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New York Fashion Week: Breaking into the industry as a plus-size model

Thousands of women sent in their headshots to compete to walk the runway in NYC wearing Torrid’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection. But only 10 made it to the brand’s New York Fashion Week debut at Skylight Clarkson Sq in West SoHo on Sept. 12.

The plus-size retailer — specializing in styles for women who wear sizes 10 through 30 — showing at NYFW is an exciting move for many women who struggle to identify with the high fashion runways that remain primarily dominated by models sizes two and below. Torrid isn’t the only brand to attempt to boost inclusivity in the fashion universe. Christian Siriano has been known to focus on diversity, from gender to race to size. And plus-size models like Ashley Graham and Sabina Karlsson (both of whom walked in the Siriano and Michael Kors shows among others this season), have become beacons of hope for fashion-loving millennials who are itching for change in the industry standard.

Torrid’s model search, which was open to the public, gave women around the globe a chance to chase a dream that to some seemed out of reach. The winner, to be announced in November, will be deemed the “Next Face of Torrid,” a role currently held by New Jersey’s Maria Gimena.

We caught up with six of Torrid’s Top 10 model contest finalists via email to find out what their road to NYFW as a plus-size model looked like.

Haley Chapman, 28, Atlanta

On modeling experience: I've been modeling for ...
Photo Credit: Haley Chapman; Getty Images / Frazer Harrison

On modeling experience: I've been modeling for ... oh, one week. Ha! Before being selected as a Top 10 contender for "The Next Face of Torrid," I had never even had my picture professionally taken. I submitted my online application with an iPhone 5 photo.

On walking in NYFW: My first reaction was utter disbelief. I literally screamed, while at work, mind you, when I got the call. It was a dream come true. Walking NYFW was incredible. It was the most exhilarating and humbling experience of my life. 10/10 would do again.

On breaking into the industry as a plus-size model: This was the first audition I've ever gone to. I had just recently been laid off from my job and thought, "What do you have to lose?" When you're a big girl, everything is a struggle! But honestly, Torrid is all about pushing the limits of what's expected in this industry and I am honored to be a part of this revolution.

I think the biggest obstacle we all face whether in modeling or any other pursuit is self-doubt. I decided that I wouldn't let fear rule my life anymore, so now if I want something, I go for it. Life is too short to hide in the shadows.

On inspiring a more inclusive runway: Our world is changing, and it's time the runway reflected that change. Big girls are bold, beautiful, and worthy of the spotlight. For every little girl who has looked in the mirror and thought she would never be good enough. This is for you. We are for you. I am for you. I am here to tell you that you are beautiful, you are capable, and I believe in you. Dear fashion world, it took us a while to get here, but we're not leaving anytime soon! xoxo, Big girls

Kat Gumabao, 29, San Francisco

On modeling experience: I've been modeling semi-full time
Photo Credit: Kat Gumabao; Getty Images / Frazer Harrison

On modeling experience: I've been modeling semi-full time for about a year and a half. I'm originally from SFO but I live in the Philippines with my family. And growing up in a country wherein females are generally on the petite side; modeling was never an initial dream of mine as a child. I have done a couple of photos shoots since 2008 but my career only started taking off August 2016.

On walking in NYFW: [I was] stunned. I cried. It's been a dream of mine to walk in NYFW and I couldn't believe what I just read ... I got the news via email. I couldn't talk for a few minutes -- that's a long time because I'm very talkative -- and I just sat there rereading my email. Walking in the show was surreal. From the moment I got the email saying I got in, to waiting for my ticket to the states, to getting on my flight to JFK from SFO was nerve wrecking.

The actual walking was a whole bunch of mixed emotions. I was super happy, but I couldn't show it because the direction was to be serious and fierce, but not look angry. I just kept thinking that no matter what happens, I cannot fall. I cannot fall. It was definitely an out-of-body experience. The adrenaline ... everything was just magical.

On breaking into the industry as a plus-size model: It was definitely a struggle and it still is. I grew up in the Philippines and models/actresses, or anybody who comes out on TV and in magazines, are probably not more than a size four or six. So, there wasn't really an industry for bigger women to begin with. I kept trying to find opportunities outside of my country, which was harder, of course, but more accepting of diversity. It isn't only a struggle to break into the industry, it's also very costly.

The most challenging obstacle I would say is to walk in heels! Kidding aside, I guess it would be to walk the runway. Clothes vary from style, texture, fabric, etc. and not all styles complement all bodies. To walk in clothes that don't flatter your body type is difficult because that's how you're booked/signed to an agency, when they see you walk. If you get booked for a show, but aren't really dressed for your body type, then you end up not walking to your full potential. At the same time, having the clients/designers say that they loved your performance regardless of how the clothes fit you has been the most rewarding.

On inspiring a more inclusive runway: I want the industry to know that being different is not a bad thing. Change is not a bad thing. Discrimination is a bad thing. Equal representation should be the standard we all follow. I also want to state that times are changing; fashion is evolving; diversity is happening; inclusion is starting. So, either embrace it or get left behind.

