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On my first day at LG Fashion Week, I met designer Jessica Biffi in the environment outside the runway room. The designer, who had previously made clothes for smaller women, invited me to her show the following day which featured looks from her collections for plus-size retailers Addition Elle and MXM. The launch of these lines coincided with Biffi's showcase and exceeded all sales expectations revealing the demand for plus pieces with designer cache.
When I heard Crystal Renn was going to be walking the runway at Joe Fresh during LG Fashion Week I was intrigued. Joe Mimran always hires a well-known international model to draw attention and set his show apart; however, his choice of a plus model known to those in the fashion industry as one with an unhealthy past who nursed her way back to health (and a thriving career) was joyous.
Both events pointed to a shift in fashion in terms of size diversity. The glaring contrast between the size of the average model in a runway show and that of the average woman who buys the designer's clothes has been challenged by many including model agent, Ben Barry, who specializes in promoting variety in his roster of talent. Barry provided two plus models for Sunny Fong's VAWK show at the Art Gallery of Ontario during Fashion Week.
Interest tweaked, I picked up Renn's autobiographical journey, Hungry, which describes her first meeting as a 14-year-old in Miami with a New York fashion scout who promised her fame and wealth of Gisele-style proportions if she only lost some weight. And lost weight she did, 70 pounds of it until--at 5 feet 9 inches tall--she weighed 95 pounds. Personally, those numbers don't even make sense to me; how was she still alive? Barely eating and still spending eight hours a day at two different gyms (dual memberships were required so her exercise addiction would remain secret), her agency raved about how great she looked, perpetuating the cycle of addiction to exercise and skinniness.
Staying at an apartment in New York with a revolving door of other models, Renn describes
being able to pick out other sick girls and bonding with them based on a shared dysfunction. She recalls one of them salivating over the sight of someone indulging in an apple, and herself groaning with yearning while watching a healthy girl eat plain peanut butter out of a jar. Subsisting on steamed vegetables, sugar-free Snapple and chewing gum, Renn would wake up at night in a panic that the gum she allowed herself might actually have calories. Wow. If it sounds like a personal hell, she assures the reader it was:
"From 2001 to 2003 I walked around in a fog," she laments. And with wry humour: "The stereotype of models is that we're brain dead but some of us are just starving." Although she had attained the right look by the agency's standard, her unhappiness, poor health, and detachment from herself and everyone around her rendered her unable to perform in front of the camera with the confidence and openness that makes a model successful. It was precisely when she finally decided to choose life--quite literally she would have died had she kept up her quest for abnormal thinness--that her career took off and her personal life fell into place.
In a wonderful juxtaposition, Renn professes an admiration for Kate Moss, the model held responsible by many for introducing the ultra-skinny model look in the 80s when the pervading norm had been a size 4 or 6. Renn praises Kate's skill in rising above her size to show herself to be so much more than the "waif" she was constantly described as and moving gracefully into a career as a designer for Top Shop later on. "She's managed her career brilliantly," applauds Renn. The moral here is that it's not about one size vs. another; it's about embracing diversity and representing a range of sizes rather than just one.
Renn's success on both a personal and professional level after her decision to embrace her natural size is a testament to the power of authenticity. The truth, in this case, did set her free, and in a perfect literary denoument, Renn wed her dream man in a Jenny Packham dress dubbed Papillon due to overlay and beading which resembled a butterfly's wings. How appropriate an ensemble for a woman who has undergone such a wondrous transformation and come out soaring.