Fashion

CurvyCon 2019: “I went to a plus-size fashion convention at NYFW and this is what I learnt”

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Billie Bhatia
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What happens when you don’t see yourself represented at fashion week? Fashion news editor Billie Bhatia finds out. 

Ah, New York Fashion Week – otherwise known as the kick off to the international show season and the home to the most fashionable women in the world. Except it isn’t. It’s home to some of the most fashionable women in the world, sure, but New York (along with the rest of the big four: London, Milan and Paris) still does not represent many women at all.

Granted, there is progress in representation and diversity in the industry – even in my short tenure of attending the shows I have noticed this. But there is still a huge demographic that is missing, and it is ironically one that makes up 67% of America’s population – plus size women

That’s right: whether it’s the model on the runway, the editor sat on the front row, the designer taking their final bow or the photographer stood at the end of the runway, plus-size women are still lacking. 

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Which is exactly why The CurvyCon – a three-day celebration of plus-size women consisting of panel talk, catwalk shows and shopping – came into existence, and more importantly exists at the same time as New York Fashion Week. So, I decided to bypass the conventional shows for a day to experience what it would be like to see myself represented at fashion week.

While I appreciate the privilege of attending fashion shows, it can be, for the large part, an incredibly isolating experience. It’s not that I don’t have friends – I have met some of my best friends in this industry, in fact – it’s just that they don’t look like me. They don’t know what it is like to step into a room where you are so painfully the odd one out, to have people look at you like you don’t belong, all because of your size.

So, when I arrived at the CurvyCon (held at a space on 5th Avenue) I was still half expecting to be looked up and down by the crowd, expecting some judgement to be passed. Instead, I walked in and was greeted by such an unfamiliar sight, I couldn’t quite comprehend it existed: hundreds of stylish women that, in some shape or form, all kind of looked like me. 

The CurvyCon founders Chastity Garner Valentine and Cece Olisa
The CurvyCon founders Chastity Garner Valentine and Cece Olisa

By 9:30am the CurvyCon was already bustling with ticket holders eager to shop from the pop-up brands that made up a massive retail space. Think Anthropologie, Good American, Nike, Macy’s, Veronica Beard, Eloquii and Torrid, to name just a few.

When I sat down to speak to founders CeCe Olisa and Chastity Garner Valentine, they explained that, like me, they felt isolated at fashion week. However, it was this sense of isolation that inspired them to create this platform and event. 

“Being a plus-size girl can be a lonely experience,” they tell me. “We were both the only plus-size woman in our friendship groups until we became bloggers. Most of the shopping for women of our size is e-commerce – so you are shopping alone. And then the plus-size community is all on social media, so you are still alone. So, for us it was like what’s next for the plus-size community, what’s next for plus-size fashion personally?”

Olisa explains: “I had a corporate job on Wall Street at the time, Chastity was a full-time blogger and we actually met a fashion show that was 3 hours late – so that three hours is very important to our friendship. We would talk everyday on GChat and it was through those conversations that the name crystallised. We bought the domain, but we didn’t do anything about for six months or so. Then, we learned that a plus-size event – one which had become our yearly gathering – wasn’t going to happen anymore, and we thought, ‘Ok, now is our time to do this.’ We literally launched the event with a video and the words, ‘CurvyCon coming in 2015’ and that video sold out our platinum tickets in just a few hours.”

CurvyCon 2019
CurvyCon 2019

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What came next proved a humbling experience as Olisa and Valentine reached out to brands for sponsorship. 

“We had both established ourselves in the community and had large followings, so we naively thought it was going to be easy to get people on board – that certainly was not the case. Brands, who we worked with on an individual basis, were hesitant so actually it was our community, our girls, who bought the tickets that allowed the event to happen.”

A few years later and the CurvyCon is the biggest plus-size fashion week worldwide.

“At fashion week you might get a plus girl here or there, but here we are making that girl our priority,” says Olisa. “We often get a lot of emails asking us how to become a model or how to become a blogger, but that really isn’t our mission: we want to build confidence in women so that they can go out and become a politician or a lawyer. CurvyCon lets them shop the clothes they need, get a boost of confidence from a panel talk and leave feeling as if they can change the world. 

“We have a lot to do in the women’s movement right now: we want to make sure we are serving and celebrating plus-size women.” 

The CurvyCon 2019
The CurvyCon 2019

The talks are fascinating and insightful – and they make me consider things I hadn’t thought about before (despite being someone who is both plus-size and part of the fashion industry). For example, that being a size 20 is not universal. In fact, there can be 100 different variants on that size (’you can’t predict where the fat will land,’ is a line everyone regularly uses here) and so you need to create a product that works for every single one of those different shaped size 20 women.

Next, the conversation shifts to why we feel guilty about being plus-size. According to the many speakers at the event, we are ingrained to think this way because those brands who are catering to us are so limited: we are made to believe that there is something wrong with us. That “we are not worthy”, in some way or another. This bum note hits the whole room hard, and it quickly becomes apparent that this is a feeling everyone has had, myself included. 

Nadia Boujarwah, Co-Founder of clothing brand Dia & Co, explains: “The body positive movement was brought together by individual women. And that’s how this community was built, through individuals. Now we need to take the onus away from individuals and change the system. This movement shouldn’t be about the burden of courage from each individual to just live their life. It should just be commonplace.”

(Side note: in America it’s totally commonplace to interject speeches with sounds of approval and words of support. I am, of course, British and so remain entirely silent and quite solemn throughout all the panel talks.)

Cece Olisa, Jameela Jamil, Chastity Garner Valentine
Cece Olisa, Jameela Jamil, Chastity Garner Valentine

10 panel talks are scheduled for the day and it’s incredible to see such game-changers in the industry not only tell their story, but enact actual change, too. There is hope in the air. People are excited for what’s to come and even I, with my typically British cynicism, feel excited and hopeful for change. Surrounded by women who not only look like me, but wake up and feel like I do every single morning, has made me realise that I am not alone.

The big talk of the day comes from recent Stylist guest editor Jameela Jamil – who brings with her a big dose of ‘I Weigh’ energy. In an uplifting but emotional discussion (myself and a few others find ourselves with wet eyes when things get particular personal), Jamil talks about ‘concern trolling’. Which is, essentially, the act of pretending to care about someone’s physical health while actually just imposing your weight bias on someone, with zero consideration for their mental health. Then there’s the fact that weight bias is legal in a whopping 48 American states: yes, it’s literally written in the laws that you can legally discriminate someone based on their weight. I’ll just let that sink in for a moment.

The CurvyCon 2019
The CurvyCon 2019

At the end of the day, the plus-size community disperses, retreating back to our lives with a different mind-set and holding our head higher than we did when came in. I feel a little braver, a little bit kinder in my thoughts about myself, a little bit more accepting of my flaws and a little bit more excited for the future.

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Images: courtesy of the CurvyCon