This is Part II of Proud Mary’s exclusive interview with plus size fashion icon Catherine Schuller. In this section, Catherine shares her experience in the evolution of the plus size fashion sector, the challenges the industry faced, and new opportunities ushered in with new technology. You can read Part I here.
[Catherine:] When I started out, there was a [plus size] store literally called “The Forgotten Woman.” We were forgotten. We were pushed aside and told “go away.” We were not included. No one really wanted to deal with the fact that there was larger population growing in numbers.
They didn’t want to do their homework and they figured, “if you want to be part of the fashion scene, you’ll lose weight”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
…if you look good, you feel good and you do good.
Everyone has had an experience where they feel like “Where do I belong? Where do I fit in?” Everyone loves fashion and it’s just good for business if we make sure everyone has something to wear that they feel great in. It’s been proven, if you look good, you feel good and you do good.
In the early and mid 1980s there were really no catalogs, circulars, or newspapers with any plus size ads. There were a lot of fashion shows at department stores. It was very popular and the brands were catching on. It was about body type. Doing all these fashion shows I saw so many different body types that I understood that the focus needed to be on shape. If you asked a woman what kind of shape she was, she would say “big”. That’s not a shape, that’s a judgment!
I encouraged manufacturers, vendors and designers to do their homework, to get in to the field and explore. Designers needed to understand and respect that as women we weren’t all one shape. We weren’t “broad”, we were larger women with oval or hourglass figures.
Liz Claiborne was one of the first to come on board and make plus size apparel up to size 24. Finally, a Designer! – not a vendor or manufacturer. Her business increased by 14%. It was something. The line was approachable and included business and casual wear. I was one of the first to model her signature dress. It was available in fuchsia, cobalt blue and black and it had these big shoulder pads. It was a stretch knit so it didn’t show every bump and contour. It was very dramatic and had a really great fit; really “Duran Duran”. It sold like hotcakes! That was the beginning and everyone jumped on board. She went on to create stores called Elizabeth for her plus size line.
A lot of people didn’t do it right. Designers and brands didn’t know how to do it, so they licensed it out to someone who did it badly. It is not a good idea to license out a new product, especially one that you don’t have experience with. Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenberg licensed out their plus size lines and the results were poorly designed and unattractive clothes. I remember doing a morning TV show with Diane von Furstenberg. It was probably the first time she had seen her line and it was wreak. It was acrylic, pull on pants and these big oversized sweaters. She was sitting in the green room with her hands on her face saying “What have I done? What have I done?” The clothes did not represent her brand image. She needed to take back control of her brand and as a result she stopped the licenses and left the plus size industry. A lot of designers had this kind of experience. There were a lot of bad clothes in those days, big pull on pants, camp shirts, big oversized things and sweaters with kitties on them. A lot of bad bling, shapeless garments and bad fabrics.
Patrizia by Mondi and Marina Rinaldi and the European brands were coming on board doing some spectacular looking garments. That’s when I said “Wow!”
Some brands were doing it right from their first lines. I really saw the difference between licensed, manufactured, vendored garments and the quality fabrication, craftsmanship and design details of real designer work. Dana Buchman came in to the business. I was part of that launch of Elizabeth by Liz Claiborne. It was exciting. Brian Bailey, Givenchy and Pauline Trigere were going up to a size 24. National chain stores like “The Forgotten Women” were able to buy the units, and that is what it came down to. People were beginning to see that there was enough market to make some money. Patrizia by Mondi and Marina Rinaldi and the European brands were coming on board doing some spectacular looking garments. That’s when I said “Wow!”
I was at my peak by 1997. I felt like the modeling world was becoming younger and younger. So I went to Parsons (School of Design) and studied the Image Consulting program and became an image consultant. I thought this would be great for the plus size women – it was all about lifestyle – it wasn’t about being thin. That was also when I created Figure & Fit and Shape Shopping to really connect to the customer.
In 1997, I worked with MODE magazine. This was another big feather in my cap. MODE was a Vogue executed magazine and a huge boost to the industry. I was the Fashion Retail Editor and I produced MODE on the Road. We boosted the sales to 800,000 subscriptions. MODE had an average of 5 people reading each magazine, so there was a 4 million-person readership. We were really coasting on a great high. The challenge was that the investors were burdened by a $50,000 bill they couldn’t afford. The investors and Vogue put together a deal to sell to Burda, a German publisher that did sewing magazines. Unfortunately, the deal signing was set for the week of September 11, (2001). The deal never happened, Burda went home and MODE folded.
…feel the fear and do it anyway.
After September 11, everyone was out of work. That’s when the momentum in the plus size industry really bottomed out. A lot of people in the industry came to me and said, “What are we going to do next?” There was this perception that the industry couldn’t support a plus size magazine. This was before there was really a strong fashion presence on the Internet. MODE had had a little website and we would have chat rooms and a few people would show up so it was a very transitional period.
I had people come stay with me; I called it Curve Central. I had a revolving door of designers and we made it happen! It was feel the fear and do it anyway. Somebody needed to step up to the plate. So I did, and created the first Indy plus size fashion show, called CurveStyle: Reshaping Fashion. I did the show the first week after Fashion Week because I didn’t want to get slammed too much and have the press go crazy, but it still have it well attended I had 12 designers, we did a Rising Star award, and I got a lot of recognition as the savior of the industry.
On March 2, 2002 we did CurveStyle and then Charming Shoppes came to me and said, “Would you be the media spokesperson?” So I left CurveStyle and I did the morning shows. This was an exciting time. I was flying all over the country to do programs. This work centered on Shape Shopping with Figure & Fit, an approach I pioneered. I was Catherine of Catherine’s Plus Size. I did that for 8 years. Then technology started to catch up and we created the Right Fit jeans program. The Right Fit jeans approach used Intellifit 3D body scanning technology to construct a 3D model of a person. Body scanners were set up in mall kiosks throughout the country. We measured 25,000 women and created these jeans that were either straight or bottom curvy. It was a great campaign!
Then the bloggers came in and really took over. For a blouse and a breakfast they could have 200,000 followers! A lot of them didn’t have an image consulting background. They had followers and said, “break the rules“ and “you go girl,” “you can wear anything…miniskirts, tube tops, bare midriff!” “Don’t pay attention to what looks good, just go out there and show it!” I think there were a lot of good intentions out there and yes, they empowered people, but I’m all about appropriateness and fit and shape. If you love your clothes, they will love you back. Not ”If you can button it, you can buy it.” That’s not a criterion!
I think we have gone to an area called “anyone can do it.” I want to reclaim the balance of knowledge, appropriateness and advice with the popularity of bloggers and influencers. So I’ve created some new programs and aligned myself with some of the best bloggers and influencers out there who respect my expertise and my knowledge. For the first time, I am able to align myself with people who respect my journey, and I’m learning a lot about how to operate in the social media world. They need the content that I create, and they have the platform to blast it out on and it’s a perfect mix.
Catherine Schuller is an influencer and leader for diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry. She was Fashion Retail Editor of MODE Magazine and traveled the country producing MODE on the Road. Catherine is the Founder and Owner of CurveStyle: Reshaping Fashion, Shape Shopping with Figure & Fit, Your Image Power, and Model Maker Mentors. Catherine is the Founder, Curator and Producer for Runway the Real Way and the Creative Director of hiTechMODA: Fashion Forward Innovation. She is also an instructor and contributor at Fashion Institute of Technology.