Last year, model Crystal Renn appeared in five major ad campaigns and seven French Vogue spreads, walked two Chanel shows, and worked with top photographers including Steven Klein and Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. Perfectly normal for a top model, of course, except for one thing: Renn has 38-inch hips, making her roughly a size 8, which is considered plus-size in the fashion world. As recently as a few years ago, her best hope for work would have been catalogue jobs.
But now that may be changing. While Renn has a lot to do with the level of chatter around plus-size models, she's not the only one getting work. Plus-size models like Alyona Osmanova, Gitte Lill, and Marquita Pring are booking major editorials and ad campaigns and walking top designer shows.
Renn, Osmanova, Lill, and Pring all work for Ford Models, which can take much of the credit for pioneering the plus-size category. In 1998, Ford Models founder Katie Ford hired a new agent, Gary Dakin, to develop a division — called Ford+ — dedicated to plus-size models. At the time, Ford's plus-size models — meaning women typically a size 10 or 12 — were lumped in with what's called "straight-size" models — typically around 0 or 2 — and they received little to none of the dedicated attention necessary to make their careers take off. They did catalogue work or, if they were lucky, ads for retailers who sold plus-size clothing, often having to do their own hair and makeup for shoots when clients didn't want to pay for the plus-size models to have it professionally done. $125 an hour was a high pay scale — now, the top plus-size models can get up to $15,000 a day. Dakin signed young, fresh talent. "It needed to change, and go younger. We started to get response from these girls, and it was fantastic," he says.
It took Ford a few tries to move plus-size models to the industry's upper echelon. In the mid-nineties, plus-size Ford model Emme was positioned as a potential crossover. But though she appeared in Revlon ads, she never did a designer show. "People thought there wasn’t really a big to-do about [plus-size models], but Ford thought differently,” Dakin says now.
Twelve years later, Ford+ "is ten times the size of when I started, and this has been our best year in the history of the division," says Dakin. (Along with Dakin, the division employs three full-time bookers: co-director Jaclyn Sarka, Maia Holmes, and David Lott.)
Ford was not the first agency to launch a plus-size division; Wilhelmina started theirs in 1994. Their board currently has 55 faces — including Lizzie Miller, who famously posed nude for Glamour almost two years ago — and two full-time bookers. But Ford+'s focus on high fashion sets it apart. Dakin says he turns down many of the jobs that come his way, while Ameerah Omar, who runs Wilhelmina’s plus-size division, W Curve, says she does not. Omar says that the kind of work her models are booking has changed — they no longer just shoot for plus-size brands, but mainstream ones like H&M.
But the majority of major agencies in New York — including Elite, Next, IMG, and DNA — don’t have plus-size divisions. Omar doesn’t understand why. “A lot of clients are now expanding into plus,” she notes. “Booking a straight-size girl is the same thing as booking a plus-size girl.” Stephen Lee, an agent from Next, said his agency doesn’t have a plus-size board because “we don’t feel like we need to categorize girls.”
Meanwhile, Ford+ models are on the rise, notably 20-year-old Marquita Pring, whom Dakin signed two years ago. She'd been at Wilhelmina, but he says Ford is moving her career along faster. "Now every week I’ve got something. If not every day then three to four days a week." Her bookings include the Levi's campaign (she was just asked back for a second season), as well as the spring 2011 Jean Paul Gaultier show.
Another face to watch on Ford's plus-size board is Ukrainian beauty Alyona Osmanova, who signed a year ago. Formerly a straight-size model represented by Supreme, Osmanova had landed exclusive runway bookings for Prada and Miu Miu but decided to cross over to plus-size modeling when she was tired of tormenting herself to fit into sample sizes. "It was winter" — the fall 2010 season — "and I did part of Fashion Week, and I couldn't [finish] because I couldn’t fit in any of the dresses," she recalls. "I pretty much didn’t know what to do for three months or four months, and I was trying to work out and diet but I was stressing out."
Osmanova was introduced to Ford+ bookers by agents who had left Supreme to work at Ford. Though it felt "kind of weird" at first to be a plus-size model, she was happy to be working again. "I met all these great people who were happy and smiling and more normal," says Osmanova, whose recent bookings include Teen Vogue. "It’s a different kind of work. Maybe the people just take it easier."
Ford plans to keep its plus-size board down to around 40 girls; more than that, and agents won't be able to give each young woman the attention she needs to build a long, well-rounded career of the kind enjoyed by models like Erin Wasson or Anja Rubik. Right now, for example, Dakin's working on getting plus-size models cast in lucrative beauty campaigns. At some point, if Renn's schedule allows, he hopes to help her get her own plus-size clothing line. "It is on our list, right before world peace," he half-jokes. "We talk about it." But before that: "We want the first cover of American Vogue for a plus-size girl. And we want to get rid of the word plus."
See a few of the rising stars on Ford and Wilhelmina's plus-size boards in the slideshow.