) this year thanks to her collections for Addition Elle, Dressbarn and Swimsuits, alongside various catwalk and magazine appearances. But while her success comes at a pivotal time in the industry – last season, a record 26 “plus size” models walked in New York fashion week, but only Graham appeared in a major show, Michael Kors – this figure shows that fashion is waking up to what is known as the 65%, roughly the number of women over a size 14 who qualify as “plus size”.
“Having Ashley at No 10 in the list is a great turning point that highlights the change in the market that hopefully will have a positive ripple effect across the industry,” explains Charlotte Griffiths, who set up Bridge Models, the first major curve agency in the UK, with a mind to closing the gap between standard and plus-size in the industry. But, she adds: “It would be great if models were all referred to as models and not a separate category due to their size – Ashley being in the top 10 with industry-standard straight-size models shows that it is still lucrative for brands to use models of all sizes and they can sell for brands just as well.”
Despite her success as a plus-size model within the “standard-sized” industry showing a real shift in cultural norms, to insiders such as Griffiths who have been fighting the fight for 30 years, her accomplishment feels relatively slow. Mona Schulze of Curve Models, who has been an agent for plus-size models for more than a decade, is optimistic about this shift but agrees that it “shouldn’t be shocking” that Graham is on the Michael Kors catwalk, the Forbes list or even the cover of Vogue. “We should have been there already. We should be at a point where her body is not commented on every single time. We should be looking at what she is wearing. That’s it.” Being on the list is good, she continues, but it does suggest clothes are also being sold “because of who is wearing them”, and not the other way round.
That she is on the catwalk at all does reflect the beginnings of a period of “natural correction” given that that the plus-size industry is said to be worth more than $20bn, according to market research firm NDP Group. Schulze praises the US market for being more open to inclusivity but says “only now am I noticing it growing in Europe, too”, citing “open-minded” outlets such as Levi’s, Asos and River Island for helping to broaden the plus-size market, and even normalise it. It’s a sentiment arguably shared by Graham, who famously denounced the term “plus size” in May as being “divisive” . The word “curve” is being increasingly used to describe models above standard-size.
To understand why the plates are shifting now, it’s worth reflecting on the entire list. This year, the industry has been monopolised by a new generation of models known in the industry as Instagirl models, thanks to their commercially effective harnessing of social media. Another first in the list sees Kendall Jenner of the Kardashian-Jenner clan, who knocked Brazilian stalwart Gisele Bundchen off the top spot for the first time in 15 years.
Since appearing on the cover of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue last year, Graham has become virtually a household name, shifting from the catwalk to the subject of more meaty, insightful interviews at New York Magazine. But part of her appeal is precisely this – that she has used her success as a soapbox to discuss normalising bigger models in the industry. Just this week, she mocked up an Instagram post of herself on the Victoria’s Secret catwalk as a retort to the absence of models of her stature.
“We know now that clients will look at a model’s Instagram account before they see the modelling pictures,” says Schulze, to explain why social media-happy models such as Jenner, Gigi and Bella Hadid, and Chrissy Teigen are outearning, and even outworking, the so-called old guard such as Brazilian models Bundchen and Adriana Lima. “But I certainly think of Ashley Graham as being a ‘double model’, a public figure who is as well known for the way they use their celebrity as a platform as they are for being a model. A model and a role model.” Graham is one of the models using social media to create a conversation. “I have a body that the average-size American woman has. And I’m using it to let other women know that you are beautiful,” Graham told Forbes last year.
Schulze adds: “Not every model can be successful at this – and I don’t think some of the most high-profile models use their status properly.” Graham’s Instagram has more than 5m followers, while Jenner has almost 85m, “but the way Ashley uses that profile is definitely something that plus-size models can gain from – as a way of opening up the market”. Jenner and the Hadids are occasionally referred to as 1% models, having entered the industry after finding commercial fame on reality TV; Graham meanwhile is considered “a model for the 65%”.