Sophie Ervin, 19, Dallas

On modeling experience: This is the first time
Photo Credit: Sophie Ervin; Torrid

On modeling experience: This is the first time I've ever done any "real" modeling. My mom was a straight-size model when she was my age, so I never thought I could follow in her footsteps because no matter how hard I try, I'm never going to fit into the mold of straight-size fashion. When I was younger, she would offer up the idea of plus-size modeling and I would always shy away from it because I didn't want to be labeled as plus size. The body-positive movement has made great strides for average to plus-size women all over the world; however as a little girl, the words "plus size" still felt like a label that was involuntarily slapped on me, and for some reason I was supposed to be grateful that I was now segregated into a fashion world where horizontal stripes and mesh clothing didn't exist -- because big girls weren't "supposed" to wear things like that.

On walking in NYFW: Torrid makes clothing that helps women achieve that happiness and that confidence. That was the energy that I channeled while walking and closing the first-ever [Torrid] plus-size runway at NYFW. It was an indescribable, magical feeling that left most of us speechless. A lot us were scared out of our minds (who wouldn't be? It's NY-freaking-FW!), but the entire ambiance of the show was filled with such passion, love and positivity. That should be the feeling at every runway show. There's no way to put in words the exact feeling that was rushing through me as I walked the runway other than gratitude. My entire life I felt like I didn't belong anywhere, but as I stepped onto the runway I realized I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

On breaking into the industry as a plus-size model: Meeting all the amazing people I did throughout the week, I caught a glimpse of what it takes to be a plus-size model in the fashion industry: really tough skin. From the moment the top 10 finalists were announced, we received criticism for being "too this, or too that, too skinny, not unique, too young, etc." It took me a couple days to come to terms with the fact that I'm not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and that I don't have to be. I was there for a reason and I was determined to live up to it. This went beyond inspiring women to love their bodies, this was about showing women how to fall in love with themselves, even when they're filled with doubt. It's not easy to feel beautiful.

On inspiring a more inclusive runway: My goal is to help women realize their potential, to show them how to love themselves, to show them that they CAN do it, and to prove to them that they belong; that they're worth it, because that's what Torrid has done for me.

DaQuendra Elston, 20, Montgomery

On modeling experience: This is my first time
Photo Credit: DaQuendra Elston; Getty Images / Frazer Harrison

On modeling experience: This is my first time actually modeling, I have done a few photo shoots with hometown photographers but Torrid gave me the opportunity to model on a runway for the very first time.

On walking in NYFW: My first reaction was a very long pause. I was in dance practice when I got the call and I was speechless, shocked, excited all at once. I couldn't believe it and I knew at that moment my life, as well as the other finalist's lives, was about to change.

All the way up to the actual show I was nervous, I didn't want to mess up. I wasn't sure as to why I was so nervous when I have performed dance routines in front of millions of people almost every weekend. I thought, "This should be a piece of cake." And so it was. But I was nervous at the first part of the week and as I continued to practice my walk I began to get more comfortable and realized that I was about to kill this runway and let people know that plus-size women are models as well. Then, on the day of the show I went out there and left everything on that runway.

On breaking into the industry as a plus-size model: It is a struggle to break into anything while being plus size. I am a plus-size dancer at The Alabama State University and we experience so much slack and controversy just because of our size. All we want to do is show confidence in our curves and let other plus-size women of all ages know that we must love the skin we are in and to embrace our curves because if we don't no one will. Breaking [into] the modeling industry being plus size is not easy and you must have the confidence to prove to everyone that plus-size women deserve to model just as well as smaller women and there should be models representing all shapes, sizes, ethnicities etc. All of the people in the world are not a size zero or two, so why should there only be models representing people from those sizes? What about the people who are three to 33? Every body type should be represented some way in the modeling industry.

The most rewarding obstacle I have overcome is doubting myself. All the way up to the day of the fashion show I was doubting myself and comparing myself to models who have done this for years and I finally realized that I don't need to compare myself to them. I should look at them as inspiration to motivate myself and let go of all doubt. After I let go and just did it, it felt so great at the end to know that I just went out there and killed it on the runway for NYFW.

On inspiring a more inclusive runway: I would like the industry to know that models shouldn't just represent one body type. There are many different body types in the world so why not have different types of models to represent the different types of people in the world? Being that the industry has set a standard for so long, people cannot grasp the thought of it ever being different. So, why not change it up a bit? #PlusSizeModelsLivesMatter

Haley Rudolph, 24, Toronto

On modeling experience: I don't consider myself a
Photo Credit: Haley Rudolph; Getty Images / Frazer Harrison

On modeling experience: I don't consider myself a model, but I guess you can say that I have modeled now after walking in NYFW. The most modeling I have done prior to this is pose for a couple of pictures for a friend's fashion blog back when I was 19.

On walking in NYFW: Shock. I truly never thought this would happen, but I'm very grateful it did. Super cliché, but it still feels like a dream. It was really fun to get my hair and makeup done by professionals and to wear beautiful clothes and exciting to be in the midst of the craziness of the backstage. I was very scared to fall in my heels on the runway; thankfully, I didn't.

