A wave of change is sweeping across the American apparel landscape. No longer will full-figured women be relegated to wearing muumuus and tent dresses thanks to the extraordinary efforts of supermodel and entrepreneur Emme ’85, who for more than a decade has been on a mission to attain equal fashion status for consumers wearing size 12 and above. “Although the average American woman wears a 14/16, department stores typically carry only one or two items in that size,” says Emme, who achieved international fame in the ’90s as the world’s first “plus-size” supermodel and is a nationally renowned advocate for positive body image and self-esteem. “Curvy women want fashionable clothes too, yet designers, manufacturers, and retailers continue to overlook our needs.”
Someday we’ll look back and wonder why the 12-plus market has been overlooked for so long.
Emme knew she had to think innovatively if she had any hope of modernizing a 120-year-old apparel industry steeped in tradition. Toward that end, she explored forming a partnership with her alma mater to teach the next generation of designers how to create fashion forward apparel for all women, including those with full figures. She proposed sponsoring Fashion Without Limits—a competition for students in the junior-year draping class who would design an evening dress exclusively for her. “My fashion design colleague, Jeffrey Mayer, and I thought it was a great idea, so we had Emme come to campus to kick off the competition last fall,” says Professor Todd Conover ’95, fashion design program coordinator in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA). “Someday we’ll look back and wonder why the 12-plus market has been overlooked for so long.”
At first, not all of the fashion design students were enthusiastic about the Fashion Without Limits initiative. Some were uncomfortable with the idea because, like most young designers, they aspire to create chic fashions for the rail-thin models who strut down the runways of Paris and New York. After much lively discussion, Conover realized not all of the students wanted to be part of this cultural shift, so he made the competition optional. In the end, 90 percent of the students embraced the project. “I think some of the students may have been apprehensive about the idea of designing for an actual person,” says Hannah Ballinger ’16, who had previous experience doing client-based custom work. “I was very excited about the project because the plus-size movement is gaining momentum, and I know this opportunity will have a major impact on my career.”
By conducting research and keeping weekly journals throughout the creative process, students learned to think beyond stereotypes when designing apparel for a woman’s curvy proportions. They soon discovered that drafting a pattern for size 12 and above is not as simple as scaling up a size 6 because the sleeves would hit the floor. So they began by draping their designs in muslin on size 16, 18, and 20 dress forms donated by Wolf Form Company of Englewood, New Jersey, and then turned the drapes into paper patterns. They sewed their garments up again in muslin to check the fit and make any needed alterations, then cut them out of final fabric and sewed them together. “During the inaugural year of the project, the students developed their design ideas in consultation with Emme to reflect her specific style and color preferences,” Conover says. “In the future, we’ll make it more general so students will have greater freedom in the design process.”
Emme has made a five-year commitment to the Fashion Without Limits competition, after which time she hopes the concept will be well integrated into the curriculum. Since there are no existing guidelines on the art and science of designing apparel for the full-figured woman, Emme and the Syracuse fashion design team are collaborating on writing the first textbooks of their kind, as well as developing a new curriculum that will revolutionize how fashion design is taught. “We want Syracuse University to be the first fashion design school to develop this idea, and then we’ll make what we learn available to the global fashion industry so that full-figured women’s fashion needs can be served,” Emme says. “It is going to make me very happy to see millions of self-confident women looking and feeling fabulous because of this program.”
This story was first published on December 14, 2017 and last updated on . It also appeared as “Passion for Fashion” in the issue of Syracuse University Magazine.