Designing for the Full-Figured Woman

Gwen DeVoe at the Indie Designer Showcase held at the Full Figured Fashion Week June 14-20 in New York City (Photo courtesy of Rick Jones Photography)

Gwen DeVoe at the Indie Designer Showcase held at Full Figured Fashion Week June 14-20 in New York City. (Photo courtesy of Rick Jones Photography)

For her third Full Figured Fashion Week collection, New Jersey-based designer Sakinah B. wanted to shake things up.

“This year I went back to my roots, I went back to high school,” said Sakinah, a third-generation seamstress and creator of the plus-size clothing line Eyani Couture. “In high school I would make an outfit a day and wear it to school the next day.”

It usually takes Sakinah four to six months to make a collection, but this time the 40-year-old designer challenged herself to make 24 pieces in 24 days. The result was a fall collection with a bit of a disco vibe, complete with pleated evening gowns, yellow coats and a gray belted jumpsuit that drew cheers from the crowd at FFFWeek’s Indie Designer Showcase in downtown Manhattan on June 19.

Sakinah is one of 25 independent designers, retailers and boutiques that participated in the seventh annual FFFWeek from June 14 to 20. It’s the only event of its kind, featuring fashion shows, panel discussions and pop-up shops dedicated to empowering curvy women in a nation where the fashion industry has long skirted making quality pieces for sizes 14 and up. Yet the average size for American women is 14, according to the market research firm Plunkett Research Ltd.

Designer Sakinah at the Full Figured Fashion Week show (Photo by Oulimata Ba for Voices of NY)

Designer Sakinah at the Full Figured Fashion Week show (Photo by Oulimata Ba for Voices of NY)

At the Indie Showcase, independent designers from Boston to Australia gathered at the Broad Street Ballroom to shatter the myth held by mainstream fashion that curvy women are somehow less desirable than their straight-size counterparts, especially when it comes to women of color.

“We’ve always been criticized, our hips and our curves and our lips,” said Sakinah, a professional designer for 16 years. “So to see Black women strut in my designs, that’s a big deal for me because I’m a Black woman of size.”

Other myths were shattered too. “I feel like a lot of women are afraid of prints, especially plus-size women,” said Alabama native Jeannetta Thomas, whose label I’Me for sizes 8 to 24 made its debut at FFFWeek on Friday. Her “Put Me in a Print” collection featured models in colorful patterns and stripes gliding down the catwalk to “Let’s Get It Started” by The Black Eyed Peas.

The 50 models featured in the show were as diverse as the prints, including Black, white and Latina, a lineup that casting director Sharon Quinn made sure reflected the hundreds of guests who came to see glamorous full-figured women in the spotlight.

“We do look for all ethnicities and shapes because we have to keep diversity in the lineup,” Quinn told the audience during a chat about casting methods with host Gwen DeVoe, the creator of FFFWeek.

That same diversity, however, is conspicuously missing from mainstream runways where straight-size white models still rule. During New York Fashion Week, which occurs twice-yearly, last February 77 percent of the models were white, according to The Fashion Spot’s Diversity Report. Around 80 percent of the models were white the season before in September 2014. It was the same the season before that.

“Black is beautiful like any other race. I don’t understand why they don’t use a lot of Black women on the runway,” said Sakinah, who has five children, including two daughters.

Like many plus designers, Sakinah’s label sprang out of frustration over not being able to find her size while shopping in department stores – she couldn’t even find a wedding dress.

Sakinah, who was 9 when her mother taught her to sew, ended up making her own wedding dress. The positive feedback encouraged her to launch Eyani Couture, a name she says came to her in a dream.

On those occasions when plus customers were lucky enough to find their size, the choices were usually limited to bland colors in lackluster materials. The better to slim down the figure with.

A dress from Eyani Couture (Photo by Rick Jones Photography)

A dress from Eyani Couture (Photo by Rick Jones Photography)

“If they had a print it was some kind of off the wall print,” said full-figured designer Veronica L., creator of Tru Diva Designs. “Like OK, yeah, you see me coming but not in a good way,” she added jokingly.

Both Veronica, winner of FFFWeek’s Designer of the Year award, and Sakinah tapped into a multibillion-dollar plus-size retail market – worth $17.5 billion as of last year – with a diverse clientele that, unlike straight runways, resembles the faces of FFFWeek.

“I can now see women that mirror me, my image,” said Linda Ruffin, who attended the Indie Showcase and “thoroughly enjoyed” it. She gravitated toward dark colors to create the illusion of being smaller. But now she has a few color ideas she’s bringing back home to Mobile, Alabama.

Stitch by stitch the seams between full-figured and straight-size fashion are becoming less defined. September 2013 marked the first time a plus-size designer presented at NYFW. Last September, emerging labels Chromat and Zana Bayne used plus models in their NYFW lineup. Earlier this year Ashley Graham became the first full-figured model featured in an ad in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition.

Even FFFWeek, which was going to end because of lack of funding support last year, came back thanks to sponsor Fruit of the Loom.

“You have more BBW (big beautiful women) events now, you have more people accepting us and they love us for who we are,” said Sakinah, who is trying to bring her designs to the main fashion week. She recently expanded Eyani Couture to London and will return there in the fall.

But there’s a secret she wants everyone to know.

“A lot of people didn’t know, or they know now, that we’ve always loved our skin,” Sakinah said.

“We were always comfortable in our skin.”

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