The fashion industry faces constant criticisms; from being too superficial, to not being a real art form, and to being the number one cause of women’s body issues. A new era is dawning in fashion, however, where women don’t need to be stick thin to find success. US Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour has been quoted saying runway models have gotten too thin, and was instrumental in crafting Vogue’s guidelines banning extremely underweight models, as well as models under age 16. Last year, Eden Miller became the first plus-size fashion designer to show at NYFW. Modeling shouldn’t ruin a person’s ability to eat, or cause girls to starve themselves just to look like the store mannequin they saw wearing the new Dior dress. Plus-sized model Jess Lewis is a huge advocate for projecting other body images to women, and a woman who can give plenty of insight into the world of modeling, from all angles.

Interview with Jessica Lewis

By Kristopher Frazer

How do you feel about the increase in women of different sizes being showcased on the runway? 

I think it’s fantastic! It’s been a long time coming and this past season in particular was a real turning point in showcasing a broader range of body types on the runways.

Do you think Rick Owens’ Paris Fashion Week show, at the beginning of this year, was a step towards an international push for different body types on the runway?

He included women of various sizes doing a step show, for the finale. It was very different from anything at PFW ever before. Absolutely. Rick Owens is great in that he’s willing to step outside of the box without regard for tradition, trends or anybody else’s opinion. The industry needs more risk takers like that, so we can continue to move forward with the evolution of fashion…though, I suppose the diversity movement is a bit of a trend in itself. 😉 There were quite a few designers who stepped on board with that, this past season. Here in NYC, Zana Bayne and Chromat showed such amazing, diverse lineups and in Milan, even Prada sent some ladies down the runway who were a bit curvier than the norm. Moving forward…

Who is your plus-sized fashion inspiration?

I can’t pinpoint one person or source because I’ve drawn from so many over the years. There are some stellar photographers and models who are really broadening the industry’s standards and closing the gap between plus and straight size… Ashley Graham, Robyn Lawley, Lily Cummings, Denise Bidot, Victoria Janashvili… These women aren’t just about plus size, their message is more all encompassing. We want a broader range of beauty and beyond that, the realization and acceptance in fashion that beauty is completely subjective and can’t be defined by a certain skin colour, size or style. It’s ironic in such a liberal, creative industry that this message has to be preached so much but damn do some people love their blueprints. It’s important as fashion becomes more and more corporate to not lose touch with our free thinking, creative roots.

What are some further steps the fashion industry should be taking to increase diversity on the runways in all respects; from body size, to more models of different racial backgrounds? 

The ball is already rolling on that. Now it’s just about reinforcing the message and for the people who are advocating this change to stick to their guns and continue to inform people about different aspects of the industry and why they’re relevant. You know, when I started in plus size fashion I had NO IDEA that there was this whole other creative world with similar ground to straight size, but different perspective. It’s not all catalogue like everyone thinks! It would be great for the two sides (straight/plus) to embrace each other’s visions and ideas, can you imagine how much that would open up the industry? Then we could move forward with a much more positive, inclusive image.

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What challenges have you faced as a plus-sized model?

Well, technically I’m referred to as an “in-betweenie”. I’m a size 6/8, but like I said, I don’t like labels, I see myself as a model. But a very common issue is getting editorial work… or any high fashion, for that matter. People haven’t made the connection yet, that the Supers of the past were, in many cases, the same size as many of the “plus” girls today. My favourite excuse for not shooting a plus girl for editorial is that the stylist can’t pull in her size. What?!? Some people are up for the challenge and pushing the norm, others aren’t. 

You modeled for ten years before taking a break, why did you feel need for the time off?

I started young, like many girls, at 15. I experienced many of my developmental years while growing up in the industry. I’ve always had a challenging personality and hated that I had to keep everything looking the same for work, and that so many other girls out there looked more or less like me. It was getting boring and uninspirational. I realized that I wanted to be a human who could voice my opinion and have it considered and not a robot in a lineup.

What was it like returning, especially the transition to being a plus model?

I was apprehensive at first but once I got to know the plus community I saw that these women were all so different, physically and in their personalities. Many aren’t just models and everyone is so outspoken. This may be due to the fact that the plus community is generally older. I would say on the young end, women are 19, 20. At any rate, it was inspiring! I had entered an aspect of the industry where it wasn’t just parties and makeup chairs. These women are creative and business oriented. 

What other causes are important to you, aside from increasing runway diversity?

Quite a few. I work with the homeless shelter in my neighbourhood and bring them soups or muffins I’ve made with the produce from my cabin garden, upstate. In my year off, I walked a trail through Europe and slept on the street a few times. I wanted to view society from a completely different perspective and reconnect with being human… People have the craziest life stories! I’m definitely an advocate for the environment and animals, I stand up for women and their rights. Those are a few that are important to me.

What is one piece of advice you would give a young plus-sized model?

Advice I would give ANY young model is to ALWAYS stay firm in your beliefs and what feels right to you, in your gut. Yes, sometimes people who seem important at the time won’t agree with you but afford yourself the perspective to see that it will all work out in the wash AND in your favor, if you take this industry on your own terms.

How did your view of the industry change after returning from your hiatus?

I gained so much perspective. One moment that stuck with me was when I was standing on the Metro in Paris, with my huge pack, same clothes I’d been wearing for days, definitely not looking modelesque, and I was so tired that I just sat on the floor because there were no seats available. I realized people were smiling at me and this was funny to me because while I was living in Paris as a model, dressing the part, people would never do that on the Metro, they would rarely even make eye contact with me. That moment made me realize the power that image has; it has the power to disconnect us from each other if we allow it to. So, I came back with that lesson at the back of my mind and a mission to make the image the industry projects more diverse, to resonate with more people and not make anyone feel excluded or “less than.”

What is one thing you would like to see change immediately in the fashion industry?

Honestly? Nothing. We’re on a good roll. Forcing an ideal on anyone never made any progress, you have to introduce it over time, bit by bit. 

What is the one thing you have always loved about modeling?

I can’t pick just one. The travel used to be my number one. Now I’m more in love with the people I’m meeting and the different ideals and images I see.

What are you hoping runways will look like in the next ten years?

DIVERSE. In every sense of the word.