On breaking into the industry as a plus-size model: I had never made an effort to break into the industry before, partly because I didn't think it was possible. I follow a lot of inspiring plus-size models, though, so I am fully aware of the challenges they have gone through to bring representation of curvier bodies into the mainstream media. We still have a long way to go.

On inspiring a more inclusive runway: I would hope that people from the industry watched not only the Torrid show but the shows of other size-inclusive brands such as Christian Siriano, Chromat, Prabal Gurung and Addition-Elle from this year, and saw how beautiful the garments look on diverse body types. Beyond that, to consider the power that body diversity has to inspire people to love themselves more.

Ruth Santiago, 28, Orlando

On modeling experience: I started modeling about 10
Photo Credit: Ruth Santiago; Getty Images / Frazer Harrison

On modeling experience: I started modeling about 10 years ago as what the industry calls a "straight-size model." I went to modeling school in Puerto Rico and in spite of all the knowledge I gained, I suffered tremendous discrimination because of my body, specifically because of my hips. After multiple attempts trying to make it into the modeling industry, my mom decided that it was enough and that I was going to focus on my studies. I am forever grateful to her for taking that decision because it has made me the women that I am today. I represent the modern women. Smart, bold, fun, fearless, strong and confident of her body.

On walking in NYFW: I cried my eyes out [when I found out I was walking]. My heart dropped when I saw an incoming call from California. I was not expecting the call at all. I left it as a fun weekend in Atlanta (casting) and moved on. But I have been on Cloud 9 ever since! I just couldn't believe it. Just to attend the NYWF is a dream itself, but to walk that runway after all those closed doors, after all the weight battles, after a season of depression is beyond anything I've ever imagined. I felt validated and on the right track. #HelloFromTheOtherSide

On breaking into the industry as a plus-size model: I can't say it was hard for me to break into the industry since this platform was given to me by Torrid. They deserve all the credit. They are the ones changing the industry and creating a new world for all of us curvy women./p>

The most challenging obstacle has been to overcome all the criticism and negative feedback pertaining my image. As a woman who has been a size six and a size 24 and that has been body shamed at each and every size along that journey, it takes a lot of courage to step out and dare to believe in yourself no matter what anyone else thinks.

On inspiring a more inclusive runway: You can't just sidestep millions of women and pretend they don't exist. The fact is that more than 60 percent of American women are size 14 or larger, yet only five to eight percent of the bodies we see represented in the runway are plus-size women. From a marketing standpoint, wouldn't it make more sense to target your biggest audience? Breaking a mold is difficult, but it's not exactly complicated. I believe we have come a long way, but there is still a long way ahead of us. Thankfully, [there are brands] here to fight the good battle and represent all curvy women in large platforms like the NYFW.

Sara Smith, 19, Bay Springs

On modeling experience: I have been modeling for
Photo Credit: Sara Smith; Getty Images / Frazer Harrison

On modeling experience: I have been modeling for approximately six months. From local boutiques in Mississippi, to this: New York Fashion Week.

On walking in NYFW: When the top 10 got to New York City, we had only six days to get our walk, our face, our hands, and everything else that goes into a runway walk right. We practiced our walks more times than I can count. On the day of our walk in NYFW, I, personally, was not nervous. I felt like I belonged there, as I checked into the show and was given a pass to put around my neck. It was official. It was real. I was ready to slay that runway. I had my hair done, then my makeup, my nails, and finally: it was time to let the stylist dress me backstage.

As it was my turn to walk, my soul left my body. I was not scared, I was not nervous, I was floating on the runway. It was an out-of-body experience. I got to the end of the runway, put my hand on my hip and did the most awesome thing I've ever done with my face. I don't know what it was, but damn didn't I slay it. As I heard the crowd cheer for me, my heart was beating out of my chest. I got backstage, changed, then went to find my mom. When I found her and hugged her, I cried. I was so happy for myself. She was so happy for me. We cried together. I walked in NYFW, and it was an experience that will leave memories with me for as long as I live.

On breaking into the industry as a plus-size model: I have definitely stumbled over challenges that I never would've thought would lead to a rewarding moment. A few months ago, I was told by a modeling agency, "Let's start with you losing 25 pounds, then call us and we want to sign you." When I was told that, I started to doubt myself. I started thinking that I needed to starve myself to lose weight. I lost touch with my dreams, and wanted to conform to someone else's definition of a "plus size model". One day, I had a heart-to-heart with myself. I told myself, "You shouldn't have to conform to their definition of 'beautiful.' " However, to this day, I broke through so many doubts that were formed against me. I, Sara Smith, size 22, have walked in NYFW. That is the biggest, most honorable reward that I could ever ask for.

On inspiring a more inclusive runway: The industry, society, globally, the idea of beauty has been so singular. You must be tall, you must be thin, you must perfectly perfect. What's so important to me, is for women across the world to see that while all those things are beautiful, so am I; so are all of the other girls sitting at home on their couches wearing yoga pants in a size 3X; so are all the ladies that go shopping with their friends and feel "different." I am so in love with the idea of a breakthrough within the industry, where a woman that wears a 26 can tune into a livestream of NYFW and see me walk that runway and think, "Finally, a model that looks like me."


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