Inside NYFW Backstage’s Inspiring Talk On Inclusivity With Ashley Graham, Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, Mina White, & Sarah Chiwaya


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Amidst the flurry of fabrics and camera flashes this New York Fashion Week, a recent panel titled Fashioning a More Inclusive NYFW featured a lively discussion amongst esteemed industry notables including Ashley Graham; a supermodel known for shattering conventional beauty standards, Sarah Chiwaya; a body-positive style blogger and founder of Curvily, who champions plus-size visibility, Mina White; director of Curve at IMG, who brings a critical eye to the representation of diverse body sizes in modeling, and Gabriella Karefa-Johnson; a fashion editor and stylist celebrated for her status quo-challenging vision. These voices, renowned for advocating change, gathered to dissect, discuss, and push forward the narrative of fashion inclusivity. The insightful panel was hosted and moderated by Danielle James, digital beauty director at Elle. 

Kicking things off, James recalled a statement from Christian Siriano. Back in 2018, he told Elle.com that “adding plus sizes to [his] line tripled [his] business” adding the rhetorical question to all designers, “Why wouldn’t you do that? Do we not want to triple the business?” This opener set the pace for a conversation that highlighted that inclusivity isn’t just the right step to take morally; it’s a better business move, too.

Mina White echoed this sentiment, urging the fashion world to expand its vision saying, “I think that, right now, when it comes to size diversity, [there’s still a focus on whether] you’re a 0 or a 14, when there’s a slew of sizes..” Sarah Chiwaya didn’t shy away from calling out the performative gestures of inclusivity, either, with a wry observation: “Some brands will do it for looks and say ‘Hey, we’re doing it, we’re doing the right thing,’ and they’ll hire the one person but won’t actually implement any of the strategies suggested.”

The spirited panel was more than an exchange of ideas; it was a rallying cry for fashion to do better. And not just as a marketing strategy. Ashley Graham also made sure to highlight that progress has been made, so far. “I think there’s been leaps and bounds that have changed in this industry,” she said. “I always remind myself of what has changed, as a glass-half-full kind of girl. We really need to focus on that and why we are doing it as a collective to keep pushing forward.”

Ashley Graham

Read on for some insightful nuggets from the talk

Gabriella Karefa-Johnson: 
“There are obviously established models, one of them among us, who really bring the buzz and some credibility to a brand when she walks a show in a plus size outfit but there’s a reluctance to discover a new generation. I think that the discovery question extends beyond the modeling space even, and it’s like any research and development—any other industry puts time and resources into research, developing ideas, finding ways to create the mold for a wide boob, finding a way to make a sample cutting pattern process easier to grade, but you have to commit to spending money to do it. And that money won’t be spent when the illusion of plus size bodies being ‘not luxurious’ or ‘not interested in participating in fashion’ or ‘not desirable’ are still the greater ethos.”

Sarah Chiwaya:

“The [plus size] consumer is more brand loyal than any other consumer. If you get it right, you will create incredibly loyal customers who will return and spend money, and who doesn’t want that? You will get the retention as a brand that’s so hard to get. It’s morally the right thing to do but also a great business decision.”

Sarah Chiwaya

Gabriella Karefa-Johnson: 

“I might be biased because I think there are far too few female designers making clothes for women, Esther Manas happens to be an incredible, size inclusive designer, who designs from the experience of what she wants to put on her body.”

Gabriella Karefa-Johnson

Ashley Graham:

“Harris Reed has also been killing it with his own collection and with what he [was] doing for Nina [Ricci]. And it’s happening, slowly, but it’s not catching fire the way that people who have been in the industry for as long as we have and then some—25 years for me! You hope there will be more designers like Christian [Siriano], who will do it consecutively, and there’s not. We could name a few…but do they go up into [sizes] XXL, XXXL, XXXL? No. They just kind of put their [size] 12 and 14 models onto the runway. And then you have the hope that you can go and buy the clothes, and you can’t.”

Mina White: 

“There should be visible body diversity on the runway. You should have size 6s, you should have 8s, 14s, and 16s. I think that’s really important. I think that ultimately the consumer wants to be seen in that way. We’ve seen that a very inclusive statement on the runway will reflect in sales. I think that a lot of these luxury brands’ sales are dominated by their [handbags], perfumes, cosmetics. And the big girls are the ones who are buying it! I’m sure if you did a poll of how many purses the average size 20 [shopper] has and how much they’ve spent, that could probably take your brand to a whole new place [if they could buy clothes.]”

Mina White

Gabriella Karefa-Johnson: 

“Despite the fact that fast fashion is probably one of the most damaging aspects of the retail industry, I think the way that they’ve treated their plus consumers is actually really apt, because instead of serving minimization culture—’this is about looking skinnier, this is a flattering silhouette’—they are subscribing to trends. Which is how trade sized shoppers have always shopped and communicated their needs and wants, but for some reason fat girls aren’t supposed to be interested in fashion, only about how to make themselves look skinnier. And so fast fashion kind of threw away that pretense. I think that heartier fashion brands could learn from that, strategy wise.”

Mina White:

“We have this stigma that, if you are plus, fat, overweight, whatever the words are, you have no taste. No money. No self worth or value. I think in order for the greater ecosystem to take this consumer seriously, all these brands need to be inclusive. They shouldn’t even have categories. This way, these women can express their true style. You don’t need these categories any more and that’s where the problem is; we don’t need these labels. And also, let’s get creative. Curve girls in the shows—they need to be in there, and not just in a black stretchy dress, they need to actually be in the [collection].”

Ashley Graham:

“It’s a daunting feeling to know that your body is never going to not be spoken about, picked apart, judged on whatever platform. I’m never going to be thin or fat enough, never a perfect body. I never sought after that—I’m just here to work to reach that change in the industry. So my hope is truly a testament to everything we’ve been speaking on. We don’t need to talk about our bodies. We can just say, ‘That’s a beautiful dress!’ And it’s not about who’s in it. It’s just a conversation about fashion, something we love so dearly. The five of us are up here because we not only want to see change, but we love fashion and we want to be represented without having to discuss the things that have been deemed ‘not luxurious’ or ‘not beautiful’—because that’s not the case at all. I’m excited for what’s to come.”

For more information on NYFW: Backstage’s open-to-the-public pop-up highlighting the frenzy behind fashion week, please see here.

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